Here Be Tigers

AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

Tasmania is a rugged, sparsely populated island off the southern coast of Australia. There’s a lot of bush and woods in which to disappear, or in this case, where a supposedly extinct species can cling to life. The last Tasmanian Tiger died in captivity in 1936, but thousands of people keep reporting tiger sightings across the country. For The New Yorker, journalist Brooke Jarvis spends time in Tasmania, examining the debate about whether this uniquely antipodal carnivore is extinct or alive, eking out its existence while avoiding scientific efforts to document it. What Jarvis finds is a species that represents colonizers’ remorse, the need for mystery in a world of diminishing scale, and one more expression of industrial society’s ruination of the earth.

The tiger mystifies Tasmanians. It’s a specter now, a myth. In the wider view, it’s part of a group of creatures like the Loch Ness Monster, yeti, and even moose some people claim to see in New Zealand, that live on the edges of not just town, but of human knowledge, what Jarvis calls “unverified animals living in unexpected places.”

Some of these mystery animals may be part of explicable migrations or relict populations—there are active, if marginal, debates about whether mountain lions have reappeared in Maine, and whether grizzlies have survived their elimination in Colorado—while others are said to be menagerie escapees. Australian fauna are reported abroad so often that there’s a name for the phenomenon: phantom kangaroos, which have been seen from Japan to the U.K. In some places (such as Hawaii, and an island in Loch Lomond), there are actual populations of imported wallabies. Elsewhere, the kangaroo in question was nine metres tall (New Zealand, 1831) or eschewed its usual vegetarian diet to kill and eat at least one German shepherd before disappearing (Tennessee, 1934).

What are we to make of these claims? One possible explanation is that many of us are so alienated from the natural world that we’re not well equipped to know what we’re seeing. Eric Guiler, a biologist known for his scholarship on thylacine history, was once asked to investigate a “monster” on Tasmania’s west coast, only to find a large piece of washed-up whale blubber. Mike Williams, who, with his partner, Rebecca Lang, wrote a book about the Australian big-cat phenomenon, told me that “people’s observational skills are fairly low,” a diplomatic way of explaining why someone can see a panther while looking at a house cat. In April, the New York Police Department responded to a 911 call about a tiger—presumably the Bengal, not the Tasmanian, kind—roaming the streets of Washington Heights. It turned out to be a large raccoon. Williams, who travels to Tasmania a few times a year to look for thylacines, described the continued sightings as “the most sane fringe phenomena.”

Another explanation is that the natural world is large and complicated, and that we’re still far from understanding it. (Tasmania got a lesson in this recently, when the government spent fifty million dollars to eradicate invasive foxes, a scourge of the native animals on the mainland, even though foxes were never proven to have made it to the island.) Many scientists believe that even now, in this age of environmental crisis and ever-increasing technological capability, more animals are discovered each year than go extinct, often dying off without us even realizing they lived. We have no way to define extinction—or existence—other than through the limits of our own perception. For many years, an animal was considered extinct a half century after the last confirmed sighting. The new standard, adopted in 1994, is that there should be “no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died,” leaving us to debate which doubts are reasonable. Because the death of a species is not a simple narrative unfolding conveniently before human eyes, it’s likely that at least some thylacines did survive beyond their official end at the Hobart Zoo, perhaps even for generations. A museum exhibit in the city now refers to the species as “functionally extinct”—no longer relevant to the ecosystem, regardless of the status of possible survivors.

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