We believe that an animal—although extinct—is not gone from this world forever…
It was thousands of miles away from our homes in New York City when we had this revelation. We were in Tasmania, an island off the coast of Australia, looking for the long lost predator known as the Tasmanian tiger. This species was a biological marvel–it was about the size and shape of a greyhound dog, had dark stripes like a tiger, and the female of the species had a pouch like a kangaroo to carry young. It was a combination so unlikely, that it seemed to have sprung from a myth—like the chimera.
On that day, we were being lead on a search for the tiger by a true believer—someone that thinks that these pouched, meat-eating animals still survive in the wild despite the fact that the last confirmed sighting of one occurred in 1936. He brought us into the mountains on an afternoon when the sun was startlingly bright, shimmering off the eucalyptus leaves and revealing range after range of uninterrupted wilderness. “In some of these valleys there are phenomenal amounts of wildlife,” Col said. He pointed at a rocky cliff. “I’ve been up there and I can tell you… they could live up there.”
Col had taken us to a place where the last tigers were trapped. There was once an estimated population of 4,000 of these marvelous creatures, but they suffered a dramatic decline when the British colonized the island in the early 1800s. The wolf-like marsupials were accused of preying on the sheep that the British brought with them. In 1888, a bounty was put on their heads and soon the existence of the tigers was threatened.
On September 7, 1936, at a small zoo in Tasmania, a Tasmanian tiger, left in its outdoor enclosure on a frigid night, died from exposure. Its body was cast onto a garbage dump and lost forever. And this animal became the proverbial “last tiger.” For no other tigers were found dead or alive ever again—despite hundreds of unconfirmed sightings of the mysterious animal.
We were very aware of this history when Col pointed out a sunken plain surrounded by low wooded hills. It looked like a vast natural amphitheater. “We’re thirty miles from the nearest town,” said our guide.
In the foreground, the grasses had been nibbled short by wallabies and wombats. On the horizon, mountains of bare rock gleamed white in the sunshine. “They hide up there during the day and come down to hunt at night. They’ll creep along through these grasses and pounce on a wallaby,” Col said.
Maybe it was the wild landscape or the hot breath of the wind scented with banksias blossoms, but suddenly the thought of a tiger emerging from the hills seemed plausible. The extinct animal seemed so present in its former haunts, it was as vivid as any living animal we had seen. We realized we were unwilling to give up on its existence of an amazing animal that in most likelihood had been driven from the Earth.
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