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  • The Last Tasmanian Tiger: the History and Extinction of the Thylacine
  • Deborah L. Hughes
Robert Paddle, The Last Tasmanian Tiger: the History and Extinction of the Thylacine (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

While few readers may be familiar with the thylacine, perhaps the story of the rapid extinction of life on Earth may hold some resonance. However, the subject of this extensively researched and brilliantly composed work should not be misconstrued merely as one author’s obsession with the misunderstood and mishandled “Tasmanian tiger.” Paddle boldly asserts that “no species provides a better data base for observing the behaviors of scientists than the extensive historical records associated with the marsupial wolf.” (13) This book offers more than a catalogue of sources related to the now extinct animal. By carefully deconstructing two centuries worth of “scientific” research on the thylacine, Paddle is able to produce a scathing indictment of colonial science and the people who have contributed to the wholesale destruction of the Australian landscape. It is through the sad history of the thylacine that Paddle is able to make an impassioned plea for the reevaluation of how science operates in the post-colonial world.

This study of the thylacine hinges on how nineteenth-century observers constructed the animal’s social and predatory behavior. The eradication of the thylacine, like so much of Tasmania and Australia’s natural world, is linked to imperialism and colonial science. Paddle does not limit his analysis to scientific observations and in so doing pinpoints the earliest misapprehensions about the thylacine’s “nature.” As Europeans spread across the land, contact with the thylacine took on different meanings for different subjects. Throughout the century, the growing European population in Australia competed with the thylacine for space and food. While naturalists attempted to name and understand the marsupial wolf, economic interests identified the thylacine as a “blood sucking vampire” and a threat to live stock, especially sheep. Paddle shows how the confusion of voices that contributed to popular understanding of the animal’s social and predatory behavior led to political debates between 1884–88 over government policy toward the thylacine. Economic considerations supported by scientific sources that “confirmed” misrepresentations of the animal won the debate. In 1888, a bounty was established to eradicate the thylacine’s threat to human interests. Although the bounty was dismantled in 1909, the near complete destruction of the animal’s natural habitat made it impossible for the species to recover from twenty years of depopulation. Recognizing the toll the bounty had taken, the scientific community only half-heartedly attempted to revive the species, believing that the process was a lost cause. Despite efforts by a handful of naturalists to breed the animal in captivity, the “last known specimen” of the thylacine died in the Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart on 7 September 1936.

“If you wish to really study an animal, you must first love it,” suggests Konrad Lorenz. It is clear that Paddle has taken Lorenz’s words to heart, and his heartbreak over the loss of the thylacine is palpable throughout the book. Perhaps it is the passion that comes with the loss of a loved one that drives Paddle to name who or what was responsible for the thylacine’s extinction. The final chapters of Paddle’s study identify the causal factors that led to extinction, but conclude without hesitation that human behavior is the primary culprit. He chafes at the notion that the thylacine itself is to blame for its own extinction, and rejects the “inference of scientific innocence ... constructed by Australian scientists — after the event — that denies the ineffectiveness of scientists as extinction took place.” (204) By deconstructing imperialist attitudes toward both Australian marsupials (seen as evolutionarily inferior to other animals) and nineteenth-century colonial naturalists, Paddle is able to show how twentieth century scientists have distanced themselves from accepting responsibility for the extinction process. This study demonstrates how cultural chauvinism, the hallmark of imperial science, led to the privileging of sources that would later contribute to a policy of eradication and the rapid extinction of the thylacine.

Chief among Paddle’s intentions is to revise the thylacine’s reputation in post-extinction scientific analysis. This requires a rejection...

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