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Benjamin, the last thylacine

1936: Tasmania’s thylacine becomes extinct

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery
1900 2000
Year level

5

7

10

Learning area

History

Geography

Use the following additional activities and discussion questions to encourage students (in small groups or as a whole class) to think more deeply about this defining moment.

Questions for discussion

1. Do you think it is likely that wild thylacines still exist in Tasmania? Why or why not?

2. Do you think it is a good idea to use scientific methods to bring the thylacine back to life? Explain your answer.

3. Do you agree with the National Museum of Australia that the extinction of the thylacine is a defining moment in Australian history? Explain your answer.

Image activities

1. Look carefully at all the images for this defining moment. Tell this story in pictures by placing them in whatever order you think works best. Write a short caption under each image.

2. Which three images do you think are the most important for telling this story? Why?

3. If you could pick only one image to represent this story, which one would you choose? Why?

Finding out more

1. What else would you like to know about this defining moment? Write a list of questions and then share these with your classmates. As a group create a final list of three questions and conduct some research to find the answers.

<p>Hunter poses with dead thylacine, 1869</p>
Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

In a snapshot

On 7 September 1936 the last known thylacine, ‘Benjamin’, died at Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart in Tasmania. The species had been given protected status just two months before. Around 5000 thylacines were in Tasmania when Europeans settled there. But over-hunting combined with habitat destruction and introduced disease quickly led to the extinction of the species.

Hunter poses with dead thylacine, 1869

Findout icon Can you find out?

1. Why is the thylacine often called the ‘Tasmanian tiger’?

2. Why did the Tasmanian colonists hunt the thylacine to extinction?

3. Where did the last known thylacine die? What was his name?

What is a thylacine?

The thylacine was the world’s largest marsupial carnivore. Its scientific name, Thylacinus cynocephalus, means ‘dog-headed pouched one’. It looked like a medium-sized dog, with yellowish-brown fur and a stiff tail. Female thylacines had a pouch for carrying their young. 

The thylacine is commonly known as the ‘Tasmanian tiger’ because of the dark stripes on its back. Although it had a fierce reputation as a hunter, the thylacine was partly nocturnal and quite shy, so it usually avoided contact with humans.

Pelt of a thylacine, which was shot in the Pieman River area of Tasmania in 1930.

The fossils of thylacines have been found in Papua New Guinea, across the Australian mainland and in Tasmania. But about 2000 years ago the thylacine became extinct everywhere except Tasmania. Partly this was because thylacines had to compete for food with dingoes, which arrived in Australia between 5000 and 10,000 years ago. Around 5000 thylacines lived in Tasmania when Europeans settled there.

Why were thylacines hunted?

The first European colonies were set up in Tasmania in the early 1800s. Colonists cleared large areas of land for sheep and cattle farms. They believed that thylacines were preying on their farm animals. Although it is likely that feral dogs were mainly responsible for killing farm animals, the colonists began to hunt thylacines.

As early as 1830 farmers paid hunters who could prove that they had killed a thylacine. In 1888 the Tasmanian Government began paying people a bounty of £1 for killing a full-grown thylacine and 10 shillings for killing a thylacine pup. 

At least 3500 thylacines were killed by hunters between 1830 and the 1920s. The number of thylacines also fell because of exposure to new diseases, and because they had to compete for food with introduced wild dogs. Also, as the colonists’ farms expanded the thylacines’ natural habitat was destroyed.

Research task

 

The thylacine is not the only animal to become extinct since European colonisation. Can you find out roughly how many animals have become extinct in Australia since 1788?

‘Has anybody seen a Tasmanian tiger lately? This is a question which the Animals and Birds Protection Board will shortly cause to be circulated throughout the state. Fears exist that this unique specimen of fauna may now be extinct… Mr A.W. Burbury said there was no reliable evidence that the Tasmanian tiger was now in existence.’

 

The Examiner (Launceston), 10 February 1937

<p>Thylacine with three cubs, Hobart Zoo, 1909</p>

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery

<p>Thylacine with three cubs, Hobart Zoo, 1909</p>

The last thylacine?

The last known shooting of a wild thylacine took place in 1930. By the middle of the 1930s sightings of the thylacine in the wild were extremely rare. Scientists and some members of the public began to argue that the thylacine should be protected.

The species was given protected status in 1936, but this action came too late. Just 59 days later, on 7 September 1936, the last known thylacine—named Benjamin—died in Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart.

Research task

 

Tens of thousands of years before European colonisation a group of Australian animals known as megafauna became extinct. What were megafauna? What are some of the different theories that explain why they became extinct?

Preserved wet specimen of a whole skinned thylacine.

Since then many expeditions have been organised to search for the thylacine in Tasmania. Thylacine sightings are still reported today, but there is no clear evidence that the animal still exists. The thylacine was officially listed as extinct in 1986.

Today some scientists are researching whether the thylacine can be cloned and brought ‘back from the dead’, but this is a very controversial idea. Some people argue that we should bring back animals if humans caused their extinction, but others believe we should focus on protecting endangered animals.

Findout icon What did you learn?

1. Why is the thylacine often called the ‘Tasmanian tiger’?

2. Why did the Tasmanian colonists hunt the thylacine to extinction?

3. Where did the last known thylacine die? What was his name?