The Tasmanian tiger is alive. Not literally alive—there hasn’t been a verified sighting of Australia’s iconic marsupial predator for close to a century—but alive in imagination, in memory, in cultural recognition, and in collective regret over its extinction.
Alive, too, in the quest of a handful of scientists and entrepreneurs to “de-extinct” the species and bring it back to the wild.
The first thing to say about the Tasmanian tiger is that it wasn’t a tiger and it didn’t live only in Tasmania. In its existence as in its demise, the animal also known as the thylacine was a victim of European misunderstanding and error.
The Dutch explorer and navigator Abel Tasman spawned the tiger meme. In his search for exploitable southern lands in 1642, Tasman fetched up on the eastern shores of the island he called Van Diemen’s Land (later renamed Tasmania in his honor but also known by its traditional Aboriginal name, lutruwita). A party of Tasman’s sailors looking for fresh water saw the footprints of creatures “having claws like a tiger.”
Europeans pinned various names to the animal—zebra opossum, marsupial wolf, Tasmanian dingo—out of colonial prejudice as much as ignorance. Northern Hemisphere mammals were considered superior in every way to Australian marsupials that early observers deemed “helpless, deformed and monstrous works of nature.” Today’s much loved koala was derided as “uncouth … awkward and unwieldy,” and the thylacine, the world’s largest marsupial predator to survive into modern times, was dismissed as a primitive scavenger, “brutish” and “stupid.”
It was a short step from misnaming and maligning the native wildlife to seeking its replacement with introduced varieties. This colonial fervor led to an ecological makeover from which Australia hasn’t recovered. The thylacine’s extinction is a symbol of that folly.
At least five thylacine species once existed. The last to survive was the so-called modern thylacine, which at one time inhabited the entire Australian continent as well as the island of New Guinea. About 3,000 years ago this species disappeared from the Australian mainland. No one is sure why, but a changing climate and competition with the recently introduced dingo are the likely causes.
Only the Tasmanian population of thylacines remained, marooned on lutruwita since sea-level rise submerged the land bridge to the mainland some 10,000 years ago. But what might have been the animals’ sanctuary became, instead, their death camp. Despite scant evidence that thylacines caused significant stock losses, sheep ranchers made them a scapegoat. The “native tiger” was demonized as a blood-drinking sheep killer, and in 1888 a bounty was approved. Over the next two decades thousands of thylacines were trapped, shot, and poisoned by shepherds and hunters.
The bounty program succeeded. By the early 1900s, thylacines were so scarce that payouts dwindled and then ceased. Calls for the animals’ protection came too late. In 1986, with no confirmed sightings in the wild for 56 years, the thylacine officially was declared extinct.
Many rejected that verdict: At one time it was estimated that one in three Tasmanians had a “true” tiger-sighting story. But as the decades pass, and a more than million-dollar reward offered in 2005 for conclusive evidence of the thylacine’s existence goes unclaimed, the species’ extinction becomes ever more certain—and ever more regretted.
Australian Museum Chief Scientist Kris Helgen, a mammalogist and National Geographic Explorer, has examined thylacine specimens in most museums that have them. He has measured some 500 thylacine skulls, and speaks of the animal with a mixture of reverence and awe. “It blows me away how big they were,” he told me. “This animal was one of the dominant predators in continental Australia for most of its life span as a species.”
Even more impressive than the thylacine’s role as an apex carnivore is where the species sits in the evolutionary pantheon. “The thylacine was the last member of its own family,” Helgen said. “That’s profound when you think about a mammalian family—bears are a family, giraffes are a family, horses are a family, dolphins are a family. Within Australia there’s only a handful of these families: kangaroos, sugar gliders, ringtail possums, all the other marsupial carnivores. The thylacine wasn’t part of any of these groups.
“It was deeply unique, extremely ancient, and played out its entire history on this continent.”
In what’s thought to be the last killing of a wild thylacine, a hunter shot one dead and photographed it in 1930 in rural northwest Tasmania. Six years later, the last captive thylacine died in a Hobart zoo. Just two months prior to that animal’s death, Tasmania’s government had finally seen fit to declare the thylacine a protected species—or as thylacine researcher Robert Paddle put it, “The species was totally protected for the last 59 days of its existence.”
Even as the thylacine declined in number, it gained in cultural importance. In 1917, the thylacine was chosen as the dominant emblem on Tasmania’s coat of arms. A pair of the tawny animals support a shield displaying Tasmania’s prime exports: hops, apples—and, ironically, sheep, the thylacine’s supposed prey.
Now its likeness is seen widely—on beer labels, on buses, as the mascot of the Tasmanian cricket team, and as the face of Australia’s national threatened species day. The tiger has gone from pest to pedestal. “The thylacine is Tasmania,” writes David Owen, an author based in Hobart. “To that extent alone, it lives on.”
It lives in memory. Could it live again in reality?
The idea of resurrecting the thylacine surfaced in the late 1990s. The ambitiously named Lazarus Project aimed to clone the animal using DNA from preserved museum specimens; it was halted when available genetic material from which to replicate the animal proved too degraded and fragmentary.
New tools developed since then would allow precise gene-splicing to re-create a thylacine genome from multiple sources—so de-extinction is back on the table. Spearheading this effort: a group of University of Melbourne geneticists who call themselves the TIGRR (Thylacine Integrated Genomic Restoration Research) Lab, backed by a Texas biotechnology company.
In 2022, TIGRR lead researcher Andrew Pask predicted his team would produce its first baby thylacine hybrid within 10 years.
Helgen is skeptical. For him, the biggest impediment is the genetic distance of the thylacine from any of its living relatives. Unlike the woolly mammoth—the other charismatic extinct mammal that has become a high-profile target for de-extinction—the thylacine lacks a closely related species to serve as a genetic reference and provide cells that can become viable embryos that carry the thylacine genome. For the woolly mammoth, that role is served by the Asian elephant. The suggested recipient for a reconstructed thylacine genome—a mouse-size marsupial called the dunnart—is as genetically distant from the thylacine as a human is from a marmoset, Helgen says.
“The thylacine stood alone,” he argues. “It was as different as a cat is to a dog or a horse is to a rhino. The idea that we can bring back this carnivorous marsupial because we have all these modern genetic tools—no. If rhinos became extinct, you would be laughed out of any room if you said you could take a horse and turn it into a rhino, or a dog into a cat.”
De-extinction distracts from the urgent work of preserving what remains—so say many in the science community, Helgen among them. Put another way: In this biodiversity crisis of humanity’s making, we dare not shift focus from sustaining the living by attempting to revive the dead. Helgen suggests many species facing extinction “can be brought back not through some magical technology but through tried-and-true methods of looking after wild landscapes and managing the species around us as best we can.”
The thylacine is a potent symbol of loss. Conversely, it is also a symbol of hope. In the wake of its extinction, Tasmanians became galvanized to ensure such a tragedy did not happen again. They formed the world’s first green political party. They collectively vowed to resist environmental degradation and protect vulnerable native species—commitments we all need to make if we’re to avoid future extinctions.
The thylacine calls across the century to us: Don’t wait until it is too late.
This story appears in the July 2023 issue of National Geographic.