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Book: Lure of the Thylacine


NON-FICTION
Lure of the Thylacine: True stories and legendary tales of the Tasmanian tiger
by Col Bailey
Echo Publishing (2016)
RRP $32.95

It’s hard not to cheer Col Bailey on, no matter how quixotic his cause to prove that the thylacine – the Tasmanian tiger – believed to be extinct, lives amongst us still.

Bailey claims to have sighted one of the marsupials while canoeing along the Coorong in South Australia in 1967 and ever since has been determined to prove the animals are not extinct. He claims another sighting in 1995 in Tasmania’s Weld River Valley, but was so taken aback he didn’t have time to get his camera from his pack.

This is his third book on the subject, a collection of tales – some tall, many charming, and all fascinating – examining the history and sad decline of this once reviled animal. These are the stories of trappers and bushmen, from the mid-19th century to the early years of the 21st, originating with Bailey’s meeting with Reg Trigg in 1980. The story of Reg, a fur trapper in the years after the Great War, and his pet thylacine Lucy, is emblematic of people’s conflicted relationship with the animal.

While Bailey’s optimism is admirable, the odds are stacked against him. The last known thylacine died in the Hobart Zoo in 1936 and there has been no proof to suggest it was not the last of its kind.

The thylacine family dates back to the Oligocene period, more than 23 million years ago, although the modern animal has its origins about four million years ago. Once widespread across the Australian continent, they are thought to have died out on the mainland 2,000 years ago, due to lacking the versatility of diet of the omnivorous dingo.

In Tasmania, they lived in the woodlands of the midlands and coastal heath, unfortunately for them, prime grazing land for the European settlers’ livestock. Blamed for killing sheep, a bounty was introduced that saw thousands of the animals slaughtered, although loss of habitat, competition with dogs escaped from European settlements for dwindling prey and disease may have been partially responsible for their dramatic decline.

Little is known about the behaviour of the thylacine, and our understanding is down to limited, anecdotal evidence – which make Bailey’s collections of stories of encounters all the more valuable.

And while we might all cheer him on and wish to be amazed when he is proven right, it is unlikely to turn out that way. Instead the thylacine should be a lesson for us, if we, our children and their children are not to end up reading books like this – remote accounts of sightings and interaction with other animals that are gone forever.

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Bill is head of publishing at The Royal Institution of Australia and former publisher of Cosmos.
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