This is a node about the Tasmanian Tiger, but I’m going to start with the choir
Through the first years of the new millennium I was at Melbourne Uni.
I was an undergrad, and I joined the choir because I was lonely as hell.
It was never my scene exactly but I really was stuck for anywhere to belong. They let me hang around and I found it was quite a bit better than nothing.
We mostly sang liturgical music, high brow noise made in anything but English, most memorably German or Russian and once, disastrously, in Mandarin.
Jenny was in the choir, an interesting specimen. A PhD student and world authority on something to do with weeds she was nice to the point which simply didn’t do her self preservation any good- a bad choice with a significant other had been followed by a descent into workaholic hell, and somehow she had come out of the wash as a Christian fundamentalist.
She drove in to uni each day from a dry grass town on the edge of Melbourne, her parents owned a farm house mere centimeters over the line that divides Melbourne's outer suburban grimness from the more tolerable Australian bush- there were parched trees and lots of sheep.
So that was Jenny- nice, nice, nice, nice. I don’t think she truly believed any of us choir people were going to hell, and that must have been a bit of a struggle for her.
Melbourne Uni wasn’t exactly friendly to her type back in those days, maybe it's still not. Although the average young intellectual was (while sober) far and away too gutless and proper to say anything to her face, the fact that a few of them were known to run around campus with a group that called itself ‘Students for Anti-Christ’ probably said enough.
She was always organizing these wonderful afternoon soirées in her little house in the fields. In a room with an open fire and a table groaning with stacks of Lamingtons and Pavlova Jenny’s bible believers from the rough edge and her paganisticly inclined singing scholars from latte land ignored each other with primal hostility.
That was where I met the missionary.
The missionary was no fool. She had flown home from the jungles of Irian Jaya to Australia for a quick fund raising tour. The woman was getting her first two weeks of running water and electricity in years, but it clearly wasn’t her thing. She looked like someone’s great aunt and sounded like a school teacher, but she was tough and smart and selfless is a way I could never be.
In front of a room full of Wimmin and Anarchists and Wicans who couldn’t say the word Christian without grimacing she held her own. She truly believed the world was made in 7 days and that without the Lord Jesus Christ the little jungle children would burn forever- but she was smart enough to know that wasn’t the whole story.
Up in the hills of Irian Jaya guerillas, the Indonesian military and big mining jostled for the chance to fuck these unfortunate people over. The modern world was on its way up there, it was coming to this place where not so long ago, they said, people had tried to feed an airplane having made the reasonable assumption it must be some kind of huge bird, and when it got there it was going to destroy them completely.
We’d been through it in Australia- the whole invasion, conquest, genocide thing that is. The colonials weren’t Nazis- a lot of the awful shit that happened (though by no means all of it) was genuine good intentions gone horribly, horribly wrong; but that doesn’t change the essential truth that what happened was terrible, and that the irredeemable guilt that hangs above who we are today will never go away completely.
I think the missionary saw that history was repeating itself on this island to our north and wanted to help. The sub-text of her talk was that the tribes up there were far better taking their first steps into the modern world through someone like her rather than some gun wielding asshole from the TNI.
And it was at that same afternoon soirée that she told us this that she also told me about the Tasmanian Tiger.
She told me what had happened on the afternoon when, in a mud hut in a stone age village, she’d shown the villagers her big colorful book of Australian animals. She told me how, after they’d admired the kangaroo, the koala and the wombat, she had turned to the page with a picture of the supposedly extinct Tasmanian Tiger, and the people had said they knew that one, that it lived it lived in the jungle not far from their village.
I was intrigued. I looked into it a little. Sure enough, the English language press in Indonesia had occasionally carried stories of a strange dog like creature being sighted up there. The outside papers had even picked up the story a few times.
It was possible.
Australia has weird native animals. Isolation is the thing. While the rest of the world was being colonized by pigs and monkeys and cattle and goats Australia broke away and took a completely different track.
Australia, unlike any other part of the world, is a place where a class of mammal known as the marsupials came into the fore.
I’m no zoologist, so when it comes to describing Marsupials all I can say is ‘think pouches’. These creatures are born as tiny worm like things which grow to be fluffy baby animals in the safety of their mother's pouch. Think of it as a kind of semi-external womb.
Its amazing how, in Australia, in the absence of the more familiar placental mammals of the old world, these marsupials evolved to fill all the familiar niches. There was one that looked like a rabbit, one that could have been a mole and yet another that did more or less the same thing as a badger.
The marsupials had all the bases covered.
Unique and highly specialized, none too smart and mostly harmless, humans and the creatures that came with them were a disaster for Australia’s native animals. They just couldn’t compete. A few species such as the larger sorts of Kangaroo were able to adapt as the land changed, but a lot of them were just wiped out.
The Tassie Tiger was a sort of marsupial wolf, the apex predator. To picture it try to imagine the product of an unholy union between a kangaroo and a dog. Long face, large jaws, stiff tail, stripes and a strange awkward gait you couldn’t quite peg as either a run or a hop.
Originally the Tasmanian Tiger (the Thylacine is its scientific name and I think we’ll stick with that from here on in) lived all over the land mass that was Australia and New Guinea, it was only around 9000 years ago that the two split completely. Apparently it wasn’t much of a predator. The early white settlers of Tasmania described it as being unable to move very fast, a solitary hunter that tended to catch its prey by chasing them until exhaustion caused them to slow down or drop.
When the dingo, a rusty colored, half wild type of dog arrived in Australia at the relatively late stage of 3000BCE (brought in to the north from what is now Indonesia it seems) it is suspected to have knocked the thylacine right out of the food chain.
It was only on the southern island of Tasmania, which had broken away from the mainland long before the arrival of the dingo, that it survived into living memory.
Unfortunately for the thylacine the taste they quickly acquired for sheep got up the nose of the English colonialists sufficiently that they set out to obliterate the species (along with very nearly the entire population of local humans).
The last thylacine we know about for sure died seventy one years ago, in Hobart Zoo. There is some truly eerie film of the poor creature pacing its concrete cage a few years before it died after someone locked it out of its shelter on a freezing night.
Most likely it wasn’t the very last one, deep in the forests of Tasmania it’s probable that some of them hung on for years or even decades after that, but there hasn’t been much real evidence of their survival since then. Though people still claim to see them from time to time, the sad truth seems to be that they’re almost certainly gone forever.
Or so I thought until I spoke to the missionary.
Irian Jaya was once within the creatures’ range. It is today unarguably one of the most remote and untouched places left on the face of the Earth.
It is a real wilderness, a place of mountains, jungles and swamps formidable enough to have kept the outside world from doing much more than biting at the edges, so far.
As I alluded to before, there are tribes up there who didn’t make first contact with the outside world until recent decades.
Not so long ago, not so far from where the missionary worked, botanists found a valley that, they believed, had never been entered by humans before.
The missionary was not lying to me about the thylacine, I’m sure of that.
I believe the creature is still up there somewhere. And as soon as I can get the money together, and the time, I’m going after it. I’m back at uni now, one more year of study and I should be an information management professional, or something. Another year after that at work and I should have enough saved.
Who knows? Who knows? A boy's got to dream and try as I might I can’t dream about information management.
Hey, maybe I’ll stumble upon megalania somewhere along the trail.