The Tasmanian Tiger’s Trail, Part IV: Resilience

Last March I visited Tasmania, a long-awaited voyage to the home of my favorite childhood animal, the thylacine. Since the trip occurred before I rebooted this blog, I didn’t post about it in real-time. This month I’ll take you on an anniversary tour, posting a highlight from my ecological adventure every Sunday. Catch up on Parts I, II, and II, and hit that follow button so you don’t miss the next adventure!

As we rolled into Hobart, low on petrol and clean socks, I left behind a few shards of myself: footprints on the long beaches beneath the Hazards, a smear of blood on the Cradle Mountain’s craggy ascent, and my childish hope of spotting a thylacine. Where could a probably-extinct marsupial hide in these narrow harbourside alleyways?

It didn’t hide: as it had throughout this journey, my old friend appeared in unexpected places. Two metal thylacine sculptures greeted visitors to Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, rusted almost the same color as a real thylacine’s stripes. They stood as an elegantly bleak reminder of what the Sanctuary’s residents face as human and animal worlds collide. Most of the animals had sustained injuries—predominantly from car accidents—that left them unable to survive in the wild.

Unlike the persecuted thylacine, however, these victims of settlement received help. A Tasmanian devil that constantly ran in circles due to brain damage tore at my heart, but the three-legged echidna ambled around his enclosure just fine. These little survivors exemplified nature’s incredible ability to recover, if we make a supportive effort. Elderly devils retired from conservation breeding programs also called the place home. They clambered across logs like cats, mewling to one another.

A Tasmanian devil clambers around its enclosure at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary.

But the roos ran the show. Dozens of forester kangaroos lounged in the shade, so complacent that they didn’t even approach visitors for snacks; you had to make an offering from the bag of roo chow included with each entry ticket. The moment your palm was empty, they excavated your pocket with their humanoid paws. Seeing my Laddie feed joeys ranks among the cutest damn things I’ve ever witnessed. (Watching him shy away giggling from the big ones that pawed him for treats counts with the funniest!)

Curious to learn more about the island’s natural history, we visited the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. The ground floor smelled so strongly of disinfectants that I felt I’d been jarred in formaldehyde along with other zoological specimens in the Henry Hunter Gallery. I blamed my headiness on the smell as I entered a side chamber dim and silent as a chapel. Two glass cases stood in the middle. One displayed a flat, striped pelt. Dark eyes flickered from the other.

“There you are,” I whispered to the thylacine. If I ignored the stitches along its belly, the stuffed skin could almost be real. A button on the plinth illuminated the creature just long enough to pace a full circle around it. From the front, one might mistake it for an unusual dog—a stocky mutt with rounded ears, a prominent ribcage, and fur the color of wet sand.

But a profile view reveals its uniqueness. Chocolate stripes ran from mid-spine down a long, stiff tail. Beneath large almond eyes, its growl looked more like a grimace. Had the taxidermist chosen that expression on purpose? It stared wistfully at the wall ahead, where projected footage from the 1930s showed thylacines in captivity. My eyes stung. This beautiful animal had once roamed the habitats I’d just explored. Now all that remained were a few physical scraps and these monochrome ghosts of nature past. I left the museum in a nostalgic fog, and wandered into a colonial shopfront advertising antique prints.

“Anything I can help you find?” asked the elderly proprietor, after I’d flicked through a few stacks of card-mounted bird illustrations.

“Do you have any thylacines?”

He must’ve been hard of hearing, because I had to repeat the question three times. “Oh! They’ve become quite popular in recent years.”

“Yes, that surprised me. I’ve been studying them since I was ten years old, and back then there was hardly anything about them.”

“I sat on a plane next to a wildlife officer who said he’d seen one while camping in the Western part of Tasmania,” he told me. “He came out of his sleeping bag and shone the torch around and it was right there. Of course, when he went for his camera and came back, it was gone. When he told his colleagues about it, they said it was probably the very last one.”

Excitement tightened my voice. “How long ago was this? 

“Thirty, thirty-five years ago.” So around the same time I was born, the last lonely thylacine might have been roaming the Tarkine jungle. “He’s a reliable witness. Dutch fella.”

My memory drifted back to the thylacine scrapbook I’d compiled as a nerdy ten-year-old. It must have included the account of park ranger Hans Naarding, conducting field research near Stanley in 1982:

I was in a sleeping-bag in my Landcruiser, and was woken by rain at 2am. I was in the habit of intermittently shining a spotlight around. The beam fell on an animal in front of the vehicle, less than 10m away….about the size of a small alsatian, a very healthy male in prime condition. What set it apart from a dog, though, was a slightly sloping hindquarter, with a fairly thick tail being a straight continuation of the backline of the animal. It had 12 distinct stripes on its back, continuing onto its butt. At one point, it dropped its jaw, letting its tongue hang out. I could see its teeth, and its eyes were clearly visible. I knew perfectly well what I was seeing. As soon as I reached for the camera, it disappeared into the tea-tree undergrowth and scrub. I shot out of my sleeping-bag and went after it, looking for hair and footprints. I couldn’t find a trace.

You ad me both, Hans. “I was secretly hoping to spot one on this trip,” I admitted to the shopkeeper.

“Ah, that’s never how it works.” A sparkle lit his rheumy eyes. “You never find things when you’re hunting for them. But when you’re not looking at all, you discover them right in front of your face.”

The words flitted around me like seagulls that afternoon as I strolled the River Derwent’s shoreline, following the 1836 footsteps of Charles Darwin. My childhood dream of finding the thylacine had embodied a fiercer belief that nature could still be saved from human depredation. Twenty-five years on—traumatized by a pandemic and in chronic despair about climate change—that faith seemed extinct. Throughout my adventure, I’d sought clues to rekindle my hope. But evidence had surrounded me the whole time. Darwin’s study in Hobart traced ancient geologic upheavals in the cliffs. The Tarkine still bore grassland scars where indigenous people had farmed it with fire. Animals in Bonorong had lost limbs and freedom to careless drivers. All had adapted and thrived.

Two weeks in Tasmania showed me that resilience runs as deep as the earth itself, both in nature and in my own spirit. If the thylacine represented my hope for the planet, then perhaps I did fulfil my long-ago ambition to find it in the antipodean jungles, elusive but enduring.

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