What if an animal extinct for nearly 100 years could suddenly be brought back to life with the click of a camera? That is what Greg Booth and his father George Booth hoped to do when they set up 14 trail cameras in a semi-remote area of Tasmania, where the younger Booth claims to have come face to face with the long-vanished thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, two years prior.
In September, the father-son team, along with Tasmanian tiger expert Adrian Richardson, released video clips and still images captured by one of those trail cams of what they are certain is a Tasmanian tiger. The footage shows the blurry underside of an animal’s snout as it investigates the camera, and later, the same animal walking away at an angle and a distance of about 30 feet.
“We believe 100% that it is a thylacine,” said Richardson during a press conference held at the offices of a law firm in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, where the three men calling themselves the Booth Richardson Tiger Team (BRT) officially released the video. “Greg and I have actually heard this thing calling out to warn its partner across the track whenever we were setting up our cameras,” said Richardson, who describes a high-pitched wolf-like call and another animal barking in reply.
But Nick Mooney, a wildlife biologist and one of three thylacine experts who saw the video before it was released to the public, is more skeptical. In his official review of the video, he says that optimistically there is a one in three chance that the animal was a thylacine, but more realistically a one in four. More likely, the animal in the video is a large spotted-tailed quoll, or tiger quoll.
“My first impression was a flash of excitement which sobered on analysis,” Mooney told Earther in an email. “But, there are undeniable aspects that are thylacine-like. If it was much larger it would be very exciting.”
Mooney admits that definitive conclusions are hard to make. In total, the footage of the animal is less than three seconds long. The wide angle lens makes distance and size hard to gauge. The picture is unfocused and grainy, and the lighting less than ideal. To the careless observer the animal seems like nothing more than a dark blur; a shadow moving across the screen. Nevertheless, the BRT team’s video has caused quite a stir among tyhylacine enthusiasts who—like the Booth’s and Adrian Richardson—believe the Tasmanian tiger is still alive.
Known colloquially as the Tasmanian tiger because of the long stripes that run down its lower back and tail, or the Tasmanian wolf because of its canine facial features, the thylacine is also part kangaroo. The marsupial carnivore has a backwards pouch on its belly, inside which it carries its young joeys. It was even known to stand on its hind legs and hop sometimes.
The Tasmanian tiger went extinct on the Australian mainland approximately two thousand years ago, but managed to survive on the island state of Tasmania until the 1930s. Between 1888 and 1909, the Tasmanian government placed a bounty on the thylacine to protect sheep farmers, a policy that led to the slaughter of thousands of animals. The Tasmanian tiger was officially declared extinct by the Tasmanian government in 1986, 50 years after the last known thylacine died in captivity in the Hobart Zoo.
Despite its official status being extinct, the Tasmanian tiger has lived on in the public psyche, where it has grown into mythical proportions, not unlike Bigfoot or the Lock Ness Monster. Thousands of people in both mainland Australia and Tasmania have come forward claiming to have seen the fabled thylacine in the wild, while many, like the Booth Richardson Tiger Team, have committed their lives and their bank accounts to proving that thylacines are not extinct, just extremely elusive.
“We’ll do a proper expedition where we are driving a long way on bush roads and hiking so there are a lot of logistics and costs involved in that,” Warren Darragh, one of the founding members of the Thylacine Research Unit, another Tazmanian trio that are utilizing trail cams and other technology to try and catch some proof of the Tasmanian Tiger in the wild, told Earther. “95 percent of that comes from our own back pockets.”
“I guess our base position is that the thylacine is extinct, but it is possible that it is still out there,” said Darragh. “We’re out there trying to prove ourselves wrong.”
For other Tasmanian tiger seekers, like Thylacine Awareness Group founder Neil Waters, there is no doubt that the thylacine is still alive because, like Greg Booth and thousands of others, Waters believes he has seen the Tassie tiger himself—twice. Based in South Australia, Waters’ Thylacine Awareness Group now boasts over 3,000 members, many of which claim to have also sighted the extinct tiger at one point or another.
“From an Australian perspective there is that little ray of hope attached to it,” Water’s told Earther about this obsession to resurrect the thylacine. “It’s a real blemish on our national conscience. We screwed up. We treated this animal like crap and pushed it to the brink where it basically disappeared,” he said, referencing the history of deforestation and the mass hunting of thylacines throughout the 1890s and into the early 20th century in Tasmania. “I suppose whenever you can correct a major mistake like that it’s sort of a feel good story.”
Neither of the groups—Thylacine Research Unit or Thylacine Awareness Group—seemed very impressed with the Booth-Richardson video though. “I was really hoping that it would be unequivocally, 100 percent, crystal clear,” Waters said of the release. “It was nowhere near definitive as what I hoped it would be.”
With the advent of better, more affordable and accessible trail cameras, the chance of catching the mysterious animal on camera is greater than ever. That is, if it’s out there at all.
Among the science community, the consensus seems to be that Tasmanian tigers are really gone, and aren’t coming back unless they are cloned. One mathematical model conducted at the University of California Berkley put the odds of the Tasmanian tiger existing today at an astronomical one to 1.6 trillion.
“In my opinion, there is absolutely no chance that they have survived either in the mainland or Tasmania,” Jeremy Austin, an evolutionary biologist from the University of Adelaide who studies thylacine DNA, told Earther. “The fact that in 100 years not a single person has come forward with a body or part of a body says to me that they simply don’t exist.”
Whether it’s a sense of mystery, adventure, nostalgia or guilt that draws people to the Tasmanian tiger, Austin said he can relate. In his own way, he is searching for the Tasmanian tiger as well. But for the Australian scientist the important question is not so much if they went extinct, but why. Studying DNA extracted from thylacine fossils, Austin speculated that climate change brought about a sudden thylacine population crash both on the mainland and on the island of Tasmania around two thousand years ago.
“You have to ask yourself the question, what could have caused a population crash in Tasmania and extinction on the mainland, and the only thing that is common to Tasmania and the mainland at that time is this onset of El Niño, so you go from a relatively stable climate to an unstable climate,” he said. El Niño, the cyclical phenomenon of warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in parts of the Pacific Ocean, can create serious heat and drought conditions in eastern Australia.
The real importance of the thylacine now, according to Austin, is to highlight the peril of the thousands of other species threatened by extinction today. According to research by the World Wildlife Fund and the London Zoological Society, the planet lost 58 percent of its wild vertebrates between 1970 and 2012, mainly due to human-made stresses on the environment. The same report predicts that if we continue on this course, 67 percent of wild animals will go the way of the thylacine by 2020.
“The millions if not billions of dollars that may be spent to try and bring the thylacine back,” said Austin referring to efforts to clone the long extinct animal, “could be much better spent saving another hundred species from going extinct in the first place.”
Still, the Booth-Richardson Tiger team continues to maintain trail cams in their area—which they are keeping secret for now—in the hopes of catching further proof of what they are certain is true. “I always knew the Tasmanian tiger is here, always,” said George Booth at the video release, “They’ve never been extinct and never will be.” And, for the thousands of believers like the Booths and Adrian Richardson, they never really will.