- The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) recently released a “new” clip of Benjamin, the thylacine that was displayed for five years at Beaumaris Zoo in Tasmania.
- The species, better known as the Tasmanian tiger, was officially declared extinct in 1982 by the IUCN, although the Australian government now considers it to have gone extinct in 1936, following Benjamin’s death.
- Despite the species’ extinction status, people continue to report sightings of the thylacine in the Tasmanian wilderness, although none of these sightings have been confirmed.
In a 21-second newsreel clip, Benjamin, a thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) who lived at Beaumaris Zoo in Tasmania, paces the length of his concrete enclosure as two men rattle the chain-link barrier. “The Tasmanian tiger,” the film’s narrator says, “easily distinguished by his straight, unjointed tail, is also a dangerous opponent, though like the [Tasmanian] devil, is now very rare, being forced out of its natural habitat by the march of civilization.”
For many years, there were only a few black-and-white reels — with a combined running time of about 3 minutes — of the now-extinct thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger. This “new” clip was recorded in 1935 as part of a travelogue called Tasmania the Wonderland, but it was only digitalized and released by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) this month.
“The scarcity of thylacine footage makes every second of moving image really precious,” Simon Smith, curator at the NFSA, said in a statement. “We’re very excited to make this newly-digitised footage available to everyone online.”
Thousands of years ago, the thylacine roamed across New Guinea and mainland Australia, but the species disappeared from these regions due to hunting, and possibly because of competition with the dingo (Canis lupus dingo). In modern times, the thylacine only existed in Tasmania, a small island at the southeastern tip of Australia, but European settlers drove the species toward extinction with rampant hunting, habitat destruction and introduced disease. Benjamin, one of the last surviving thylacines, was acquired by Beaumaris Zoo in 1931.
Nick Mooney, a thylacine expert based in Tasmania, describes Benjamin’s life at Beaumaris Zoo as “miserable.”
“In the wild, the animal would have roamed over 50 square kilometers [19.3 square miles] and had several underground dens,” Mooney told Mongabay. “He would also have had neighbours to socialize with, visiting [and] marking places and ‘reading the news’. Such things make animals more interested in life.”
On Sept. 7, 1936, Benjamin died on a freezing night at Beaumaris Zoo after a caretaker forgot to put him inside his shelter. The zoo closed down the following year.
After Benjamin’s death, researchers searched the wilderness for surviving thylacines, but they came back empty-handed. Several more expeditions were organized, including one in 1984 that was kicked off by U.S. media tycoon Ted Turner’s promise of a $100,000 reward for anyone who found a thylacine. But the thylacine was never seen again, and the IUCN officially declared the species extinct in 1982. However, this timeline was recently amended by the Australian government, which now considers the thylacine to have gone extinct in 1936, following Benjamin’s death.
The thylacine may no longer exist, but that hasn’t stopped reports of sightings and even video purporting to show the animal in the Tasmanian wilderness. None of these sightings have been confirmed, but they do raise the question: could the thylacine still be out there?
“Probably not, [but] no absolutes, sorry,” Mooney said. “If they are there, I hope we never find them because we are even greedier now.”
While Mooney said the newly released footage of the thylacine made him feel “sad and embarrassed,” it helped him further analyze the animal’s gait.
“It does give a bit more information on turning and pace in movement, which is both interesting and potentially useful for interpreting sighting reports and bits of video people claim might be thylacine,” he said.
Since the death of the thylacine, many other species have gone extinct in Australia, such as the pig-footed bandicoot (Chaeropus ecaudatus), the crescent nailtail wallaby (Onychogalea lunata), and the Bramble Cay melomy (Melomys rubicola). Countless other species, including the leadbeater’s possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) and the orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster), are on the brink of extinction.
UPDATE 05/26/2020: After the publication of this article, Mongabay was notified that Branden Holmes, Gareth Linnard and Mike Williams, three researchers from Tasmanian Tiger Archives, a group that collects and chronicles information about the thylacine, were actually responsible for the discovery of this ‘new’ footage. A blog post from the NFSA was recently amended to credit these researchers.