Thylacine book review|jon_downes|jon@eclipse.co.uk|07/19/03 at 12:53:50|jon_downes|xx|0|217.44.226.9|From the Sydney Morning Herald

Thylacine: The Tragic Tale of the Tasmanian Tiger
By James Woodford
July 19 2003

Thylacine: The Tragic Tale of the Tasmanian Tiger
By David Owen
Allen & Unwin, 240pp, $29.95

In modern times Australia has an appalling record for extinctions.
"One-third of the world's extinct mammals since 1600 are Australian,"
reported a recent Government audit of the nation's biodiversity. There is no
shortage of tragic marsupial tales, yet one, the death of the last Tasmanian
tiger, has come to symbolise the folly of humanity's approach to wildlife
management.

Nearly 70 years after the last thylacine died in a zoo in Hobart, the
species remains one of the few able to generate national and international
headlines. Alive, they were big, glamorous and bizarre carnivores. To kill
or capture one was the ultimate rite of passage for Tasmanian men in the
19th and early 20th centuries.

Adding to their popularity is the fact that mysterious but unlikely
sightings continue. However, as decades slide by since the last confirmed
death, the chance of seeing one is about the same as an Elvis Presley
encore.

"The longer the thylacine stays dead, the greater the interest it arouses,"
writes David Owen in Thylacine: The Tragic Tale of the Tasmanian Tiger. That
is quite an achievement for an officially extinct species which in its
lifetime was not seen to have the fearful charm of the exotic jungle cats,
Africa's big five, grizzly bears and the like. Yet it has been kept alive by
considerably more than regret."

The tiger has entered popular culture, featuring on beer labels, in fiction
and as the star attraction of an exhibition that toured nationally and was
visited by hundreds of thousands of people.

Owen, author of nine novels and editor of the literary journal Island, has
set out to write the definitive popular account of one of natural history's
most shameful episodes. His book is beautifully presented, well written and
full of interesting facts and first-hand stories from those who saw the
animal in the wild.

Yet this falls short of being the last and best word on the Tasmanian tiger.
There are no wonderful descriptions, no powerful sense of what kind of
creature the thylacine was, and several missed opportunities.

Neither the tiger nor Tasmania came to life for me. The animal's story in
all its poignancy and tragedy is still to be told, though whoever does will
doubtless refer to Owen's text.

One of the most disappointing moments is Owen's failure to capture the
gravity and sadness of the death of the last tiger at Hobart's Beaumaris
Zoo. "The thylacine died on the night of September 7, 1936," he writes. I
would have welcomed a description of its enclosure, more details about the
bad weather it endured, details about its personality and what happened to
the body.

A significant part of the book is devoted to modern controversies
surrounding the species, such as Julia Leigh's appropriation of it for her
novel The Hunter, its depiction on a beer label and the Australian Museum's
plan to clone a thylacine pup.

"It would be a miraculous birth, a clone from aged DNA," writes Owen. "It
would no doubt be a thylacine physically. But would it have an inherited
'personality' from the lineage of the 1866 pup? Or, like a captive-bred
animal, might it lack a range of acquired behavioural traits as learned when
wild-raised?"

Owen leaves the door open for the possibility that one day a Tasmanian tiger
will emerge from the wilds. And at the end he captures perfectly the dual
importance of the thylacine - "a reminder of both the fragility of life and
the endurance of hope".

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