There are no
full-blooded aborigines left in Tasmania, the result of an evil matter that
haunts this pleasant island. When the first white settlers arrived, some 5,000
aborigines were living there. They were a small, dark, primitive, innocent,
pacific people, but the whites immediately began to hunt them, partly because
they were a nuisance and partly, quite literally, for sport. Michael Howe, a
19th century bushranger-Robin Hood figure, said he liked "killing
blackfellows better than smoking my pipe."
The last of the
aborigines on Tasmania was a woman named Truganini, the daughter of a chief. At
about 16 she was a great beauty and was betrothed to a young man named
Paraweena. The couple and another native were traveling by canoe with two
lumberjacks, Watkin Lowe and Paddy Newell, when Paraweena and the other man
were overpowered by the lumberjacks. The two native men were thrown overboard,
their hands were chopped off when they tried to climb back on board, and they
were left to drown. Truganini was taken, often, by Lowe and Newell and
subsequently passed among other whites. But she survived. As an old woman and
sole remaining member of her race in Tasmania, she was kept as a curiosity in
Hobart, where she died on May 8, 1876. As she was dying she begged of a
physician. "Don't let them cut me up. Bury me behind the mountains."
However, her skeleton, the bones strung together, rests today in a coffin-like
box in the basement of a Hobart museum.
Tasmania was the
only place where European settlers accomplished the Final Solution to their
problem with native populations, although it was attempted in Africa, Asia and
especially the Americas. Truganini isn't an endemic Tasmanian ghost. She haunts
the bushes of the Western world.
Tracts of the
Tasmanian bush have never been explored on foot, and inevitably there are many
stories about unknown things—animal, vegetable and mineral—that may be hidden
in there. The most persistent speculation concerns the Thylacine, whose
scientific name (Thylacinus cynocephalus) has become the common one for the
animal sometimes called the Tasmanian Tiger or Wolf. Whether it still exists is
a matter of conjecture, both popular and zoological, somewhat like that having
to do with the Sasquatch in Oregon. The difference is that whatever their
current status, Thylacines indisputably once did exist and were fairly common
in Tasmania—but only there.
The Thylacine was
(to arbitrarily use the more conservative tense) another marsupial carnivore,
about the size of a small German shepherd and of generally doglike appearance.
It had a stiff tail, like that of the devil, and a broadly striped back
suggestive of the tiger. Thylacines were true predators. Their habit was to
pick up the trail of a kangaroo or wallaby and stay on it until they exhausted
the speedier animal. After the white settlers arrived, Thylacines became at
least occasional sheep killers and several thousand of them were rubbed out by
bounty hunters. By the 1920s they had become extremely rare and shortly
thereafter invisible, if not extinct. The last incontestably living Thylacine
died in the Hobart Zoo in the mid-1930s.
organized searches have been mounted, but nobody has found a living Thylacine
or produced a carcass, partial remains or a photograph of one. Nevertheless, in
almost every country pub in western Tasmania there's a bloke who, if he hasn't
personally met a Thylacine, has a mate who has found Thylacine tracks or shot
one of the critters and chopped it up for lobster bait. At the other end of the
same bar there is invariably a bloke who laughs at this as pure grog talk and
will say that if there were Thylacines, he would have found them and made his
fortune by guiding parties of bloody environmentalists to them.
Among the wild
stories, there are enough plausible ones to have convinced many wildlife
authorities that the question of the Thylacine's existence is still open. Green
is optimistic that they've survived. He believes that hunting eliminated them
from open areas and drove the remaining Thylacines back into the inaccessible
bush, where they were further reduced by a disease similar to that which
ravaged the devils. He says he has recently been receiving what he believes to
be valid reports of Thylacine signs and thinks the animal may be making a
recovery, but a slower one than that of the devil, because the Thylacines were
less numerous to begin with and more widely dispersed by human harassment.
Green also points
out that devils often associated with Thylacines, serving as jackals to their
tigers. If there are still Thylacines, they are probably still being followed
by devils. This may account for the lack of Thylacine remains, the scavengers
presumably being as able to munch up a defunct Thylacine as anything else. We
had formed a good opinion of Green's opinions—as well as one of our own about
the Tasmanian bush, to the effect that it could hide anything up to the size of
a rhinoceros. We saw no harm in looking about alertly for Thylacines. None
showed up, but the possibility that they might entertained us as it does most
Aside from three
native snakes, all venomous, a variety of sluggish but mildly annoying bush
flies, the devil and perhaps the Thylacine, Tasmania may have the best-looking
and best-behaving wildlife in the world. There can be few better ways to
commence a day than to awaken at dawn and find oneself being politely
scrutinized by a wallaby with a joey peering brightly out of her pouch.
Nearly all the
Tasmanian beasts are nocturnal or crepuscular, which accounts for their general
look of wide-eyed innocence, and it's all but impossible to trail them to the
lairs in the deep bush where they sleep during the day. Also, it's pointless.
All that's necessary is to set up camp early, get the evening's cooking out of
the way, find a smooth peppermint tree for a back rest and wait for the nice
beasts to drop by. They start doing so about dusk in a very unshy way.