The Devil Wears Stripes

A recent article I read in a magazine discussed the question of resurrecting extinct animals and birds. In this case it was the passenger pigeon. Readers of my blog will recall this is a feathered creature especially close to my heart.

Well should we tamper with nature and reintroduce more native species back into our countryside? I have to say the idea has always excited me. Ever since visiting Tasmania and encountering the legend that is known as the Tasmanian tiger. An animal that has been extinct since 1936 and yet lives on in the imagination of many local Tasmanians and palaeontologists.

The Tasmanian Tourist Board had adopted it as their national emblem and its Thylacine jaw was painted everywhere. Every spare wall had murals of scenes with a stripped beast peering from the fronds of acid green leaves. Even the rubbish bins were painted with tiger jaws ready to devour your used coke cans and sweet wrappers. The island’s beer called Cascade had tigers on the label. Two in fact, just in case you had, any doubt at all of the animal’s existence.

A whole island had not only beguiled itself but so it seemed any unfortunate tourists that landed on its shores. Man had killed the animal off years ago. Yet there were still reports from locals of sightings of the creature, even one deluded soul had spotted him on a beach. As if it was on a weekend break. Park wardens had also reported sightings of the animal.

In the B&B where I had stayed at in Stanley there were newspaper cuttings with the headline, “Tassie tiger get a life.” it was an article about a scientific project at Sydney University where a group of scientists had started a genomic experiment. Obtaining DNA from a pickled tiger pup from over 150 years ago, which they had hoped to mix with the DNA of a Tasmanian devil in an egg from a pregnant animal, then somehow zap away the devils DNA to create a Tasmanian tiger. This egg, the article said, they would then insert into the womb of a Tasmanian devil who would eventually give birth to a Thylacine pup. Once born it would live in the pouch of the female devil until it grew too large for it. Scientists would then take it out and it would spend its remaining days as a lab specimen. So in reality it would never really live the life of a tiger at all.

Unfortunately my vivid imagination had run amok at the thought of a Tasmanian devil the size of a wolf, with a jaw that could open 120 degrees devouring everything in its wake. Drinking its victim’s blood, because that’s what the tiger did, they opened up the heart and drank the warm blood first.

The idea of an animal with blood curdling screams and really rather messy eating habits being conjoined genetically with the rather peculiar looking tiger with his fox like cay-ip cay-ip cries seemed every school boys dream animal.

So after accepting the idea of a mutant Tasmanian devil -tiger rampaging though the island, I gave myself a sanity check.

I had visited the Hobart Zoo where an old black and white film from 1936 had been played in the information centre, revealing the remaining days of the last tiger called Benjamin. I had watched Benjamin pacing backwards and forwards, obviously under stress and the tragedy of it was obvious. Man had the technology to film the last days of the most unique animal on the island, yet it had not been able to save it.

There were even reports that it died of neglect. The night of its death September 7th 1936 was cold. Benjamin had been left out in the open by the new zoo keepers. People who lived close by to the Zoo often heard the animals crying out in the night. The zoo’s long time keeper had died and his daughter had been sacked. She reported hearing the tiger coughing. After it died its body was thrown into the garbage. Why had this animal been left to die?

The only reason I can see is because the islanders saw it as vermin in the same way many people still view the fox here. Only once it had died did they realise too late what they had lost. (A year after Benjamin’s death the thylacine was declared a protected species but way too late of course.)

Perhaps also the fact it was such a strange looking creature it was feared more then it should have been. If it’s not cute then the chances are man will be less interested in saving it.

And now in the same way we want to bring back that which man has destroyed. I would love to ramble across the Surrey Hills where I live and encounter the beautiful lynx, casually stepping out from behind the box trees, rather like the neighbours tom cat strolling out of the petunias but how long would it be before farmers would say they’re killing our livestock? Or that a bovine illness is being carried to cattle and then culling would be back on the agenda like with the badgers? Would we soon see road kill lynx and wolves? Or in an extreme case road kill sabre tooth tiger. Wow that would be something!

Wildlife enthusiasts have said that the reintroduction of predators would add balance to our ecosystems, which in truth was why nature had developed them in the first place.

But my human heart tells me that the reality will be in the same way the thylacines were vilified and hunted for bounty. We would not be long in putting a price on the pelt of a lynx or grey wolf.

We live in an overpopulated world where it seems we have only the capacity to accept an animal behind bars, depicted in a painting, or have its last days filmed for posterity on an old 1930’s film reel ,whilst not actually doing anything to save it. Are we really advanced enough for reviving species whose demise we willingly caused?

Tampering with nature is something we have done are and are doing on a regular basis. My last trek into the wild Tasmanian wilderness had me praying for the sound of the tiger’s cay-ip cay-ip call. But in my heart I knew that sad Benjamin had been the last of his kind. There would be no opportunity of supper with the devil wearing stripes.

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