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Yearning for (re)animate Nature: Faunal Colonialism in Cryptozoology and the Case of the Thylacine

Posted by Regrette Etcetera on October 10, 2010

Yearning for (re)animate Nature:

Faunal Colonialism in Cryptozoology and the Case of the Thylacine

One in a series of working documents supporting the Fauxist Cryptozoology Project.


 

The ‘Last’ Thylacine, Hobart Zoo, 1936.

 

“Finding a live specimen of the Thylacine would be the holy grail of all Australian Cryptozoologists”.    Paul Honner

“I think humanity has a responsibility to prove the continued existence of the Thylacine. We were the major contributor to its destruction and need to capture live specimens and begin breeding programs as soon as possible so we can at least begin to make up for the damage we caused”.   James Kirkwood

The Thylacine is a fitting example of the politics of cryptozoology. Notably, in that it is a species which was driven to an arguable extinction in a colonial setting, and also neatly captures cultural and scientific reversals of favour and definition, illustrating succinctly the troubling of the terms of environmental destruction, enlightenment, taxonomy, acclimatization, “Britainization”, tourism and contestation in a colonial context. More recent efforts at cloning the Thylacine from preserved museum specimens has opened a new chapter in the debate on Neo-colonial nature.

The proto-cryptozoological hystory of European treatment of the Thylacine

Perhaps ‘Australia’s’ most famous and mythologised extinction, the Thylacine- variously known as the Tasmanian Wolf, the Tasmanian Tiger, zebra wolf, zebra opossum, marsupial wolf, striped wolf, tiger wolf, Tasmanian wolf, van Dieman’s Land tiger, bulldog tiger, hyena tiger, Dog-faced Dasyurus, Opossum-hyena, Tasmanian Dingo, and Panther- was the subject of much colonial-scientific conjecture, and indeed at the time could be classified as a living cryptid.

The thylacine is generally thought to have become extinct on mainland ‘Australia’ primarily as the victim of the dingos the ‘aborigines’ ‘brought’ around 6000 years ago, (Carroll, 303) and to a lesser extent, of predation by ‘aborigines’ (paddle, 18)[1]. Generally agreed to be confined to Tasmania upon European invasion, the tiger became the best-known victim of the series of ‘Australian species-cleansings’. In the thylacine’s case, continued through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a network of effects attendant to settlement, and clashes with European animals. The deforestation required by colonial pastoralism and the sheep economy displaced habitats, which were then ‘threatened’ by the tiger.

The victim of feral (European) dogs- which also killed the sheep the tigers were often blamed for, and misidentified sightings were often dogs, and thus had the tigers killed. At times blamed for 60% of stock loss (Paddle, 161) the thylacine was made into a devilish and convenient symbol of pastoral and settlement problems[2]. Sheep farmers and landowners organized petitions for government funded eradication (as had occurred with the rabbit), and a government bounty was established in 1888. Other forms of extraction operated. The thylacine was by far the most valuable of all ‘Australian animals for trades and sale to international zoos, largely due to is strangeness. (de Courcy, 2, 189) Used “for lucrative exchanges whenever it could find one” (de Courcy, 182), it enabled Australian zoos to have the (African) exotica they saw as necessary to a proper imperial-colonial zoo.

 

Thylacine sighting footage analysis


Since the thylacine’s 1936 extinction- the last dying in Hobart Zoo- it has been the subject of much conjecture, but hasnow generally become accepted as extinct. Its continued existence is a highly political symbol, and the tiger has become associated with and often symbolic of the threatened forest wilderness of south-western Tasmania, a mythic creature that remains to re-animate the Tasmanian bush, a remnant of a native past and a loose parallel- and perhaps easier sentimentally- to the fate of the Tasmanian aboriginals. The tiger is now the state’s emblem, appearing on all things- sculptures, shops, names, brands etc., the state having built a whole tourist mythology around its possible existence.

The tiger embodies many of the tension of the cryptozoological-colonial field:

–       Reported sightings have decreased as humans have discovered, cleared and populated more of the forests.

–       an emblem of colonial, scientific, governmental, and European ignorance, that peculiar mix of state-nationalism and anti-authoritarianism.

–       Paddle shows how scientists etc. have faltered and created myths to suit them etc. including the construction of ‘scientific innocence’- the rewriting of hystory to save (scientific) face, and participated in a deliberate transferral of blame…“Scientists and naturalists ultimately failed to preserve the thylacine from extinction because they were prepared to play by the rules, through genteel and proper social and political activity, attempting to put into place legal measures preventing the continued killing of the species.” (Paddle, 173)

–       A direct link to the racialisation of the Tasmanian aboriginals, the last of a people etc. and the paternalism of Robinson etc. sent to islands, bones and artefacts taken and sent to overseas institutions, some not yet returned. Colonizers relationship to the dreamtime? Will they ever clone Trugannini?

–       The Tiger seen as a chance to make things right.

Visual Analysis of Thylacine sighting footage: compared to footage of the ‘last thylacine’ in Hobart Zoo 1936

As Owen points out, “The thylacine is Tasmania. To that extent alone, it lives on” (p. ix). Thus the thylacine has come to symbolize the exploitation and destruction of Tasmania’s natural heritage, as well as the hope for Tasmania’s future conservation.

 

So, the tiger went from devilish and mysterious threat, to life and importantly to stock and property relations, government bounty etc and zoo spectacle, to extinction metaphor and political symbol, to state and tourist emblem and, as We will see, genetic foray.

Note: You can now browse the full list of Tasmanian tiger sightings contained in the tour, right here on the website.

What’s in the tour?

  • 70+ years of sighting data!
  • Expedition information from David Fleay and Eric Guiler!
  • Hans Naarding’s 1982 sighting!
  • Klaus Emmerichs’ 2005 sighting!
  • Mainland thylacine sightings!

Image & materials above from the Post Extinction Thylacine Sighting Google Earth Tour: www.wherelightmeetsdark.com

Cloning a Cryptid

Genetic technologies reach into radical pasts and radical futures, and the existence of the frozen zoos may challenge received notions of history. Perhaps the ultimate and most contentious form of conservation cloning will be the cloning of already extinct animals, using (generally unintentionally, in genetic terms) preserved material and a surrogate carrier/mother. Made ‘palatable’ in the popular imagination by the movie Jurassic Park, such a scenario may not seem (or be) so far fetched. While the cloning of dinosaurs is currently impossible[3], this kind of techno-conservation is becoming more advanced, and is culturally much sexier than captive breeding, with its rabid futurity.

Somewhat closer to the present, and closer perhaps to the realm of conservation, are two examples of cloning recently extinct species, the Thylacine and the Huia. Australian scientists have initiated the resurrection of the Thylacine using tissue from a Thylacine pup pickled in alcohol since 1866, in order to sequence its DNA, and reassemble its genetic ‘blueprint’ in artificial chromosomes, beginning a project that will require decades of work, tens of millions of dollars in funding, and forms of molecular technology not yet invented, and even then, their chance of success as 15 percent at best. (Wiedensaul).

The project was stopped in 2005, as decay made it impossible to gather complete enough DNA from the specimen, but it slated to continue after new material was taken from a dried thylacine specimen, and due to new technological advances. (Skatssoon)

The Huia, a bird of New Zealand using the same technique that produced Dolly, transfer the nuclear material into a cell of a magpie, culture an embryo, and implant for gestation. If whole cells can’t be found, ambitious attempts will be made to assemble a complete set of genetic material from recoverable fragments. (Dorey) “the next step is to look for whole cells or nuclei in the tendon and bones of stuffed specimen birds”.(Dorey). “the maori tribe supports attempts to clone the Huia, which is of great cultural importance to them.” Cullen says

In this we can see the turnaround and development of conservation rhetoric. Since the grand era of colonisation and acclimatization in which ‘Australia’ was settled, and more scarily in the 70 years since the tigers official extinction, we see far-reaching changes in the ability, scope and application of the panacea of technology. Beside other technologies that effect a reversibility of animal or ecological ‘mistakes’- baiting and poisons (1080), disease releases (myxomatosis, calici), introduced parasite-competitors (prickly pear moth) etc.- and heightened border maintenance and reestablishment (quarantine), GE technologies buy another way out.

The thylacine, as an animal tied symbolically into postcolonial and postmodernist contestations of capitalism, nature and nationalism, now represents a new set of ethical-political consequences and stakes.  More than the release of something like Myxamatosis could ever do, the cloning of extinct Australian animals could buy the ‘colonial culture’ a yet unearned place on the land, a cheap escape from acknowledging our continuing ignorance and destruction.


[1] Responsibility for the decline and extinction of the thylacine on mainland Australia was attributed simplistically and almost entirely to introduction of the dingo. A more plausible explanation is that extirpation of the thylacine was the result of Aboriginal hunting following (semi)domestication of the dingo, after the latter’s introduction to mainland Australia some 6,000–12,000 years ago. (Humans have been implicated in the dramatic demise of Australia’s Ice Age megafauna some 20,000 years ago [Flannery 1994]). Whether the disappearance of the thylacine on mainland Australia is a “natural” event depends largely on how one views the role of early Homo sapiens as natural components of ecosystems. What is clear is that Aborigines coexisted with the thylacine for thousands of years in dingo-free Tasmania, only to be exterminated subsequently, along with the Aborigines, 150 years after European colonization. (3) Compelling evidence suggests that the thylacine existed in New South Wales and South Australia and persisted on mainland Australia at the time of early European colonization. (Leidy)

 

[2] The wolf had been eradicated in England by the 15th century, Scotland late 17th– (Thomas, 273), an important and celebrated development, as shepherds no longer had to guard flocks at night- whereas the Thylacine remained to awaken the pastoralists insecurities.

[3]“Numerous studies suggest that DNA probably can’t last in most geological environments for much more than 10,000 years and almost certainly not beyond 100,000 years. Since dinosaurs died out roughly 65 million years ago, restoring any of them is pretty much out of the question—but isolating DNA that’s on the order of 10,000-15,000 years old might rule in the possibility of cloning Pleistocene species for restoration. Even that wouldn’t be easy. In the case of woolly mammoths found frozen in permafrost—which are among the best preserved specimens of extinct Pleistocene fauna—only short strands of mitochondrial DNA have been recovered—not the nuclear DNA that would be necessary for cloning (Lindahl 1999)”. Cited in Yule. (Wayne et al. also confirm the 100,000 years limit.) But in the future, as they say, it could be possible. And as an aside, We wonder when Bog’men’ Icemen, peat men etc and mummies, will be cloned, and the possible themepark/spectacular forms this may take.

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3 Responses to “Yearning for (re)animate Nature: Faunal Colonialism in Cryptozoology and the Case of the Thylacine”

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