Treasures podcast ep 5: The last tiger
The wilful and wanton destruction of the Tasmanian Tiger is a sad reminder of the importance of conserving our natural history. Charles Wooley is reminded of an interview he did with the man who allegedly shot that last wild Thylacine while Kim McKay relates the tale of resurrecting the world’s rarest insect, now living on a lonely volcanic rock at sea.
Charles Wooley: The world's last Tasmanian tiger died in Hobart Zoo in 1936, leaving us with little more than an eerie image of a lone beast pacing around its cage. Hunted and hounded to extinction, the loss of the thylacine is a poignant reminder of our capacity for hubris and destruction. But 70 years before the death of that last known Tasmanian tiger, the Australian Museum received a small but extraordinarily special donation.
Hello, I'm Charles Wooley.
Kim McKay: And I'm Kim McKay, director and CEO of the Australian Museum. We are the nation's first museum and we house the treasures of our nation and the region. We're going to discover some of those today in the newly restored Westpac Long Gallery.
Charles Wooley: So join us in exploring the iconic, astounding and curious objects that have helped shape Australia and the world as we uncover the hidden stories of 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum.
Kim McKay: The Tasmanian tiger pup, one of the most valuable items in our collection, also known of course as the thylacine pup.
Charles Wooley: It's in a jar, it's quite large, it has obviously been born and it's taken from the pouch, but it's still naked and has the appearance of a foetus, although it was very small when it was born, wasn't it.
Kim McKay: That's right, and this particular specimen was sent to the Australian Museum, and you can quite clearly see the stripes on its back. It was sent here in 1866, probably I think as a trade with the Tasmanian institution, and of course that was 70 years before the last known thylacine was killed, well, it died in Hobart Zoo of course.
Charles Wooley: But even by that time they were wilfully and wantonly shooting them and sometimes even rewarded with bounties because they mistakenly thought that the creature killed sheep.
Kim McKay: Exactly. It's a really sad story of human development coming in and really ensuring a species went extinct by stealth.
Charles Wooley: The interesting thing about the devil is because like all pouched animals, like all marsupials, it's only an inch or so in size when it is born and it makes a perilous journey from the birth canal into the pouch, and presumably many don't make it, but then of course many did too.
Kim McKay: Many did and suckled on the mother. And of course this particular pup is of such scientific interest because a number of years ago this museum under Mike Archer's direction tried to extract the DNA of the Tasmanian tiger to see if the species could be rebooted.
Charles Wooley: This was back about the time of the Spielberg movie Jurassic Park, wasn't it.
Kim McKay: That's right, but of course the technology and science wasn't quite up to that at the time, it was before its time.
Charles Wooley: The idea was there.
Kim McKay: The idea was there but now our scientists at the museum don't like that idea, they don't like it because they think we should be putting our energies and efforts in science into conserving our existing species, not trying to bring extinct species back to life. I mean, they are such extraordinary creatures, and because films footage existed of them at the Hobart Zoo, so we see what they look like, and they were very proud-looking creatures. We've got a number of skins of the Tasmanian tiger in our collection here as well, and we know that the tiger was originally on the mainland too.
Charles Wooley: You know, I interviewed the man who shot the last Tasmanian tiger. In about 1929 a Yorkshireman called Wilf Batty who had come out as a young man, a teenager about early 1900s and had gone back with the AIF to fight in World War I at Flanders, then returned to the north-west of Tasmania where he set up a farm in a lovely place called Mawbanna, and he had a tiger predating on his chickens.
And he told me the story in his wonderful Yorkshire cadences, he said, 'I heard tiger snuck on up round bard, so I took shot gun and I snuck up round back of barn and there he was in chook run and I gave him both barrels.' And with that action Wilf Batty blasted his way into history as a man who shot the last Tasmanian tiger. And then the last one that we know of died shortly after that in captivity, but he shot the last one in the wild. He was totally unashamed too.
Kim McKay: I think I want to cry.
Charles Wooley: I have the footage somewhere, I must get it for you.
Kim McKay: You must, because this species says so much about what we've done wrong in Australia.
Charles Wooley: Yes, and yet we wrongly accuse it. Well, okay, it went for chickens, everything goes for chickens, but it wasn't killing sheep.
Kim McKay: Indeed. You know we've got something else quite extraordinary in this case, Charlie, the Lord Howe Island phasmid.
Charles Wooley: Ah, they're very creepy looking insects.
Kim McKay: They are, in fact they are often referred to as a type of lobster, they are so large.
Charles Wooley: They are about the length of a human hand and it looks more like a lobster, or some kind of weird stick insect.
Kim McKay: Yes, and they are a stick insect of course.
Charles Wooley: Or a marron, one of those little freshwater tiny lobsters that you can eat.
Kim McKay: Interestingly this is a species only found on Lord Howe Island. Lord Howe Island is 700 km north east of Sydney, sitting out on the Tasman Sea, and because it forms part of that Lord Howe Island rise going up into the Pacific Ocean, a lot of its flora and fauna is completely unique, and these phasmids…
Charles Wooley: Like the Galapagos really, it's a Darwinian laboratory, isn't it.
Kim McKay: It is exactly that, that's a great way of describing it.
Charles Wooley: There are things there you'll find nowhere else, and things that have no fear. If you sit by a rock pool on Lord Howe Island, as opposed to anywhere else where everything rushes away, things come up and have a look at you.
Kim McKay: As part of our 190th anniversary we mounted an expedition to Lord Howe Island, 20 of our scientists, all different disciplines, went up there to study what was happening to the local fauna. And part of the expedition involved climbing Ball's Pyramid, which is a very, very difficult climb, sitting off Lord Howe Island about 17 km away, it's a volcanic spire sticking out of the ocean, but there they found the phasmid.
So we had a team of citizen scientist climbers who went up there, and at night in little tufts of grass they found these phasmids. We're working collaboratively with the Melbourne Zoo to try and breed phasmids so they can be reinstated to Lord Howe Island. They were once abundant there but of course with the arrival of the SS Makambo, that ship where the rats got off, and of course the rats loved a bit of phasmid for dinner. So there is a new rat eradication program about to take place.
Charles Wooley: They predated on all kinds of unique creatures, didn't they…
Kim McKay: They did.
Charles Wooley: The pigeons…
Kim McKay: They really destroyed a lot of that original fauna on Lord Howe and many other islands, South Georgia…
Charles Wooley: This of course is an island problem, isn't it, and of course in Macquarie Island we had the problem with rabbits, but they have got rid of the rabbits. Do you think they'll get rid of the rats?
Kim McKay: We do. I think the team involved from National Parks that is working on it have done extraordinary research. They've worked very closely with scientists in New Zealand as well who have worked on rat eradication programs, and we are really hopeful that it's successful. We'll be going back as the second part of our scientific study to ascertain the impact of the rat eradication on the local wildlife. So this recent expedition was to draw a line in the sand and to say this is what we found, this is what's here, and then do a comparison later on.
Charles Wooley: Is there any point in putting those creepy phasmids back until you know you've got rid of the rats?
Kim McKay: The plan is to put them back once the rats are gone so that we can try and restore this particular species. It still exists, as we've said, we found them on Ball's Pyramid in this very remote part of the Tasman Sea, but I think they do belong back on the island, and so it's our hope we can reintroduce them there. And you know, Lord Howe is a World Heritage listed island, and this museum has been going to Lord Howe since the 1860s, and we did all the work to ensure that Lord Howe received its World Heritage status. So it's an island very dear to our hearts here at the museum and our scientists…
Charles Wooley: It's one of my favourite islands in the world, and hardly an onerous duty for you as head of the museum to have to go there on a regular basis.
Kim McKay: That's right. Well, I didn't go up on the expedition yet, but in the future I hope to get there.
Charles Wooley: Let's do it soon.
Kim McKay: It just is marvellous.
Charles Wooley: From 18 million treasures in the Australian Museum we've selected just 200 for you to consider. But even exploring this distillation is going to take us on a long and exciting adventure. I hope you will join Australian Museum director Kim McKay and myself as we continue our extraordinary odyssey through the collections of the Australian Museum. And of course you can see it for yourself in the Westpac Long Gallery at the Australian Museum in Sydney. I'm Charles Wooley.
Kim McKay: And I'm Kim McKay.
Charles Wooley: We'll see you next time.
Join veteran journalist Charles Wooley and Australian Museum Director and CEO Kim McKay as they explore the astounding objects and specimens of the 200 Treasures of the Australian Museum exhibition, housed in the nation’s oldest museum gallery, the Westpac Long Gallery.