An illustration of two Tasmanian tigers, which resemble a small wolf and have stripes on their back

Artwork of a pair of Tasmanian tigers by Henry Constantine Richter (1821–1902). The marsupial was driven extinct in the 1900s. Source: Library and Archives of the Natural History Museum, London.

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Remembering the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine

The Tasmanian tiger, Thylacinus cynocephalus, was driven to extinction by European colonisers who hunted it, destroyed its habitat and introduced competing species.

These practices still affect Australia's wildlife today, with 38 native mammal species extinct since colonisation.

What was the Tasmanian tiger?

Mounted specimen of a Tasmanian tiger

Taxidermy specimen of the Tasmanian tiger, Thylacinus cynocephalus, a now-extinct marsupial mammal.

The Tasmanian tiger, also called the thylacine, was a meat-eating marsupial that was driven extinct by European colonisers. It once lived across mainland Australia and New Guinea, but its range was limited to the island of Tasmania by the time of British occupation.

As Natural History Museum scientist Anjali Goswami puts it, “the Tasmanian tiger’s fate followed a very common story of how animal populations around the world were greatly impacted by European colonisation”.

Why did the Tasmanian tiger go extinct?

Hunting, habitat destruction and competition with introduced species all contributed to the animal’s decline. Today, the enduring impact of colonialism on Australia’s wildlife is still felt – the country has the highest rate of mammalian extinction in the world.

Black and white photograph of two Tasmanian tigers

A pair of thylacines that were on display at the National Zoo in Washington DC in 1903. Source: Smithsonian Institution via Wikimedia Commons.

Tasmanian tiger characteristics

The Tasmanian tiger was a semi-nocturnal marsupial with a dog-like body, named after its striped fur. Its skull is almost indistinguishable from those of wolves even though they evolved independently for more than 150 million years – an example of convergent evolution.

Tasmanian tigers were unique for a variety of reasons. They were carnivores, which Anjali explains is “quite unusual among marsupials today”. They’re also the only member of the Thylacinidae family to have survived until modern times, making them “evolutionarily quite distinct”.

Encounters and misconceptions

When the British invaded Tasmania in 1803, there were around 5,000 Tasmanian tigers on the island. The colonisers brought with them sheep to rear for food and hunting dogs to help them catch kangaroos, people’s main source of protein on the island at the time.

Like wolves in Europe, Tasmanian tigers were perceived as threats to livestock. According to Anjali this is despite evidence of their timid nature and small stature.

Research suggests that the jaws of the Tasmanian tiger lacked the bite force needed to prey on sheep. They most likely hunted prey smaller than themselves. Recent evidence suggests that feral dogs, introduced by the British, were the real culprits of the livestock losses.

Hunting and massacres

Photograph of a Tasmanian tiger and the person who shot it

European colonisers hunted the Tasmanian tiger as they suspected they were killing the sheep that they had brought over with them. Public domain image via Wikimedia commons.

The perceived threat of the Tasmanian tiger led to its persecution. Rewards were offered for kills – first by private farming companies from 1830 and then by the Tasmanian Government from 1888. By the end of its scheme in 1909 more than 2,180 bounties had been paid.

Hunting, coupled with the introduction of competing species and habitat destruction, decimated Tasmanian tiger numbers. The last officially recorded individual died in 1936 in a zoo in Hobart, Tasmania, but the species probably clung on in the wild until the 1980s or even later.

The government-backed bounty system mirrors other horrors of colonisation. Parallels can be drawn between the treatment of Tasmanian tigers and Tasmanian Aboriginal Peoples.

Flag with a black band at the top, a red band at the bottom and a yellow circle in the middle

The flag of the Aboriginal Peoples of Australia © ChameleonsEye/ Shutterstock

“Both were viewed as pests in their native land by the colonisers,” explains Jack Ashby, an expert in the natural history of Australia and its mammals.

“They were both inaccurately described as ‘primitive’ and ‘in need of civilisation’ by the British,” he adds.

The government systematically displaced and killed the Indigenous Peoples of Tasmania, even going so far as to place bounties on their lives. This time was known by the colonisers as the Black War.

However, it’s a harmful misconception that Tasmanian Aboriginal Peoples were driven to extinction. Many were taken to islands in the Bass Strait, the channel between Australia’s mainland and Tasmania. Their descendants make up the Tasmanian Aboriginal community today.

The current biodiversity crisis in Australia

An ilustration of two western quolls, a marsupial mammal from Australia. They resemble a small brown rodent and have white spots on their fur.

Artwork of a pair of western quolls by artist Henry Constantine Richter (1821–1902). Western quoll numbers have declined due to habitat loss, predation from cats and foxes, and intensive grazing by livestock and feral herbivores that reduces food availability. Source: Library and Archives of the Natural History Museum, London.


The impact of colonialism on Australia’s wildlife can still be felt today. At least 38 native mammal species have been driven to extinction since Britain first invaded Australia. “A third of all the world's mammal extinctions since 1788,” emphasises Jack.

Multiple factors imposed by European settlement in Australia have led to this high extinction rate:

  • the prevention of Indigenous land management practices, such as fire management to reduce the impact of deadly wildfires
  • habitat destruction through land clearing
  • the introduction of invasive mammal predators such as cats and foxes
  • the introduction of fast-reproducing herbivores, including rabbits, goats and horses, that intensively graze plants, reducing the availability of such food in the environment

On top of this, climate change is altering many things Australian wildlife needs to survive. It’s affecting the availability of food and water, shortening breeding seasons and intensifying wildfires.

Hope for the future

Urgent conservation strategies are crucial to address this crisis and preserve Australia’s biodiversity.

One such strategy is the lungtalanana Rewilding Initiative, a collaborative effort by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, WWF-Australia and University of Tasmania researchers.

The project aims to restore lost species and cultural practices on an island off Tasmania’s coast, lungtalanana, formerly known as Clarke Island.

A young wombat and its mother

Wombats play an important role in the ecosystem. They turn earth as they dig, allowing water and air to reach deeper soil, and spread seeds and spores in their fur. So, their reintroduction is highly valuable to the rewilding of lungtalanana. © RJ Low/ Shutterstock

Six mammal species that were wiped out by invasive predators, habitat destruction and wildfires will be reintroduced, starting with a unique wombat from the Bass Strait islands. 

This Aboriginal-led project signifies a holistic approach to land management, emphasising the connection between animals, plants, fire and community.