Mathew Lowe, Collections Manager at the Museum of Zoology, writes:
To those that have seen and worked behind the scenes, the collections in the University Museum of Zoology are often described using words such as “unique” or “rich”. But more often than should be, those positive sounding adjectives are tinged with a sad reality – much of the Museum’s collections are “valuable” because they represent animals that we have lost through man’s destructive habits.
Perhaps one of the most poignant is our collection of Tasmanian Tigers. More closely related to a Kangaroo than an actual Tiger, the Thylacine was until recently the largest carnivorous marsupial. By the time of European settlement they had declined on the Australian mainland but remained on their island stronghold of Tasmania. There they could have remained in the sizable wilderness, were it not for continued persecution by humans. Many blamed the Thylacine for attacks on sheep and so bounties for hunting and trapping were paid right up until 1909. There was also the inevitable destruction of habitat, competition with introduced species, reduction in prey numbers and disease; factors which often follow influxes of people.
On the 10th July 1936, the Tasmanian Government announced that the remaining Thylacines were to be officially protected by law. However, it was already too late. By 1930 the last Thylacine had been spotted (and shot) in the wild and, 59 days after it was declared a protected species, the world lost the last captive Tasmanian Tiger; dying alone in its enclosure in Hobart Zoo.
The Museum has a large collection of Thylacine material, much of it “collected” in the 1860’s and 70’s. At the time the ethics for collecting were very different and this was an exotic, unusual animal of interest. Hence the Museum has what could be described as an “outstanding” collection of skins, skeletons, organs in spirit and even the smallest pup skull in the world. This material is of critical use to scientists today in our efforts to understand the Thylacine and its place in the tree of life, which ultimately leads to a greater understanding of the natural world and how best to care for it.
But to unpack and bring out a Tasmanian Tiger skin, which looks like it had died only recently, results in conflicting emotions. You are enthralled by the beauty and rarity of such a precious object – as the Museum’s Collections Manager my thoughts and observations also turn to the care of specimen; is it being attacked by pests? Is it being stored correctly? How can I ensure scientists can learn from it?
However, holding specimens such as these and others throughout the collections bring forth other, darker emotions – I will never see a live Tasmanian Tiger; in fact I never had the chance to see a Tasmanian Tiger. The natural inclination to feel anger at the generations past who deliberately exterminated this amazing animal is tempered only by the realisation that our own generation is making exactly the same mistakes, perhaps more so, and that those that follow us will be holding such relics of life and wondering why more wasn’t done to preserve something so precious.
Whilst the Museum’s collections are used by the most dedicated scientists to conserve and protect our natural world, more often than not, and increasingly so, they are also a testament to our failure to act in time.