According to official records, Tasmanian tigers were declared extinct by the Tasmanian government in 1986, exactly 50 years after the last known captive thylacine died at Tasmania’s Hobart Zoo in 1936. All the wild ones had been killed by 1920. For nearly eight decades there was no strong evidence suggesting that the marsupial Thylacinus cynocephalus still existed in the wild.

Tasmanian Tigers
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Tasmanian tigers are not the relatives of cats

The animals might not have gone extinct, after all. Recent “plausible sightings” have prompted researchers at the James Cook University to search for Tasmanian tigers in the wild in Queensland, Australia. Even though they are called Tasmanian tigers, they do not belong to the cat family. Thylacinus cynocephalus is a marsupial, meaning it belongs to the same family as kangaroos even though its face looks like a dog.

Sandra Abell, one of the scientists leading the search, said it has a dog-like face, but its tail and back look a lot like kangaroos. The Tasmanian tiger has a pouch. The stripes appear only on the back end of its body. The indigenous community has in the past reported sightings of the animal, calling it the “moonlight tiger.” However, scientists began to take an interest in the sightings only after reports from two people in North Queensland, including a long-time employee of the Queensland National Parks Service.

What drove them to extinction?

Fossils records suggest that the modern Tasmanian tigers emerged about four million years ago. According to the National Museum of Australia, the animals once roamed all over Australia. About 2,000 years ago, they disappeared from almost everywhere except Tasmania. They were the largest carnivorous marsupial ever to have co-existed with humans.

The animal’s population dwindled further after the arrival of European settlers in early 19th century. The Tasmanian tigers would often hunt the newly introduced sheep. So, a large land company in the region started offering bounties to settlers to kill the tigers. By 1900, the Tasmanian government was offering its own bounties to kill these animals. The sightings have persisted even after the animal being declared extinct.

Scientists to place 50 cameras across the Cape York Peninsula

Researchers at the James Cook University plan to employ 50 camera traps in areas where the tigers have allegedly been spotted. The “plausible and detailed descriptions” provided by the Queensland National Parks employee and former tour operator Brian Hobbs do not match any other large animal found in the area. Interestingly, all the reported sightings were made at night.

Hobbs said he had seen four animals from a distance of about 20 feet under a spotlight. His description of the eye-shine color, animal behavior, body shape, size and other attributes don’t match with known attributes of other species such as wild dogs, feral pigs, or dingoes. Researchers have to receive permits from private landowners before they can launch the search.

Researchers are keeping the details of the search confidential. Professor Bill Laurance of the James Cook University said in a statement that the chances of finding Tasmanian tigers in Queensland were very slim despite the reported sightings. Laurance said people who claimed to have seen the tigers were “nervous about” being branded as “kooks or fringe types.”

Sandra Abell said she and her colleagues had been contacted by even more people after their plans were publicized. She said the Tasmanian tiger search cannot be compared to the searches for rumored creatures like the Yeti. So many people have described the tiger in great detail, and it was declared extinct only about three decades ago. There is a possibility that the Tasmanian tigers still exist.

Even if researchers don’t find the thylacine, the project would provide important insights into the status of the other vulnerable and threatened species on Cape York, where animal populations have been declining in recent years. Many animals like the northern bettong were at risk due to introduced predators.