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‘New’ Footage of Benjamin, the Last Tasmanian Tiger Ever Seen Alive

The short video hasn’t been seen in more than 80 years and shows the animal pacing its enclosure in Hobart, Tasmania

Shot in 1935, this is a still from a newly rediscovered bit of footage depicting Benjamin, the last captive thylacine on Earth. He was on display at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania. (NFSA)
smithsonianmag.com

The world has just over three minutes of black-and-white footage with which to remember the extinct thylacine, better known as the “Tasmanian tiger.” Now, another 21 seconds have emerged after collecting dust for 85 years, according to a statement from Simon Smith of the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

The footage, taken at the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania in 1935, shows a male thylacine named Benjamin pacing as zookeepers rattle the chain link walls of his enclosure, perhaps hoping to inspire some activity for the camera. At the time he was filmed, Benjamin was the last thylacine alive in captivity.

The thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) was a striped, dog-like marsupial carnivore that was once found on mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea, according to the National Museum of Australia (NMoA). They hunted mainly at night, stood just shy of two feet tall at the shoulder, measured nearly six feet from nose to tail and weighed around 60 pounds, according to the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service.

Roughly 2,000 years ago, the pouched predator disappeared from Papua New Guinea and Australia, perhaps due to competition from the dingo. At the time of European settlement, there were around 5,000 thylacines surviving across the Bass Strait in Tasmania, writes the NMoA.

When sheep were introduced to Tasmania in 1824, the European settlers developed a bitter rivalry with the striped marsupial, which they blamed for lost livestock. By 1830, cash bounties encouraged people to hunt and kill the animals, despite evidence that feral dogs and mismanagement were primarily responsible for the lost sheep, according to the NMoA.

Hunting, extensive habitat destruction and invasive diseases, such as mange, exacted a heavy toll on the surviving population, which was considered rare by 1910, according to the Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service.

Benjamin, the thylacine that appears in the newly discovered video, was captured in the wild in 1933 before being delivered to the Beaumaris Zoo, reported Natsumi Penberthy for Australian Geographic in 2016.

In the same year the video was taken, the zoo entered a transitional period when it’s proprietor Arthur Reid, who can be seen rattling the thylacine’s cage in the footage, died and the zoo changed ownership, reported James Dunlevie for the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) in 2018.

Whether owing to the new zoo’s new owners or random negligence, one freezing night in 1936 Benjamin was locked out of his shelter by a closed door, forcing him to bed down on his enclosure’s concrete slab in the cold. ABC quotes the local paper the Mercury as having said at the time that the thylacine had been in “splendid health and condition, but, unfortunately, contracted a chill during the recent spell of cold weather.”

On September 7, 1936, Benjamin was found dead in his enclosure, just two months after the species was offered government protection.

The zoo posted ads offering to pay trappers for a new thylacine specimen to no avail. In 1937, the zoo shuttered due to falling attendance, reported ABC, and the public began to realize that the species had likely been wiped from the face of the Earth.

The NMoA quotes a February 10, 1937 article in the Examiner of Launceston that asks: “Has anybody seen a Tasmanian tiger lately?” The quotation goes on to say that the government will circulate questionnaires to identify any sightings of the animals, but that the species is feared to be extinct. “Mr A.W. Burbury said there was no reliable evidence that the Tasmanian tiger was now in existence.”

No confirmed thylacine sightings have been recorded since Benjamin’s unceremonious demise, despite intensive searches and hefty rewards offered for convincing evidence. The species was declared officially extinct in 1982, but the Australian government has revised this timeline to mark the thylacine as having gone extinct in 1936 when Benjamin died, reports Elizabeth Claire Alberts for Mongabay.

Reported sightings of the ‘Tassie tiger’ continue to come in, and many hold out hope that some wily holdouts remain in the bush, but Nick Mooney, a thylacine expert, tells Mongabay that the species is probably gone for good. “If they are there, I hope we never find them because we are even greedier now,” he adds.

Mooney tells Mongabay the new footage makes him feel “sad and embarrassed,” but that “it does give a bit more information on turning and pace in movement, which is both interesting and potentially useful for interpreting sighting reports and bits of video people claim might be thylacine.”

The reel comes from an unheralded travel film called Tasmania the Wonderland, which the NFSA says was probably made by filmmaker Sidney Cook. Tasmania the Wonderland was rediscovered by Branden Holmes, Gareth Linnard and Mike Williams of the Tasmanian Tiger Archives, who provided it to the NFSA.

Previously, the oldest thylacine footage was from 1933. The NFSA says it is optimistic that additional footage might still emerge since the animals were kept in other zoos around the world.

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