Imaging Extinction: Disclosure and Revision in Photographs of the Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger)

In: Society & Animals
Carol Freeman School of Geography & Environmental Studies, University of Tasmania, Private Bag 78, HOBART Tasmania 7001

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The thylacine was a shy and elusive nonhuman animal who survived in small numbers on the island of Tasmania, Australia, when European settlers arrived in 1803. After a deliberate campaign of eradication, the species disappeared 130 years later. Visual and verbal constructions in the nineteenth century labeled the thylacine a ferocious predator, but photographs of individuals in British and American zoos that were used to illustrate early twentieth-century zoological works presented a very different impression of the animal. The publication of these photographs, however, had little effect on the relentless progress of extermination. This essay focuses on the relationship between photographs of thylacines and the process of extinction, between images and words, and between pictures of dead animals and live ones. The procedures, claims, and limitations of photography are crucial to the messages generated by these images and to the role they played in the representation of the species. This essay explains why the medium of photography and pleas for preservation could not save the thylacine.

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