Did capitalist corner-cutting kill the Thylacine?
Written by: Leo A. on 5 December 2023
(Above: Original Image by Daniel Eskridge on Flickr Commons)
Amidst the ongoing crisis of environmental destruction across Australia, countless species of plants, fungi, animals and so on are rapidly becoming threatened with extinction. In order to save as many of these as possible, it is important to have as accurate as possible an “inventory” of threatened species. Some organizations, most notably the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), attempt to do exactly this. However, as we described in a previous article, capitalist interests' interference results in many species which should be officially considered vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, appearing on no such lists.
These “hidden threatened species” can be grouped into multiple categories. In some cases, a species may not be well-studied enough for its appropriate conservation status to be known, and may remain in this situation for an extended period of time, resulting in the species either being labelled “data deficient” or being given an inaccurately “secure” official status. Alternatively, a species may not be “registered” at all, either because its existence is genuinely unknown, or because the body of evidence supporting the species’ existence is not yet considered absolutely conclusive. Finally, a species may not be listed as threatened as it may already be erroneously considered extinct.
The difficulty in assessing hidden threatened species lies in the fact that, while all of these categories make theoretical sense and have plenty of historical precedents, due to the problem’s very nature there are no officially-recognised present-day examples. But while we cannot know with certainty how many hidden threatened species are in Australia or what those species are, we can at least find clues that could lead us in the right direction. And a research study published in March may have revealed one such clue for a species falling into the lattermost category – an animal which likely persisted beyond its “official” date of extinction (the scientific term is that it is a ‘Lazarus Taxon’).
When considering the extinction of Australian wildlife, the most “iconic” example which comes to mind is the Thylacine, Thylacinus cynocephalus, also sometimes known as the Tasmanian Wolf or Tasmanian Tiger. Prior to the British conquest, this marsupial was populous across the island of Tasmania, co-existing with other unique wildlife and the Indigenous people since prehistoric times. But when colonizers first arrived in Tasmania in 1803, they began an act of ecological genocide. The largest flowering trees on Earth, the giant mountain ashes, were mostly cleared. The Tasmanian emus were hunted into extinction within a few decades.
Areas of otherwise-unprofitable forest were cut down to allow the grazing of sheep, and the Thylacine came into conflict with sheep farmers. Whether any sheep really fell victim to Thylacines is unknown, but the claims of predation by some sheep farmers were on such a scale as to be physically impossible. Like most politicians in every capitalist state, the Tasmanian officials were self-serving cowards with knee-jerk reactions. To be seen as doing something, they offered bounties on Thylacines from 1830 to 1909. During those years, 2184 bounties were paid.
Deliberate extermination attempts, snaring, trapping, capturing, and habitat damage reduced the species’ population to extreme rarity. Many specimens were caught for zoos around the world, but no concerted attempt was made to captive-breed them. The last Thylacine in captivity died on September 7, 1936, at Hobart Zoo, apparently from cold, as it had been locked out of its sleeping quarters.
The species was officially declared extinct fifty years later in 1986.
If that was where the story ended it would already be a tragedy. However, using a detailed statistical analysis the new study sheds light on a darker conclusion to the animal’s story – that at the time the Thylacine was declared extinct, there were likely still a few left in the Tasmanian wilderness. In other words, that the Thylacine could’ve still been saved from extinction had the right decisions been made, but was instead simply given up on.
The study used a sample of one thousand, two hundred and thirty-seven unconfirmed records of Thylacines in Tasmania between 1910 and 2019. While no-one ever reports sighting a Dodo, Passenger Pigeon, Quagga or Moa in the present day, alleged observations of Thylacines continued well past the 1930s. Of course, we should not immediately jump to the conclusion that these observations were all genuine. As a remarkable example of convergent evolution, the Thylacine closely resembles some dog breeds, and as such some observations may be the result of misidentification. Some others may be the result of deliberate dishonesty.
But these reported sightings come not just from laypersons, but also from some very credible witnesses such as zoologists and wildlife rangers. That alone doesn’t conclusively prove anything, since even experts can make mistakes, so the new study takes a very different approach. Rather than rely on the legitimacy of any specific observations, it applied a mathematical model which accounts for uncertainties to estimate the most likely time in which the animal went extinct. Several different scenarios were calculated – in some, observations by experts are given more “weight” in the calculations, in others, only specific types of evidence is counted, and so on.
In total the results of 16 scenarios were presented. In the somewhat “average” scenario the study chose to emphasize the results of, in which all 1237 records are counted but all are given a low “weight” in the mathematical model, the Mean Time of Extinction (MTE) is in the year 1993, with a 95% confidence interval spanning the years of 1969 to 2017. In the most optimistic scenario, the MTE is in the year 2007, with a 95% confidence interval spanning the years 1975 to 2040, and a probability of the species’ survival in 2023 of thirteen percent.
We are left with two uncomfortable possibilities. The first is that the extinction of the Thylacine in the wild took place between the death of the last individual in captivity - and most likely the time when it was “officially” declared extinct - and the present day. In other words, the Thylacine could have been saved within the past few decades, but was essentially driven to extinction by the negligence and corner-cutting of wildlife protection policies under capitalism. The IUCN acknowledges this phenomenon in which a species’ proclaimed extinction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, referring to it as the ‘Romeo Error’.
The second possibility is that the total, complete extinction of the Thylacine in the wild not only didn’t happen as early as was previously believed, but hasn’t happened yet at all. Recall again that the likelihood of the species’ survival in 2023 was calculated to be up to thirteen percent. A maximum of thirteen percent is, admittedly, a rather low probability. But is it really so low as to receive the neglect, indifference, and ridicule it’s so far had? The study even went as far as to map out where in Tasmania the last surviving populations of the species may be.
It is easy to understand why our capitalist politicians lean in favour of sweeping this whole situation – and others like it – under the rug. But the effects of this dismissive attitude trickle down to individual researchers and experts too. A little earlier than the Thylacine study’s publication, in January, another research study tried to explain some of the cognitive biases that can afflict those without anti-environmental motives. While the study primarily focused on the Caspian Tiger (an unrelated animal native to Asia which happens to be in a similar situation to the Thylacine), the following conclusions are equally applicable here:
“Humans including academics, conservationists, and wildlife managers are hardwired for cognitive biases. Cognitive biases play a role when people assessing a species’ status notice evidence in the first place; how they interpret it, and how they make conclusions during the process of species assessments. The case of the Caspian tiger demonstrates the cognitive bias of the Dunning–Kruger effect in action and the potential implications for conservation. The Dunning–Kruger effect, a phenomenon known in psychology, prevails when people overestimate their competence and underestimate their incompetence in social and intellectual domains. As a result, people not only reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, their incompetence prevents them from critically evaluating their own thinking.”
In other words, people overestimate how thoroughly they know what’s in our biosphere, and as such are hesitant to consider any possibility that could be considered out-of-the-ordinary. This of course is a result of the capitalist narrative that mankind has “conquered” nature and that our environment primarily exists to serve capitalist interests – and not as a system that has existed for billions of years before class struggle even began.
So how will the environmental conservation issue of hidden threatened species be treated differently in a socialist Australia? An important change is that sufficient effort should be put into properly surveying and recording the contents of our nation’s ecosystems, to ensure that ambiguous situations can be cleared up. This should be implemented alongside other efforts to protect and preserve these ecosystems. In our pre-revolutionary Australia, our efforts will have to be smaller in scope. Much of the environmental activism we are already familiar with indirectly supports hidden threatened species by helping to protect their habitats. And as with all environmental issues, spreading awareness about the problem may also prove beneficial.
Above all else, we must understand that the more we know – not believe, not assume, not guess, know – about our biosphere, the better we will be at saving our nation’s species from the ongoing mass extinction crisis.
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