The Hunter: In Pursuit of the Thylacine

In the 2015 Korean film The Tiger, a legendary retired hunter named Chun Man-duk lives alone with his only son on Mount Jirisan in Japanese-occupied Korea in 1925. A bounty has been placed on the head of the last remaining tiger, a monstrous one-eyed beast called the Mountain Lord that has evaded all attempts to capture it. Every band of hunters who have tried to trap the Mountain Lord have been outwitted by the animal and slaughtered. Japanese officials turn to Chun Man-duk to lead a hunting party but, on moral grounds, he consistently refuses. However, when the tiger kills his son, Seok, the hunter is compelled to intervene. The film is a beautifully shot and grand Kurosawa-like philosophical story about man and nature.

Closer to home, preceding the Korean film by four years, and posing similarly interesting philosophical questions, with overtones of Moby-Dick and Crime and Punishment, is the Australian movie The Hunter (2011), directed by Daniel Nettheim, and produced by Porchlight Films and Screen Tasmania. It stars Willem Dafoe, Frances O’Connor and Sam Neill and is adapted from the 1999 novel of the same title by Julia Leigh. It takes place entirely in Tasmania and tells the story of a mercenary, hired by a shadowy corporation, to track down the last thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger).

Joe Dolce writes of films in every Quadrant.
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Thylacinus cynocephalus once roamed the entire continent of Australia. It was wiped out thousands of years ago on the mainland but continued to thrive in Tasmania until the 1930s. It was declared extinct in 1980, primarily due to habitat fragmentation, competition with dingoes, disease and intensive hunting. The animals were blamed for persistent attacks on sheep. They were also thought to be a danger to humans, with jaws that could open to 120 degrees and “swallow an infant whole”. Hunters and farmers were licensed by the government to kill them for bounties of £1 per hide, and 2184 bounties were registered as having been paid out, but it’s likely many more were killed than were officially claimed.

Thylacine comes from the Greek thylakos, meaning “pouch” and it is one of only two marsupials that have a pouch in both sexes—the male’s pouch covering and protecting the reproductive organs. The female’s pouch faces to the rear. The thylacine was known to early explorers as the “striped wolf” and the “carnivorous marsupial” and was described as a “pouched dog with a wolf’s head” that ran with a stiff gait, could hop like a kangaroo and balance on its hind legs.

When people say we are playing God, I say we do it all the time.
We certainly played God when we exterminated the thylacine.
—Professor Andrew Pask, head of TIGRR

The Hunter tells the story of Martin David (played by Dafoe), a mercenary tracker, who has travelled to Tasmania, employed by Redleaf GmbH, a German military biotech company, to bring back biological samples—blood, skin, organs—from a thylacine. There have been secret confirmed sightings and the corporation wants to obtain exclusive ownership of the animal’s DNA. David has been instructed to find and kill the animal, harvest the samples and, to ensure exclusivity, destroy the remains.

Travelling under the guise of a university biologist doing field studies of the Tasmanian devil, David arrives at his arranged accommodation, the home of Lucy Armstrong (played by O’Connor) and is met by her two young children, Sass and Bike. Bike hasn’t spoken since his activist father, Jarrah, mysteriously disappeared two weeks earlier, while Lucy is suffering from extreme depression due to her husband’s disappearance and remains sedated in bed most of the day.

At the local pub, David is treated with disdain, as just another “greenie”, unwelcome in the small logging town. Environmentalists have been blocking access roads to stop loggers. David learns in the pub that the children’s missing father, Jarrah, was known as an “eco-warrior”.

Jack Mindy (played by Neill), a friend of the Armstrong family, arrives at the house, offering to guide David up the mountain. David casually brings up the topic of the thylacine and Mindy tells him, “Every now and then some clown reckons he sees one, but it’s never been proved.”

Sass tells David that her father once saw a thylacine. Lucy Armstrong finally emerges from her bedroom in a narcotic haze and embraces David, believing, at first, that he is her missing husband.

Bike draws David a picture of the thylacine his father saw, with some clear identifying features of its terrain. David finds the corresponding features on a topographical map and returns to the mountain, setting steel traps and snares. He discovers a deep cave he believes is the lair of the elusive creature. He finds the skeletal remains of Jarrah Armstrong near the cave—a skull with a bullet hole—and some correspondence between Armstrong and the Redleaf corporation.

Lucy tells David that her husband had been employed to hunt the thylacine for Redleaf. The company told him the thylacine possessed a unique toxin that could paralyse its prey. When her husband discovered Redleaf’s intentions to use the animal’s DNA to weaponise the toxin, he tried to stop them.

David returns to the bush and is ambushed by an armed Redleaf mercenary who has been sent to replace him. Ordered to show him the location of the thylacine’s cave, David, in handcuffs, guides him down a path, right into one of his steel traps. After a brief struggle, David overcomes and kills the other man.

Now concerned for the safety of the Armstrong family, he rushes back to the house to find it has been burnt to the ground. Lucy and Sass are dead and the only survivor, Bike, has been left with family friends.

David returns to the cave, now doubting the ethics of the job he has been employed to do. He spends the night in the cave and in the early morning is awoken by a thylacine standing in the entrance. He follows it outside into a clearing, shoots and kills it. Recalling Lucy’s words to him, “Maybe it would be better if it was extinct”, he carries the dead thylacine back to its lair, builds a pyre and burns the remains.

Back in town, David phones Redleaf to tell them that what they wanted is now gone forever.

He visits Bike at his foster home and the boy, excited to see him, runs to him, embracing him and shouting his name out loud—the first time he has spoken since his father’s disappearance.

Willem Dafoe is very assured in the role of the mercenary hunter in this modern myth-like story. He hadn’t heard of the thylacine before he was offered the role. Dafoe has always considered himself an urban person and so was required to work with experts in Tasmanian bushcraft. Roo hunters took him on hunting trips and he spent time with a rugged survivalist who taught him how to make the snares and traps.

There were a few significant divergences between the novel and the movie adaptation. In the film, the children’s names were shortened to Sass and Bike, but in the novel, as an illustration of their parents’ alternative beliefs, their full names were Katherine Sassafras Milky-Way India Banana Armstrong and James Wind Bike Leatherwood Catseye Armstrong!

In the movie, the biotech company Redleaf claimed that the thylacine had rare toxic venom that could be weaponised. This is fictional. The thylacine did not have venom. This invention isn’t in the novel.

In the book, the fire at the Armstrong house is not fatal to anyone. Bike is put into foster care, as in the film, but Sass only suffers severe burns and is airlifted to a hospital in Sydney. Lucy, the mother, is institutionalised.

There is a significant rewrite, reeking of political correctness, in the ending of the film. In the book, David shoots the thylacine with three long shots and a fourth kill-shot to the head. He takes specimens: hair, blood and the ovaries, which he places in vials of liquid nitrogen. He believes that if there is a viable egg intact, a wolf or a lynx or even sperm created from the thylacine’s own blood could be used for in vitro fertilisation. He then burns the remains to leave no evidence. But in the film, David destroys the carcass of the thylacine without taking any samples, telling Redleaf he will have nothing to do with their bio-weapon plans. He apparently has seen the error of his ways and repented.

Tony Hughes d’Aeth, in his essay “Australian Writing, Deep Ecology and Julia Leigh’s The Hunter”, says:

Eco-fantasies often revolve around the rather paradoxical idea that as humans become more natural they will also become more humane. This line of thinking transposes the seat of a truer humanity into the non-human. The most outrageous of the novel’s heresies is to leave its central figure unredeemed.

Also omitted from the movie is David’s distinctive breathing technique to help him relax. On three separate occasions in the final chapters of the book, David practises the slow-breathing meditation of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “Breathing in, I calm myself.” Hanh calls this the walking meditation or Four Breaths: two complete very, very slow-breath cycles:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Breathing in, I am in the present moment.
Breathing out, it is a beautiful moment.

Wilhelm Reich observed, “Psychological resistances and defences use the mechanism of restricting the breathing.” Muscle relaxation and anxiety cannot exist together, and anxiety is most noticeably experienced as a constraint in the breathing rhythm. (Thich Nhat Hanh’s Four Breaths meditation was the primary discipline that helped me quit smoking back in the 1980s.)

Scott Robert Brewer, in the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, wrote, “Julia Leigh’s re-animation and pursuit of the extinct thylacine in her novel The Hunter was for some reviewers an inappropriate appropriation of a Tasmanian icon.” Many people also found objection to the film’s portrayal of Tasmanians as either yobbos, corrupt businessmen, drugged-out hippies or blinker-visioned greenies. (At least there was no mention of improper behaviour with sheep!)

Lisa Darnell wrote in the Guardian, “It is rare to find a first-time novelist who can so confidently avoid the confessional—albeit by reinventing Hemingway.” Writing in the New York Times, Rob Nixon, Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, suggests, “Leigh nudges us, with subtle indirection, towards some reverberating questions. What is extinction? In the era of genetic research, is it no longer eternal?” Drusilla Modjeska, in her review in the Australian Review of Books, asks: “What is the tiger? Is it bio-genetic material? Part of ourselves? Hope for the future? Guilt for the past? Imagination? The capacity to live in harmony with nature?”

Australian Aborigines are thought to have over-hunted giant kangaroos (Procoptodon) and marsupial lions (Thylacoleo, “pouched lion”) about 40,000 years ago, contributing to their extinction. The later introduction of the dingo to mainland Australia also didn’t help. Due to its awkward gait, the thylacine was an “ambush predator” that could not outrun its prey over long distances. It was at the mercy of the faster dingoes.

Dr Stephen Wroe of the University of Sydney told Jonathan Amos of BBC News:

The thylacine had a much more restricted range of prey—the dingo, on the other hand, [was] adept at taking anything from invertebrates through to kangaroos. The dingo [could] also be a social hunter and it’s most unlikely that the thylacine was; and we know that the more specialised an animal is, the more vulnerable it is. It is even possible Aboriginals and dingoes combined to effectively form a single super-predator.

Even though the thylacine is officially extinct, it is still illegal, under Tasmanian law, to trap one.

In 1984, the US entrepreneur Ted Turner offered a $100,000 reward for proof of its existence. Sixteen years later, in 2000, he withdrew the offer. The Bulletin, in 2005, offered a $1.25 million reward for its safe capture. A Tasmanian tour operator offered $1.75 million. These offers are complete nonsense, as the Tasmanian government would never issue a trapping licence to any reward-seeking hunter.

Dr Andrew Pask, the head of the Melbourne University Thylacine Integrated Genomic Restoration Research (TIGRR), believes using stem cells and DNA gene-editing technology could see the return of thylacines within ten years. If the experiment proves successful, it will be the first “de-extinction” event in history.

Over 700 specimens are held in museums and university collections. A living genome has already been assembled using DNA from thylacines preserved in alcohol. The fat-tailed dunnart, the thylacine’s closest living relative, could be used as a surrogate. But Associate Professor Jeremy Austin, at the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, said, “De-extinction is a fairytale science, concerned more with media attention for the scientist and less about doing serious science.”

My poem “The Tyger” (with a nod to William Blake) was published in Quadrant in October. The final verse muses:

Tyger Tyger, striped and lean,
Marsupial thylacine,
Did we glimpse thee on that track?
Perhaps a clone will bring you back.

5 thoughts on “The Hunter: In Pursuit of the Thylacine

  • NarelleG says:

    Evolution is the survival of a species.

    The thyalacine became extinct on the mainland with the combination of the dingo teaming with aborigines – top predators.
    c – 4,000 years ago.

    Please don’t meddle and clone one in Tasmania.

    It’s bad enough they are re-introducing the Tasmanian devil to NSW Barrington Tops.
    Hopefully the dingo will take care of them before they too rip into livestock and small mammals and marsupials.

  • NarelleG says:

    @Joe Dolce
    I wonder how many ‘Tigers’ were estimated to be in Tas’ at colonisation?

  • Alistair says:

    I laughed at the promo for this article …
    “Ted Turner offered $100,000 for proof the Tasmanian Tiger lives and, 16 years later, The Bulletin upped the ante to $1.25 million, while a tour operator subsequently put up $1.75 million. None of these efforts has produced anything close to a verified sighting. All we have is a myth, a movie and a light wash of political correctness”

    As I remember it the Victorian Government alone put up three billion dollars to find members of the (so-called) “Stolen Generation.” At the last count as I recall they still hadn’t found one! Maybe they could make a great movie out of that!!! Maybe they can clone them from the un-Stolen Generation out of political necessity?

  • gilmay97 says:

    . Confirmed sightings of a thylacine-like beasts have been reported from both Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya (the western, Indonesian half of New Guinea), where jungle tribal people talk of a local canine-like striped animals with huge jaws they fear, known locally as the “Dobsegna”, in these deep inaccessible undiscovered jungles these alleged sightings persist, as in Tasmania.

    Recent expeditions to Irian Jaya’s Foja Mountains, found several new species of giant rat (1.4 kg), tiny wallaby, and new honeyeater. Scientist recently discovered 200 new species in remote Papua New Guinea, snub-finned dolphin, frogs, mice lizards, yabbies, snails, and insects — these words show we are still learning and that we have much more to learn. New Guinea-forests-reveal-possible-new-animal-species/5659032

    in 1986 Bernard Heuvelmans reported a large dog like animal on Mount Giluwe, in Papuan southern highlands which he suggested could be a Thylacine. In the 1990’s, Grazier, Ned Terry received detailed reports of ‘Dobsegna’ in Irian Jaya from several areas. In 1995 anthropologist Gerrit Schuurkamp wrote of the local hunters high in the Star Mountains along the Irian Jaya and New Guinea border describing the Thylacine, others also gave similar descriptions, one being a US wildlife importer who knew animal identification well, spoke of a Thylacine-like animal in New Guinea in the 1990’s. There have now been many sightings and descriptions from local highland people, particularly of them attacking the village chickens and another at a Mission Post. Several close encounters have been well described where young Thylacines had been killed attacking village chickens,
    They are described in full detail by locals, who also readily identified drawings. They report the ‘Dobsegna’ live in caves and come out in the evenings to hunt, sometimes in groups.
    Explorer, Ralf Kiesel, told his friend Jan Sarakang had reported seeing one in the mountains of the west Carlstenz National Park during the 1970’s, he and a colleague were eating their meal when camped near Punac Jaya at an altitude of about 2,438 meters (8,000 ft), where they were approached by two unusual dog-like animals, an adult and a cub, which emerged from the bush:
    Clearly drawn by the smell of the food, the two animals walked nervously from side to side, eyeing the men and their food supplies, and approaching to within 20 yards (18m). Eventually the cub became bold enough to walk up to the men, who tried to feed it, but when one of them also tried to catch it, the cub bit his hand and both animals then ran back into the bush and were not seen again.
    These details hopefully force the reader to understand these countries were once all one land mass joined by grassy plains, from Tasmania to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia — joined for long periods over different time frames — then into Asia.

  • mrsfarley2001 says:

    Apropos of improper behaviour with sheep, I note wryly that good use of English language seems also on the way to extinction in the Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature. “Inappropriate appropriation” and “found objection” are two examples which demonstrate an egregious lack of command of this most basic of academic skills. To quote Henry Morton Robinson ” their feet are too small…for the heft of their ideas”.

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