Cloning Considered to Revive Tasmanian Tiger

A mysterious predator in a far-off corner of the world, hunted to extinction decades ago, has emerged as the central character in what is likely to be a prolonged and bitter scientific debate.

The Tasmanian Tiger, which wasn't really a tiger, is being asked to answer questions of staggering implications. Is it possible to bring extinct species back to life through cloning? And if we can, should we?

This is not an academic exercise. The prestigious Australian Museum, under the directorship of Mike Archer, has vowed to do just that, using DNA from animals that have been dead for more than a century. Some say it can't be done. Archer himself says he isn't sure, claiming that success would be the "biological equivalent of the first walk on the moon."

The effort has taken on almost religious overtones, modern humans seeking a way to atone for the sins of their forefathers. Or as Archer puts it, it's a chance to "redress our immoral actions when we willfully and wrongly exterminated this animal."

Miracle Required

Cloning the tiger would require so many scientific breakthroughs that success would be a "technological miracle," Archer maintains, and others agree.

"It would be a miraculous birth, a clone from aged DNA," writes David Owen, author of Tasmanian Tiger, The Tragic Tale of How the World Lost its Most Mysterious Predator, recently released by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Owen, a Tasmanian novelist, has chronicled the plight of the tiger from the years when it roamed across much of Australia and the southern island state of Tasmania to the present. It has reached a mythical status with sightings still being reported despite convincing evidence that the beast no longer survives.

But as Owen meticulously points out, all the hoopla over the possibly of cloning an extinct animal may just make it easier for us to ignore the desperate need to protect the habitat of endangered species that are barely hanging on.

The lead character in this ongoing drama is a strange beast indeed. The Tasmanian Tiger is actually a marsupial, with a pouch to carry its young. It has also been called a wolf, a dog and a hyena, but its lineage is clearly revealed in its kangaroo-like hind quarters, and the shape of its ears and muzzle, as well as the pouch. It is about the size of a Dalmatian.

It is officially named "thylacine," and it is the largest carnivorous marsupial known in modern times. But most references still call it a tiger.

Killed by Reputation

Its end began thousands of years ago when humans introduced dogs to Australia. Wild dogs competed with the tigers for food, and the tigers gradually disappeared from mainland Australia. They thrived in the rugged terrain of Tasmania for centuries, but in the 1800s they found themselves accused of killing sheep, an economic crime that the people of that era could not tolerate.

There's precious little evidence to support that, Owen argues. It's far more likely that sheep were killed by wild dogs, not tigers that avoided human contact. But by then the animal's reputation was established as a vicious killer with a vampire's taste for blood and internal organs. It was a thrill killer, according to the legends of the day, sometimes wiping out entire flocks of sheep just to watch them die.

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