Gone to the dogs by Nigel Roth


If you lived in Kiwirrkurra, and you suddenly realized you needed a latte from the next town over, you’d need to drive one-hundred kilometers across the Gibson Desert and the Northern Territory state line to sate your growing thirst.

On that drive, depending on the time of day and if you were able to glance about you safely, you might espy any number of local residents, including numbats, dunnarts, wambengers, and quolls. But you wouldn’t meet their closest relative, the thylacine, because the last one, after being captured in the rainforested Florentine Valley, amid the myrtle, celery-top pine, sassafras, and leatherwood, was left to die of neglect in 1936, in a Hobart zoo.

As the thylacine was already showing signs of distress, the Tasmanian authorities, who’d previously cared little for the marsupial, quickly did things that looked like action, and awarded the species official protection. Two months later the animal was dead.

And that was that. Not another thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, as it was colloquially known, has ever been found.

Not that that stops the speculation that thylacines still live and breathe among us. There are frequent sightings, reports, photographs, and videos, but none that are definitive in conclusion, and most are probably mangy dogs.

That can also be said about other extinct animals, of course, like the Siberian mammoth, with their large white curved tusks and dark chestnut fur, which have been seen roaming the tundra, and are the subject of Jurassic Parkesque DNA cloning rumors, or the passenger pigeon, the last of which was said to have died in Cincinnati, in 1914, but continued to be spotted well afterwards.

There’s the Yangtze dolphin, extinct in 2006, seen again in 2007, but only once, or the ivory-billed woodpecker, declared extinct in the 1920s and possibly recorded as late as 2005 by a team from Cornell University. Or, the Mexican grizzly bear, gone by 1964, but still said to exist in the wilds of Mexico to this very day, and the actively-sensible government, which we all live in hope of seeing again soon.

And then there’s David Ingram, who decided to walk across North America in 1568, after being dropped off at the Gulf of Mexico by a battle-damaged ship, hoping to follow the coast north to have some tea at every English community along the way. After an awful lot of that walking, he arrived in Cape Breton, Canada, and became the first European to cross the continent without even trying.

While the walk itself is fascinating, what Ingram says he saw on the stroll is even more amazing.

He talked of kingdoms and cities, of course, like Balma, Ochala, Bega, and Gunda, and of just and thoughtful leaders who ruled over a vast wealth of natural resources, like copper, silver, gold, and rubies. He described the people he interacted with on his journey, and how they lived their day-to-day lives, and of ancient religious ceremonies, with devilish costumes and crazy dancers with glowing orange faces.

And he also described huge beasts with tusks, that were “natural enimyes to the horse”, and were what he called ‘Eliphantes’.

Now, one might easily greet Ingram’s account with the same initial enthusiasm that Marco Polo’s jaunts around his living room, or Herman Melville’s whale hunts in his bathtub, or a written constitution that granted freedom, equality and democracy for all, garnered. But as Ingram went on to describe other animals perfectly, like the bison and the great auk, for example, and had never seen an elephant before, nor had any reason to know where they lived or didn’t live, it's a compelling, though unimaginable, bit of reportage.

And yet there are species that come back from extinction, it seems, like the New Guinea singing dog, extinct in the wild for over fifty years, and now back from the dead.

The dog doesn’t actually sing, any more than I do, but yodels, a bit like a whale. You can see and hear them in captivity, but until 2016 they were thought to have yodeled their last in the wild.

Like the community of Kiwirrkurra, these recently-discovered subjects live incredibly remotely, near the Grasberg mines in the highlands of New Guinea, in Indonesia, where a protected ecosystem activated a natural sanctuary for them to thrive in. DNA comparisons just a few years ago confirm they are true descendants of the singing dogs, and can still harmonize with the best of them.

Taking around sixty-six million years less to rediscover than the coelacanth, the singing dog is quite distinct from other canines and allows us a clear window into the lives of archaic canines. And having been rediscovered, the prize for survival goes to the dogs, who won’t require any DNA cloning to bring them back from the edge of the abyss.

Other species aren't so plucky.

Like the long-lost thylacine, or the mighty missing mammoth, or the poor passenger pigeon, or the most endangered of them all, the politician that actually gives a scat.

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