For a stitch in time

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The idea of individual species becoming extinct is quite familiar. It is, however, a poor reflection of our stewardship of the planet. Next to causing its extinction, the greatest crime that we could commit is to declare a species extinct, or pretend it is extinct, while it is on the verge of extinction.

The story of the marsupial carnivore, thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), is one such affair. The problem for the species began in 1830 when it was declared a habitual sheep killer by the Australian government and introduced to the bounty-hunting category in 1888. Hundreds of thylacines were killed each year, mostly during the late 1800s.

In 1912, bounty hunting had to be discontinued for want of animals. The last recorded wild thylacine was shot dead in 1930 and it was in 1938 that the species was declared extinct, after the last animal died in captivity.

The Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service was slow in responding. There were more than 300 reported sightings of the animal between 1936 and early 1980s but it was not until 1982 that the npwsa thought it worthwhile to put money and people on the job of locating the thylacine.

The Australian government spent a large amount of money but no conclusive evidence of the existence of the species could be found. It was concluded to be more extinct than ever before. This is the price the Australians had to pay for ignoring a species when it was on the verge of extinction. If serious action had been taken on the reports and acted upon, thylacines would have been very much around today,

1930-1940 was perhaps the most critical period for the thylacine, when hunting and habitat loss pushed its population to extinction levels. The sad history of thylacine is beautifully summarised by David Quammen in The Song of the Dodo and Eric Guiler, in Thylacine: The Tragedy of the Tasmanian Tiger (1985).

By ignoring history, we often allow it to repeat itself. In India, the Malabar civet (Viverra civettina) is following the same path to extinction. Unlike the thylacine, the Malabar civet never attracted much scientific romance. There are no confirmed sightings of the animal in the wild and no ideas about its tracks and signs. Some early naturalists like T C Jerdon thought it was common along the Malabar coast, while others like A F Hutton said it was common in the hills.

The last known civet ever to be kept in a zoo died in 1929. With no sightings reported for many decades, the World Conservation Union (iucn) Red Data Book (1978) listed it as