Constellation Spirit, Vicious Vermin, and Icon of Environmental Guilt: Affective Entanglements of the Thylacine in Tasmania and India

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This piece by Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya is the eleventh post in the Emotional Ecologies series edited by Sarah York-Bertram and Jessica DeWitt. In this series, contributors were asked to reflect on what role emotion plays in connecting humans to their environment and more-than-human beings.

A Dreamtime Story of Mutual Care: the Corinna, Gods, and Humans

A Dreamtime story from the Nuenonne First Nation of Bruny Island off the Southeast Coast of Tasmania (lutruwita) narrates how one day a young pup, the ancestor of the “Tasmanian tiger” (thylacine), rescued the boy-god Palana, the son of the great god Moinee, from Tarna, a giant kangaroo. Wounded and exhausted in the battle with Tarna, both Palana and the young pup were nurtured by humans, the Indigenous peoples of lutruwita. Once revived, Palana marked the pup with healing stripes made from his blood and spiritual power mixed with campfire ash. It is believed that this transformed the pup into corinna, an Indigenous word for the thylacine, and aligns him with the great constellation spirit Wurrawana-Corinna.1

This Nuenonne Dreamtime story is grounded in a cosmology of mutual care, healing, and “Maussian exchange.”2 The young pup rescues Palana, the boy-god; the people revive both Palana and the pup by providing care; Palana bestows spiritual power on the pup and transforms him into Corinna and aligned him with the great spirit Wurrawana-Corinna. The people got their gift too. Now they had an earthly kin aligned with the great constellation spirit, the corinna, to co-habit the landscape of lutruwita.

An illustration of thylacines carried by The Mercury on 8 June, 1937. Heading reads "Rapidly Becoming Extinct."
An illustration of thylacines carried by The Mercury on 8 June, 1937.

Circulation of Settler Emotions Across Colonies

When lutruwita—Tasmania, also known as Van Dieman’s Land—was opened for British colonization in 1803, a medley of settlers—from ex-convicts to fortune-seekers to species hunters—made it to the island in the course of a few years. Travel guides and memoirs published at the time soon dubbed Tasmania the “sanatorium of India,” drawing many British colonists to the island who hoped to recuperate their health debilitated by prolonged stay in the tropics. More significantly, it wasn’t only materials and bodies that circulated between the colonies. But also ideas, impressions, and experiences gained in one colony made their way to the other.

The pre-white settlement cosmology embedded in an ethics of care that tied the thylacine, gods, and humans to the land as encapsulated in the Nuenonne Dreamtime story, was soon disrupted.

The pre-white settlement cosmology embedded in an ethics of care that tied the thylacine, gods, and humans to the land as encapsulated in the Nuenonne Dreamtime story, was soon disrupted.

As European settlers spread across the land, encounters with the thylacine took on different meanings for different subjects. Settler farmers identified the thylacine as a “blood sucking vampire” and a threat to livestock, especially sheep. For species collectors it was an extremely unique, mysterious, and valued species. And politicians and administrators termed the thylacine a pest requiring eradication, an impediment to the economic progress of the colony. For instance, politician John Lyne—a representative of the Tasmanian rural lobby—proclaimed, quite preposterously, that “30000 or 40000 sheep” were taken each year by the thylacine, “one of the greatest pests the colony had,” and proposed a government bounty for each thylacine eradicated.

By 1830, the Van Diemen’s Land Company was already offering a reward for the killing of “noxious animals,” a category under which it listed the “hyena” i.e. the thylacine. Likewise, Mercury reported in 1882 in a piece headlined “Tiger Extermination” that landowners declared “a reward of £5 to be paid for each full-grown tiger caught in the district, and £2 10s, for all cubs equal in size to a full-grown domestic cat.” As a result, the animal that had an approximate population of 5000 before white settlement in Tasmania, was extirpated by 1936.

Comparison between the thylacine and the Indian tiger abounded in settler discourses that constructed the thylacine as a vicious vermin. This was in spite of the fact that the thylacine and the Indian tiger were two entirely different species, morphologically and ecologically. While the former was a relatively smaller marsupial endemic to Tasmania, the latter is an apex predator in the Indian subcontinental ecosystem. Yet early settlers in Tasmania, many of whom had first landed on or had connections in British India carried the idea of the tiger as a ferocious predator based on the colonial encounters with the Indian tiger, and immediately associated these emotions with the thylacine—hence the term “Tasmanian tiger.” Thus emotions vis-à-vis the tiger as a vermin were transposed and projected from the Indian tiger to the thylacine, contributing to the latter’s extinction.

Emotions vis-à-vis the tiger as a vermin were transposed and projected from the Indian tiger to the thylacine, contributing to the latter’s extinction.

In The Last Tasmanian Tiger: The History and Extinction of the Thylacine (2000), Robert Paddle demonstrates that these representations of the thylacine’s “nature” were based on faulty understanding of the animal perpetuated by myopic colonial science that privileged imperial economic interests above all.3 Moreover, species collection, an act of accumulation associated with colonial science, directly contributed to the depletion of the thylacine.

A Species Collector and Two Administrators

The stories and works of three individuals—a species collector and two colonial administrators—reflect the circulation of the emotions vis-à-vis “the tiger” between the British colonies of India and Tasmania.

One of the major thylacine traders in Tasmania was James Harrison. Known as the “West Coast naturalist,” Harrison purchased and sold about twenty-five live animals and twenty dead specimens of thylacine. He was born in the Nowgong district of Assam in northeast India to a family of speculators en route from England.

#NotesThe Harrison family arrived in Tasmania in 1873, when James Harrison was around 11-13 years old.4 Harrison was the third child among eight born to Thomas Harrison and Ann Collins. According to Ros Atkinson, the great grandson of James Harrison, the Harrison family went to Assam as speculators and Thomas Harrison also briefly worked as a missionary there.

Top Left: Land order warrant issued to the Harrison family on 9 September 1873 granting 117 acres in Tasmania. (Public domain. Open-access and downloadable from Tasmanian State Archives); Bottom Left: Headstone of the graves of James Harrison and Sarah Eliza, Harrison’s wife, in the Wynyard Old (Austin Street) Cemetery in Tasmania. (Public domain. Open-access and publicly downloadable database of Billiongraves. Photographer not named); Right: In this report on Tasmanian wildlife on 17 March, 1934,  The Advocate quotes James Harrison, “the West Coast naturalist.” (Public domain. Open-access and downloadable on Trove)

It is noteworthy that James Harrison spent his childhood in a region in India that was known for its wilderness and teeming wildlife. Game hunting in the wilderness was the most common pursuit among the Europeans in Assam, and encounters with the apex predator, the tiger, was very common. Moreover, the period saw a spike in the visit of professional hunters and species collectors to the region as vast wilderness was being stripped off to make way for tea plantations. Some evidence suggests that James Harrison’s fascination for tigers, and wildlife in general, developed in the wilds of Assam.5 Later in Tasmania he would end up becoming well-known as the foremost authority on local wildlife including, famously, on the thylacine, according to Tasmanian newspaper articles of the time.6

Two colonial officials with connections to India and Tasmania might as well have played a role in the circulation of ideas, between the two colonies, about the tiger as a pest needing eradication: both the Tasmanian tiger and the Indian tiger. William Thomas Dennison, who served as governors of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) and Madras in India, described in Varieties of Vice Regal Life (1870) the tiger hunts he had organized in India. Dennison’s book reinforced the idea that the tiger is a pest, an impediment to human progress, which echoed his policies towards the thylacine during his stint as the governor of Tasmania (1847-1854).

Considering the tiger as a vermin, Sainthill Eardley Wilmot saw the beast’s extirpation as a prerequisite for progress because the species was a threat to livestock and human.

Likewise, Sainthill Eardley Wilmot—the grandson of Sir John Eardley Wilmot, the lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land from 1843 to 1846—served as a forestry officer in British India. Sainthill was born in Hobart in 1852 and spent his early life there. In My Home In Tasmania (1852), Louisa Ann Meredith mentions the presence of an “untamed” wild thylacine in Sainthill’s grandfather Sir John Eardley Wilmot’s private menagerie in Hobart. Later Sainthill Eardley Wilmot would take a particularly hostile attitude towards the tiger and other big cat species while working as the Inspector General of Forests in British India. Considering the tiger as a vermin, he saw the beast’s extirpation as a prerequisite for progress because the species was a threat to livestock and human. He also wrote an it-narrative about the Indian tiger, The Life of a Tiger (1911), that predicted the tiger’s impending extinction. On multiple occasions, he has alluded to the thylacine “wreaking havoc” on flocks of sheep in Tasmania. One notes an implicit comparison between the two species. It would be interesting to see how far his idea of the “unruly” Tasmanian tiger, widespread in the Tasmania he grew up in, transferred into his understanding of the Indian tiger and vice-versa.

Thylacine in India: Affective Afterlife

The material circulation of the living thylacine in India is little known apart from an exhibition of two live members of the species at Madras Zoo in 1886, fifty years before the species was declared extinct. The narrative circulation of the animal, however, has been relatively plentiful.

The thylacine occurs in contemporary conservation discourses of India as a point of reference to anthropogenic species extinction, especially in relation to big cat conservation programs like Project Tiger and Cheetah Reintroduction Program. In these discourses, the thylacine works as an icon propelling a rhetoric of species endangerment invoking human guilt as well as ethical questions surrounding species reintroduction and “de-extinction” programs. For instance, an article that appeared in Mint Lounge, a reputed Indian newspaper, on 16 September 2022 alludes to the Tasmanian tiger as an icon of environmental grief and guilt for anthropogenic species extinction while discussing the implications of India’s ongoing Cheetah Reintroduction Programme.7

The Tasmanian tiger has become “an icon of environmental grief and guilt for anthropogenic species extinction.”

Intriguingly, marginalized communities affected by top-down and militarized conservation practices in India have also appropriated this rhetoric of species endangerment to articulate their protests. “Which species do you think is going to be the next Tasmanian tiger?” a Yobin tribal leader in northeast India’s Namdapha National Park asked when I interviewed him a few years ago, himself answering.

“It’s not the tiger, it’s the forest-dwelling Indigenous communities like us, the Yobin.”8

Feature Image: “Thylacine – Tasmanian Tiger” by cenz is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.


1 This Dreamtime story is recounted by Leigh Maynard, an Indigenous educator whose parents came from Cape Barren Island off the northeast coast of Tasmania and are descendants of the Trawoolway women, stolen from their country to be sealers. The story can be assessed here:

2 Mauss, Marcel. 1990 (1922). The Gift: forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. London: Routledge.

3 Paddle, Robert. 2000. The Last Tasmanian Tiger: The History and Extinction of the Thylacine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

4 Land order warrant records in Tasmanian archives show that James Harrison was eleven years old on the date of the issue of a land order to the Harrison family on 9 September 1873. Ros Atkinson, the great grandson of James Harrison in Tasmania, says that family records attribute his great grandfather’s date of birth to 25 March 1860, which would make Harrison a thirteen-year-old—and not eleven as mentioned in the land warrant records—at the time of his arrival on Tasmania in 1873.

5 Personal communication with Ros Atkinson.

6 “Specimen for the zoo”, The Advocate of the 17th March, 1934, see

7 The article can be accessed here:

8 I interviewed the Yobin tribal leader in 2019. For the top-down militarized conservation practices impacting Indigenous lifeworlds in India see

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Bikash Kumar Bhattacharya

Bikash K. Bhattacharya is an incoming graduate student of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include more-than-human entanglements, Indigenous cosmologies, translation and circulation of western forms and ideas in Indigenous lifeworlds, and anthropology of religion. His works have appeared in Journal of Global Indigeneity, Border Criminologies, The World of the Orient, YES! Magazine, and Borderless Journal among others.

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