Presence of absence, absence of presence, and extinction narratives

In Nature, Temporality and Environmental Management: Scandinavian and Australian Perspectives on Peoples and Landscapes, ed. Lesley Head, Katarina Saltzman, Gunhild Setten, and Marie Stensek, 45-58. Routledge, 2016.

Abstract: This chapter addresses where two issues – the problem of not seeing at a certain time and the idea of a static nature over time – converge in two historical searches for the last: the European beaver (Castor fiber) in Sweden at the end of the nineteenth century and the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) of Tasmania in the twentieth. I explore how the presence of an absence (no known animals) became understood over time as an absence of presence (extinction) through narrative.  Swedish beavers and Tasmanian thylacines had both become rare and then finally unseen, which led some people to claim their extinction. Others, however, claimed that the animals had survived, that they continued to exist in the wild fringes beyond civilization. Significantly these searches appear on the fringes of the modern developed world: the northern forests of the northern nation of Sweden and the island of Tasmania off the southeastern coast of Australia. Contentious conclusions resulted from the uncertainty of knowledge and management of the unknown. Consensus on the extinction of the beaver was more easily reached than the thylacine, but in both cases, extinction narratives became fixed and paved the way for efforts to reverse the extinctions. These histories reveal how extinction narratives are built on the acceptance of presence of absence as a sign for absence of presence.

Read the text only version of the chapter (free).  Preview and buy the book (including Kindle edition) here.

A media version of part of this article appeared as “The Tasmanian tiger went extinct 80 years ago today. But that took decades to figure out.” Washington Post, 7 September 2016.

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