Not-so-Tas­ma­nian tiger

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE NATION REVIEWED - AN­THONY HAM

It is rare that we can date, with pre­ci­sion, the mo­ment when a species passes into obliv­ion. The last known thy­lacine died in Beau­maris Zoo, Ho­bart, on 7 Septem­ber 1936. There was no fan­fare, no mark­ing of the fi­nal dis­ap­pear­ance of the largest car­niv­o­rous mar­su­pial known to the mod­ern era. The thy­lacine, which had been trapped and taken to the zoo three years ear­lier, was locked out of its sleep­ing quar­ters and quickly suc­cumbed to a com­bi­na­tion of ne­glect and ex­treme weather. It was an in­glo­ri­ous end for a species lit­tle loved dur­ing its life­time.

Al­ready rare when white set­tlers ar­rived in Tas­ma­nia, thy­lacines were driven to the brink in very short or­der by farm­ers and pas­toral­ists, who hunted them as ver­min. With tragi-com­i­cal tar­di­ness, the Tas­ma­nian gov­ern­ment granted the thy­lacine of­fi­cial pro­tec­tion on 10 July 1936, a mere 59 days be­fore the last known thy­lacine died.

Since 1936, there has not been a sin­gle con­firmed sight­ing and it’s dif­fi­cult to find a sci­en­tist who be­lieves that thy­lacines are still out there.

Case closed? Well, not quite.

In 1983, Brian Hobbs, a Cairns tour op­er­a­tor, was camp­ing by a dry creek bed up on the Cape York Penin­sula with his dog, Simba. At dusk, he saw four dog-like an­i­mals rest­ing un­der a tree, per­haps 120 me­tres away. Later, not long be­fore mid­night, Simba be­gan to growl. Hobbs woke. “And there they were, only 15 me­tres away. I slowly walked to­wards them with the torch. Their eyes shone red. There was one that looked like the male, the big­ger one, about the size of my Ger­man shep­herd, then two smaller ones, and

the other one. I could see the light-tan­nish colour. I could see the stripes, be­cause they turned and slowly walked away from me, look­ing back at me the whole time. They all had stripes. I fol­lowed them for maybe 40 or 50 me­tres. Then I walked back and lit the fire, had a few cof­fees and talked to the dog and said, ‘What have we just seen?’”

But Hobbs, a bush vet­eran, knew what he had seen. Two, per­haps three hours later, it all hap­pened again. “And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, look at this. Oh no, that can’t be. That can’t be …’”

De­spite be­ing known as the Tas­ma­nian tiger, the thy­lacine was in fact a mar­su­pial, and looked more like a dog than any mem­ber of the fe­line fam­ily. Nor was the thy­lacine ever solely Tas­ma­nian – that Hobbs saw what he saw in Cape York was not, it seems, that un­usual. He had in fact pre­vi­ously heard sto­ries of a crea­ture that the Indige­nous peo­ple of Cape York called “the moon­light tiger”.

The thy­lacine prob­a­bly dis­ap­peared from main­land Aus­tralia around 3100 years ago with the ar­rival of the dingo. Prior to that, it was wide­spread and ap­pears in Indige­nous rock art in the Kim­ber­ley, Kakadu and else­where. Of the many un­con­firmed thy­lacine sight­ings since the early 20th cen­tury, nearly 4000 have come from the main­land, in­clud­ing one from Aus­tralian au­thor Ion Idriess, who wrote per­sua­sively of see­ing a “tiger cat” in 1922 while ex­plor­ing Cape York.

Hobbs kept his coun­sel for more than three decades, telling only a hand­ful of trusted friends. He even re­mained silent when he met David At­ten­bor­ough and a de­scen­dant of Charles Dar­win. “There’s been so many peo­ple who say they’ve seen this and they’ve seen that, and peo­ple say, ‘You’re crazy,’ ‘You’re mad,’ ‘This guy doesn’t know what he’s talkin’ about.’ So I just shut up.” He was also con­cerned that those he calls “cow­boys” would have gone to look for the thy­lacine. No, best to keep it safe along with his se­cret.

But Hobbs, now 69, wasn’t go­ing to die won­der­ing. Ear­lier this year, he heard two ex­perts on ABC ra­dio dis­cussing the cloning of a thy­lacine.

“And I thought, Hold on a minute. Why should we clone these an­i­mals when I reckon I’ve seen some? It’s gotta be there. It’s there. I’ve seen it.”

Around the time that Hobbs be­lieves he spot­ted a thy­lacine on Cape York, a lo­cal ranger named Pat Shears made sim­i­lar re­ports, and lo­cal Indige­nous peo­ple sup­ported his claim. Amid the blurred im­ages and un­re­li­able sight­ings that have char­ac­terised the post-ex­tinc­tion thy­lacine story (“It is re­mark­able, shall we say, that ev­ery sin­gle photo of a sus­pected thy­lacine is al­ways blurry,” says Dr Euan Ritchie, se­nior lec­turer in ecol­ogy at Deakin Univer­sity in Mel­bourne) the re­ports by Hobbs and Shears stood out as cred­i­ble. They came to the at­ten­tion of Dr Bill Lau­rance, a lead­ing ex­pert on the ecol­ogy of north­ern Aus­tralia.

Lau­rance, who is a di­rec­tor of two re­search cen­tres, a mem­ber of the Aus­tralian Acad­emy of Sci­ence and a lau­re­ate fel­low of the Aus­tralian Re­search Coun­cil, is an un­likely can­di­date for a role in a mod­ern-day thy­lacine quest. “I al­ready have a very healthy sci­en­tific rep­u­ta­tion. I don’t need to have an as­ter­isk at­tached to my name that says, ‘Slightly un­hinged, led thy­lacine sur­vey, dis­credit ev­ery­thing else he’s done in his ca­reer.’”

But when Lau­rance in­ter­viewed both Hobbs and Shears at length, he was left scratch­ing his head. “If you took what they saw at face value, it couldn’t be a feral pig, it couldn’t be a wild dog, it couldn’t be a dingo, it couldn’t be a fox, it couldn’t be a swamp wal­laby. If you started go­ing through all the things it couldn’t be, there wasn’t much else.”

And so it was that prepa­ra­tions be­gan for an ex­pe­di­tion, part of a wider sur­vey of this lit­tle-known re­gion, in which Lau­rance and his team will de­ploy cam­era traps, scent baits, spot­lights and hair traps in a bid to gather thy­lacine DNA.

Lau­rance still con­sid­ers the chances of find­ing a thy­lacine to be “van­ish­ingly small”. “You’d bet­ter tell this like The Blair Witch Project, be­cause you’re prob­a­bly not go­ing to see the witch.”

And yet “the re­ports were of such a na­ture that it would al­most have been ir­re­spon­si­ble not to at least take a bit of a punt and try”. But even as Lau­rance tries to tamp down ex­pec­ta­tions, he ac­knowl­edges that were they to find a thy­lacine, “it would be like the night par­rot on steroids. It would stop the Earth spin­ning.”

The re­dis­cov­ery of a species is not with­out prece­dent. The Ber­muda pe­trel, an At­lantic seabird, was be­lieved ex­tinct for more than 300 years un­til 18 nest­ing pairs were dis­cov­ered in 1951. In Aus­tralia, the night par­rot was re­cently re­dis­cov­ered af­ter nearly a cen­tury’s ab­sence, while the Lead­beater’s pos­sum was thought to be ex­tinct in 1909, and then re­dis­cov­ered in 1961.

More re­al­is­ti­cally, thy­lacine or no thy­lacine, Lau­rance sees the search as a rare op­por­tu­nity. “This is push­ing us into some re­ally re­mote ar­eas that have been very poorly ex­plored. There needs to be a much broader story told about the very mys­te­ri­ous, large-scale, ge­o­graph­i­cally wide­spread mam­mal de­clines that have oc­curred across the Top End of Aus­tralia.”

Dr Ritchie agrees. “Yes, thy­lacines prob­a­bly won’t be found. But dis­cov­ery and ex­plo­ration are still re­ally im­por­tant when you con­sider that we still don’t know most of the species on this planet. It’s like own­ing a home, not know­ing the con­tents and try­ing to in­sure it. And your house is on fire at the same time.”

“We don’t know ev­ery­thing,” Lau­rance ad­mits. “But in a world where we’re dwelling on ex­tinc­tion all the time, it would be hope­ful. I like to live with a lit­tle bit of won­der.”

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