An end­less quest

The Tas­ma­nian tiger is of­fi­cially ex­tinct. Yet as bi­ol­o­gists in­ves­ti­gate plau­si­ble sight­ings in Queens­land, it’s clear the search never stopped.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY PETER MERED­ITH

At about nine o’clock on a 1993 spring night, a truck was trav­el­ling east­wards along the Lyell High­way through the Tas­ma­nian Wilder­ness World Her­itage Area. Half a kilo­me­tre past the Franklin River bridge, the driver* ne­go­ti­ated a bend and then a rise. At the top of the rise, his head­lights lit up the dead-straight road­way as bright as day.

That’s when he saw it. As he re­ported the next day, a dog-like an­i­mal was cross­ing the road about 100m ahead. Com­ing closer and slow­ing down, he no­ticed dark ver­ti­cal stripes on its brown body. In the driver’s mind there was no doubt: it was a Tas­ma­nian tiger, a thy­lacine. But was this pos­si­ble? The species – the world’s largest mar­su­pial car­ni­vore of re­cent times – was of­fi­cially ex­tinct. Be­fore the truck reached it, the an­i­mal turned back to the road­side. The whole sight­ing lasted per­haps six sec­onds. Fast-for­ward to 2016. I’m stand­ing where, ac­cord­ing to the truck driver, the an­i­mal left the road. Be­hind me is dense bush; in front, on the other side of the road, is a sweep of but­ton grass plain called Wom­bat Glen. Be­side me is Nick Mooney - lean, griz­zled, ebul­lient and elo­quent. Nick was a wildlife of­fi­cer for the Tas­ma­nian Parks and Wildlife Ser­vice un­til 2009 and is now an in­de­pen­dent wildlife bi­ol­o­gist. He has in­ves­ti­gated thy­lacine sight­ings

for 35 years and is an ac­knowl­edged au­thor­ity on the species.The truck driver’s sight­ing was one of his cases.

“He was a nor­mal truckie with­out the slight­est vested in­ter­est in faking it,” Nick says.“He was to­tally con­vinced about what he saw and thought we should know.”

Af­ter vis­it­ing the site with the driver, Nick re­turned with a dog, with which he re­traced the mys­tery an­i­mal’s steps to cal­cu­late how long it was in the truckie’s sight.

“His re­ported tim­ing al­most ex­actly matched what I worked out with the dog. That shows he was a good ob­server and hadn’t ex­ag­ger­ated,” Nick ex­plains.

The sight­ing fol­lowed a fa­mil­iar pat­tern. Most sight­ings hap­pen at night and on roads, be­cause roads at­tract an­i­mals and th­ese days there are more peo­ple on roads than in the bush. They usu­ally hap­pen as a ve­hi­cle rounds a cor­ner, catch­ing an an­i­mal by sur­prise. Many re­ports are un­con­vinc­ing, but a few give the ex­perts pause. In March, bi­ol­o­gists from James Cook Univer­sity an­nounced a new study to in­ves­ti­gate two plau­si­ble sight­ings in CapeYork, rais­ing the tan­ta­lis­ing pos­si­bil­ity that a thy­lacine pop­u­la­tion sur­vives on the main­land.

The Franklin River area pro­duced sev­eral re­ports in about 1990, Nick says. “There were four or five on this stretch of road. There was a truckie, a tourist, a guy on a mo­tor­bike early in the morn­ing… They didn’t know each other, which adds cred­i­bil­ity. One can be sen­si­bly scep­ti­cal but I’m al­ways re­luc­tant to dis­miss any half-de­cent re­port.”

* LIKE MANY PEO­PLE WHO RE­PORT SIGHT­INGS TO AU­THOR­I­TIES, THIS WIT­NESS WANTED TO RE­MAIN ANONY­MOUS.

THE EX­TINC­TION OF the thy­lacine was the tragic cli­max of a clash be­tween Tas­ma­nia’s Euro­pean colonists and an ecosys­tem they se­ri­ously mis­un­der­stood. Con­ven­tional wis­dom has it that by 1803, when the first set­tlers ar­rived on the is­land, thy­lacines had al­ready been ex­tinct on the Aus­tralian main­land for some 2000 years. Nick Mooney es­ti­mates there were about 2100 on the is­land, and colonists didn’t come into con­tact with them un­til 1805, when a pack of dogs killed one.

From then on this so-called Tas­ma­nian wolf or hyena in­stilled an ir­ra­tional fear in res­i­dents, mostly aris­ing from their to­tal ig­no­rance of the an­i­mal. They saw it as a mor­tal dan­ger both to live­stock – mainly sheep – and them­selves. So they be­gan sav­agely evict­ing it from its an­cient habi­tat – shoot­ing, snar­ing, poi­son­ing and trap­ping it.

By 1909 thy­lacines were scarce, the slaugh­ter hav­ing been has­tened by a gov­ern­ment bounty scheme that paid out on 2184 car­casses. The last to be killed in the wild was shot in 1930 by farmer Wilf Batty. The last one caught in the wild was sold to Ho­bart Zoo in 1933. It died there on 7 Septem­ber 1936 and was thought to have been the last of its kind. In 1982 the In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Nature de­clared the thy­lacine ex­tinct and in 1986 the Tas­ma­nian gov­ern­ment fol­lowed suit.

But that’s not the last chap­ter in this sorry saga. Nick Mooney says it’s “en­tirely pos­si­ble” 100 or more thy­lacines may have sur­vived in the wild af­ter 1936. A 2016 study pub­lished in Aus­tralian Zo­ol­o­gist con­cludes that some may have been around through the 1940s and per­haps later. Since then sight­ing re­ports have con­tin­ued – more than 900 since 1936 in Tas­ma­nia and re­put­edly a sim­i­lar num­ber from the main­land. In­ter­est­ingly, most main­land re­ports are from the south-east and far south-west.

Peo­ple who re­port sight­ings come from all walks of life and many have lit­tle prior knowl­edge of the crea­ture they say they’ve seen. Few seem to have an ul­te­rior motive for mak­ing a false re­port, such as a de­sire for fame, money or to per­pe­trate a suc­cess­ful hoax. They gen­uinely be­lieve they saw a Tas­ma­nian tiger.

Aside from th­ese many one-off wit­nesses, there are a num­ber of ded­i­cated tiger-seek­ers, both in Tas­ma­nia and on the main­land, who spend a lot of money and time search­ing for what has be­come one of the world’s leg­endary crea­tures. A pro­por­tion of th­ese can be said to be ‘true believ­ers’ who have ab­so­lutely no doubt the tiger is alive. Some say they have seen it; oth­ers be­lieve they have been close, ei­ther be­cause they have smelt its pun­gent scent or heard its un­usual calls. All hope that in­con­tro­vert­ible proof of the tiger’s con­tin­ued ex­is­tence will one day sur­face. And the best proof would be a live an­i­mal.

The doyen of the true believ­ers is Col Bai­ley, a re­tired land­scape gar­dener, life-long bush­walker and ca­noeist and au­thor of three books about the thy­lacine. His most re­cent, Lure of the Thy­lacine, was pub­lished in 2016. Col is al­most 80. When I meet him in Ho­bart at the Tas­ma­nian Mu­seum and Art Gallery (TMAG), site of one of the world’s largest thy­lacine col­lec­tions, he says that af­ter 50 years of search­ing for the tiger, it’s time to hang up his bush­walk­ing boots. But he’s not short of en­ergy for talk­ing.

He re­counts that, in 1967, at the age of 30, he was ca­noe­ing on South Aus­tralia’s Coorong wet­lands sys­tem when he spot­ted a dog-like an­i­mal on a beach 200m away. It had a heavy head, low-slung body and long tail that seemed to drag on the sand. “I thought, what is that thing?” he re­calls. “To this day I’m not sure what it was. But it got me in­ter­ested enough to in­quire about it.”

Col’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion pointed to the thy­lacine and he’s been re­search­ing and seek­ing it in Tas­ma­nia ever since. Sto­ries of old-timers who were ac­quainted with the tiger pro­vide ma­te­rial for his books. So do his own bush ex­pe­ri­ences, in­clud­ing a claimed sight­ing in 1995 while he was camp­ing in re­mote south-western Tas­ma­nia.

It hap­pened one morn­ing while he was hav­ing “a quiet snoop around” af­ter hear­ing strange calls. At one point he saw what looked like a feral dog, but then he fol­lowed it and got a bet­ter view. “I at­tracted its at­ten­tion and it turned to look at me,” he says. “My eyes ran down its back and I saw those stripes near its tail. I knew then what it was.”

Col has been on a half-cen­tury quest to prove the thy­lacine ex­ists. So far, like ev­ery other searcher, he’s failed to come up with wa­ter­tight ev­i­dence. But he’s un­fazed. “I can’t prove it ex­ists and the scep­tics can’t prove it doesn’t ex­ist,” he says. “It’s def­i­nitely still there. I know.” And that’s enough for him.

Proof and its ab­sence are a re­cur­ring theme in an 80-page book, Mag­nif­i­cent Sur­vivor – Con­tin­ued Ex­is­tence of the Tas­ma­nian Tiger, orig­i­nally pub­lished in 2004 and avail­able free of charge on­line. Its au­thor is ‘Tiger­man’, a Tas­ma­nia-based thy­lacine re­searcher who in­sists on

He be­lieves that about 200 Tas­ma­nian tigers ex­ist in three sep­a­rate groups on the is­land.

anonymity. He de­scribes him­self as a gree­nie, an ego­tist and a dreamer.

As the book’s ti­tle pro­claims, it is an undis­guised at­tempt to prove that the thy­lacine sur­vives. It’s based on re­search the au­thor says he car­ried out over six years.

In the ab­sence of ab­so­lute proof that the thy­lacine ex­ists to­day, Tiger­man har­nesses ‘sub-proof’ – such as foot­prints, tail drag marks, cave lairs, scats and prey car­casses – to make his case. He be­lieves about 200 Tas­ma­nian tigers ex­ist in three sep­a­rate groups on the is­land, 100 in the south-west, 70 in the north-west and 30 in the north-east.

“It is al­most ex­tinct, but not quite. I know that be­cause I have seen two,” he writes. But, he adds, “so­ci­ety will not pro­tect an an­i­mal it thinks is ex­tinct. If the Tas­ma­nian tiger is to sur­vive, some­one must prove it ex­ists…”

In the Blue Moun­tains of NSW I visit the book-crammed home of Mike Wil­liams, a fast-talk­ing bun­dle of in­fec­tious ex­u­ber­ance. Though a main­lan­der, he’s been search­ing for thy­lacines in Tas­ma­nia since the early 2000s. His in­ter­est was orig­i­nally an off­shoot of his fas­ci­na­tion with so-called cryp­tids, crea­tures that cryp­to­zo­ol­o­gists be­lieve ex­ist but that have not been proved to do so. It’s a fas­ci­na­tion he shares with his part­ner, jour­nal­ist Re­becca Lang, with whom he pro­duced and pub­lished a book in 2010 about mys­te­ri­ous big cats re­port­edly roam­ing the Aus­tralian bush.

“While we were in­ves­ti­gat­ing big cats we started to get re­ports about thy­lacines,” Mike says. “We went to Tas­ma­nia and I spoke with Col Bai­ley ini­tially, then with oth­ers, and heard of some in­ter­est­ing and even bizarre sight­ings by re­ally good wit­nesses. Not all of them are de­luded or de­mented. That started me on my hunt for the tiger.”

Mike be­gan fol­low­ing up sight­ings. He has made nu­mer­ous trips to Tas­ma­nia, four of them for ma­jor ex­pe­di­tions. He has a fifth ex­pe­di­tion planned for 2017. “I will chase up more wit­ness re­ports and set up three to five cam­eras at dif­fer­ent sites and come back and check them later,” he says.

Al­though he doubts the thy­lacine sur­vives on the main­land, he’s sure it does in Tas­ma­nia and be­lieves that sooner or later a dash cam on a lo­cal’s car or a cam­era trap in the bush will con­firm this. “I am con­vinced it’s out there, oth­er­wise I wouldn’t waste my time,” he says.

In 2014 Mike and Re­becca pub­lished a book of es­says by dif­fer­ent au­thors en­ti­tled The Tas­ma­nian Tiger: Ex­tinct or Ex­tant?

THY­LACINE SIGHT­INGS HAVE been re­ported in all main­land states, but Vic­to­ria is a hotspot. One Vic­to­rian who’s con­trib­uted his fair share is Mur­ray McAl­lis­ter, a phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion teacher at a Mel­bourne se­condary school. In 1998 he was writ­ing a novel about some chil­dren try­ing to prove the tiger was alive. While re­search­ing his topic, he learnt there had been 54 thy­lacine sight­ing re­ports from Loch Sport, a small town­ship on the Gippsland Lakes.

“I de­cided to live the dream of the chil­dren in my novel,” Mur­ray tells me. “I was go­ing to prove to the world that those an­i­mals are still there af­ter decades of pre­sumed ex­tinc­tion.

“I de­cided to go down there. On my first visit I stayed three days and had my first sight­ing. So it was des­tiny. I thought if I kept go­ing there I’d even­tu­ally get what I was af­ter.”

Mur­ray says he’s seen the thy­lacine 20 times since then and al­most trapped it once. Even so, he feels his dream has only partly come true be­cause, de­spite leav­ing five top-of-the-range cam­eras in the bush for months, he hasn’t cap­tured a con­vinc­ing im­age of his quarry.

Mur­ray be­lieves the only an­swer is to catch one. “Then I’ll build a cage around it, take hun­dreds of pho­to­graphs and lots of video, get hair sam­ples and video my­self re­leas­ing it,” he says. “That’ll be the ev­i­dence I need.”

In Toolangi, about 35km north of the school where Mur­ray teaches, lives Bernie Mace, a for­mer in­dus­trial sci­en­tist with a life­time in­ter­est in nat­u­ral his­tory. While work­ing in Tas­ma­nia in 1966–69 he heard what he be­lieves are cred­i­ble re­ports of thy­lacine sight­ings.

“I’d gone there con­vinced the thy­lacine was ex­tinct,” Bernie says. “But those re­ports per­suaded me it might still be around. That was the be­gin­ning of my jour­ney.”

On re­turn­ing to Vic­to­ria, Bernie be­gan hear­ing re­ports of sight­ings in his home state, par­tic­u­larly in East Gippsland. Ever since, he has been fol­low­ing up the bet­ter re­ports in Vic­to­ria as well as other states in­clud­ing Tas­ma­nia. “I’ve been de­vel­op­ing long-range spot­lights and in­vest­ing in night-vi­sion gog­gles,” he says, “and I have half-a-dozen mo­tion-sen­sor cam­eras.”

He’s writ­ing a book about his 50 years of thy­lacine re­search and is re­luc­tant to re­veal too much be­fore pub­li­ca­tion. How­ever, he hints that it will con­tain key ev­i­dence about the thy­lacine’s sur­vival: “I’ve heard vo­cal­i­sa­tions over the years that con­vinced me some­thing un­usual was around.”

HOPE IS THE fuel that pow­ers all true believ­ers. But not only them. Among tiger-seek­ers there are some who are not sure if the an­i­mal sur­vives. They keep an open mind and are more likely to ques­tion ev­i­dence. Even so, they al­low them­selves to hope now and then. In­ter­est­ingly, so do many scep­tics.

Bill Flow­ers was a scep­tic once. A moun­tain of a man with a mea­sured man­ner of speak­ing and a tor­rent of grey­ing hair, Bill is a mem­ber of the Tas­ma­nia-based Thy­lacine Re­search Unit (TRU). The three-man group aims to ap­ply a sci­en­tific ap­proach to ev­i­dence and em­braces tech­nol­ogy such as night-vi­sion gear, trail cam­eras, lis­ten­ing de­vices and drones. It main­tains a web­site where the pub­lic can re­port sight­ings.

Bill is an artist, film­maker, her­petol­o­gist and wildlife carer with a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in Tas­ma­nian devils. The other TRU mem­bers are Chris Cou­p­land, a zo­ol­o­gist, con­ser­va­tion­ist and film­maker, and War­ren Dar­ragh, an IT pro­fes­sional and for­mer telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fi­cer with the Aus­tralian Army.

Bill says the trio started out by in­ves­ti­gat­ing and de­bunk­ing myths about the tiger. All were ini­tially scep­ti­cal about the an­i­mal’s sur­vival, but then Bill had a cou­ple of ex­pe­ri­ences that punc­tured his con­vic­tion. One was hear­ing a mys­te­ri­ous an­i­mal call in prime thy­lacine habi­tat while in­ves­ti­gat­ing a sight­ing re­port in 2015. The other was see­ing a plas­ter cast re­port­edly made in the 1980s of a young thy­lacine’s foot­print. In ap­pear­ance it matched al­most ex­actly a sketch he’d made of a thy­lacine foot in the TMAG.

If thy­lacines were still around in the 1980s, they could have sur­vived till the 21st cen­tury, Bill rea­sons. “That was earth-shat­ter­ing for me,” he says.

Not that he’s now a true be­liever. “I err on the side of prob­a­ble ex­tinc­tion. Most likely they’re ex­tinct, but there’s a chance they’re not.”

If thy­lacines were around in the 1980s, they could have sur­vived till the 21st cen­tury.

SO, ARE THEY un­ques­tion­ably ex­tinct? Or might a few be hold­ing out in re­mote bush­land some­where? Un­for­tu­nately, de­spite the hopes, dreams and prodi­gious ef­forts of a sur­pris­ing num­ber of peo­ple, there’s not a shred of con­clu­sive proof of this pos­si­bil­ity – no con­vinc­ing pho­to­graphs or video, no ver­i­fi­able foot­prints and no road­kills.

“Nowa­days fast roads go through just about all the high-qual­ity thy­lacine habi­tat and there are plenty of re­ported sight­ings, so we should have had a road­kill by now,” Nick Mooney says.

Kathryn Med­lock, se­nior cu­ra­tor of ver­te­brate zo­ol­ogy at TMAG in Ho­bart, agrees. Even though there are more peo­ple in Tas­ma­nia than ever and hun­dreds of re­mote cam­eras (up to 500 by some es­ti­mates) op­er­at­ing in the bush at any one time, none have come up with any con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence, she says.

“All the fauna peo­ple do their sur­veys us­ing re­mote cam­eras,” Kathryn ex­plains. “They’d be the first to say if they’d pho­tographed a thy­lacine. There are hun­dreds of thou­sands of road­kills ev­ery year but none of thy­lacines. There’s not even a manky skele­ton that’s been ly­ing be­side a road for 20 years.”

Tammy Gor­don, the col­lec­tion of­fi­cer at the Queen Vic­to­ria Mu­seum and Art Gallery in Launce­s­ton and co-au­thor of the book Tas­ma­nian Tiger: Pre­cious Lit­tle Re­mains, says no thy­lacine has been brought to the mu­seum in the past 80 years. “The mu­seum has a file of sight­ings dat­ing from the 1930s, but in the 30 years that I have been here I have not seen any­thing I would con­sider ev­i­dence.”

And yet the search goes on. Why? Are tiger-hunters de­lud­ing them­selves? Are the true believ­ers too starry-eyed to face the facts? What drives them?

Some searchers may have quite ba­sic mo­tives, such as a de­sire for fame, no­to­ri­ety or for­tune. Oth­ers say they love the bush and that look­ing for the thy­lacine gives them a good ex­cuse to be in it. But a num­ber raise more com­plex is­sues. “By search­ing for this an­i­mal I feel I’m hon- our­ing its ex­is­tence,” Mike Wil­liams says. “We treated it sav­agely, we did hor­rific things to it, but if we find it we’ll know we haven’t de­stroyed it and could say we hu­mans aren’t as bad as we thought we were. It would be a form of re­demp­tion.”

Eric Sch­warz, a se­nior wildlife man­age­ment of­fi­cer in Tas­ma­nia’s De­part­ment of Pri­mary In­dus­tries, Parks, Wa­ter and En­vi­ron­ment, agrees. “There’s def­i­nitely an el­e­ment of guilt in this,” he says. “I think peo­ple hope that a wrong will be righted by the knowl­edge that we didn’t ex­ter­mi­nate it. It’s al­most as if we’d be ex­on­er­ated.”

AF­TER 35 YEARS of thy­lacine work, Nick Mooney re­mains open-minded. “It could be out there, but it’s un­likely,” he says. “On Mon­days, Wed­nes­days and Fri­days I think it’s there, on other days it’s not. If some­body found one, I would be elated but not sur­prised. Per­haps we haven’t found it yet be­cause we are sim­ply much less good at find­ing very rare things than we think we are.”

Kathryn Med­lock would be over­joyed if one were found. But she’s not op­ti­mistic that gov­ern­ment bod­ies or the pub­lic would ever hear about it be­cause most tiger-searchers in­sist they’d tell no-one if they were suc­cess­ful. And that means the myth of the thy­lacine’s sur­vival will prob­a­bly never die and the hunt will go on for­ever.

In 1986 AG 3 car­ried an 18-page fea­ture about the Tas­ma­nian tiger writ­ten by Andy Park. In it he quoted Michael Archer, cur­rently a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of NSW School of Bi­o­log­i­cal, Earth and En­vi­ron­men­tal Sciences, and a for­mer di­rec­tor of the Aus­tralian Mu­seum, where he be­came in­volved in a plan to clone the thy­lacine. The be­lief that the species sur­vived, Michael told Andy, was “a stun­ning ex­am­ple of over-op­ti­mism”.

But 30 years on, Michael wrote the fore­word for Col Bai­ley’s lat­est book and in it he gen­er­ously praises Col for his ab­so­lute con­vic­tion that the tiger sur­vives. Then he adds, “With all my heart, I hope he is right.”

Thy­lacine searcher Mike Wil­liams ad­justs a trail cam­era on a 2015 Tas­ma­nia ex­pe­di­tion. Al­though a main­lan­der, he’s in­ves­ti­gated sight­ing re­ports on the is­land for al­most 20 years.

Sur­rounded by per­ti­nent mem­o­ra­bilia and relics, au­thor and thy­lacine ‘true be­liever’ Col Bai­ley is in his el­e­ment in the Tas­ma­nian Mu­seum and Art Gallery, Ho­bart.

This skull – pho­tographed from dif­fer­ent an­gles – and jaw­bones of a thy­lacine were do­nated to the Queen Vic­to­ria Mu­seum and Art Gallery, Launce­s­ton, in 1903. The mu­seum’s cu­ra­tor at the time, Herbert Scott, cut it open to com­pare the an­i­mal’s brain...

Farmer Wilf Batty shot a thy­lacine in his yard in May 1930, be­liev­ing it to be af­ter his chick­ens. It was the last recorded killing of a thy­lacine in the wild.

Zo­ol­o­gist John Gould pub­lished this il­lus­tra­tion of thy­lacines in his 1863 book The Mam­mals of Aus­tralia. He pre­dicted the species’ im­mi­nent ex­tinc­tion.

A thy­lacine sur­veys Tas­ma­nia’s Cra­dle Moun­tain land­scape in a com­pos­ite im­age cre­ated by pho­tog­ra­pher Herbert John King in 1940, us­ing a photo he had shot of Ho­bart Zoo’s last Tas­ma­nian tiger seven years ear­lier.

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