August 2017

The Nation Reviewed

Not-so-Tasmanian tiger

By Anthony Ham
The thylacine is thought be extinct. Might it still be found in mainland Australia?

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.”

Anthony Ham

Anthony Ham writes about wildlife, conservation and current affairs for magazines and newspapers around the world.

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