Tiger, tiger, burning bright…
In the early 1990s, two mates were driving from Taranna on the Tasman Peninsula to Hobart. They were roughly halfway, when one of them yelled urgently to the driver, 'Stop, stop! Tasmanian tiger!' They turned the car around and went back to investigate, but there was no sign. A few kilometres further along the road they pulled into a service station. The driver, anxious not to ask a leading question, inquired of the guy behind the counter whether anyone had spotted Tasmanian Devils recently in the area. 'I don't know about that,' the man replied, 'but someone saw a Tasmanian Tiger a couple of days ago!'
The chap who related this story to me was the driver that night. These days he works in conservation and is measured when imparting knowledge in his field. He's had more birthdays than he'd probably care to count, and did not strike me as a man prone to exaggeration. He quietly and calmly told me he thinks there are still thylacines alive in Tasmania. He still hasn't seen one, but he believes.
It's not difficult to find stories such as his; ever since 1936, in fact, when the alleged last remaining tiger died in Hobart zoo, and right up to the present. Col Bailey's Lure of the Thylacine: True Stories and Legendary Tales of the Tasmanian Tiger collects together many variations on the theme across the island.
On a visit to Tasmania in 2012, I bought another book, Thylacine: the Tragic Tale of the Tasmanian Tiger, by David Owen. If you don't know much about Tassie's tiger, this is a good start. I was instantly captivated by the subject matter. Or maybe I should say re-captivated. My first Australian friend when I moved to Brisbane in 2010 was a Melbourne lass, but she had worked for the Tasmanian government for two or three years and travelled the island in that capacity. As well as initiating me about Drop Bears, she described vast areas of wilderness in Tasmania's west that are inaccessible, empty and largely unexplored. I found that hard to believe at the time, but last week I flew over the region and saw for myself. My friend believed there could be small remnant populations of thylacines in isolated pockets of unwelcoming country.
There are tiger-sighting 'hotspots' all over Tasmania, in fact: in the northwest, the northeast, the Tasman Peninsula, the Great Western Tiers, the Central Highland lakes district, as well as the southwestern wilderness. (Further afield, stories come from remote parts of the Adelaide Hills, the Nullarbor, southwest WA, southeast New South Wales, and across Victoria, where some believe the thylacine was smuggled in as the animal's extinction loomed in Tasmania.)
Relatively few bushwalkers – 200 a year according to the Parks & Wildlife Service – travel the 70-kilometre Port Davey Track from Scotts Peak Dam at the southern end of Lake Pedder, to Melaleuca*, south of Bathurst Harbour, but the region is not without tiger sightings. Col Bailey reports that in 1958, walkers coming up from Bathurst Harbour claimed to have seen tiger tracks at several locations in the Mt Heyes (Arthur Range) and Mt Bowes/Weld River** sections.
The track is visible crossing the flat country towards the top of the image above, left of centre. I took the photo at approximately 3000 feet during one of the flights of my life on 2 January†. The path was constructed in 1889 as a means of reaching 'civilisation' for those who had been shipwrecked off Tasmania's treacherous southwestern coast. Nature reclaimed the track eventually, but it has been reincarnated by bushwalkers. This will give you a flavour of walking the Port Davey Track. More than halfway down, having been heading in a west-southwesterly direction, it turns south-southeasterly and passes between the Spring River and the Lost World Plateau, which is surely the place thylacines should be if they're going to be anywhere in Tasmania's South West National Park!
Our pilot explained that the high-water mark on the cliffs is created by huge storm waves and swells powered by the Roaring Forties.
Interestingly, I came across this ceramic tile at MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in Hobart.
Many tiger sightings involve animals crossing roads in the dead of night in front of startled drivers. A common reaction of sceptics is, 'Why is there no roadkill evidence of thylacines?' Read the last account in Chapter 7, Corroborating the Evidence, in Bailey's book, or this, under the heading Road Kill on the Road to Queenstown, from Thylacine by Alan Heath.
It is hard to believe that during the construction of the Gordon River Road and then the Gordon Dam, creating a much enlarged Lake Pedder, at least a handful of workers over those years in the 1960s and '70s did not encounter thylacines in such a remote spot. It is not difficult to imagine that the Hydro-Electric Commission (as it was then; Hydro Tasmania since 1998) would not have relished the thought of such stories getting out, since the presence of endangered species and subsequent protection measures might have put either project in jeopardy.
In reception at Pedder Wilderness Lodge where we stayed, there is map of Tasmania's southwest by P Broughton, a fifth edition published in 1980. The map's border consists of Tasmanian fauna and flora illustrations, including a thylacine, described as 'possibly extinct' in 1980.
No one should search for evidence of the continued existence of thylacines without pondering the moral implications of possessing such knowledge. The commercial instincts of Forestry Tasmania almost certainly would not be congruent with the protectionism of conservationists, for instance. And those engaged in the trade of exotic animals wouldn't hesitate to keep such information to themselves, I'm sure.
I saw much evidence of Tasmanian Tigers in Tasmania. From the state's coat of arms to the state government's logo and those of Cricket Tasmania, the RACV Apartment Hotel in Hobart (image at top) and many other enterprises, the thylacine's influence was everywhere. On chopping boards and porcelain bowls; fridge magnets and fudge; garden ornaments and cushions. The tiger is a gift to graphic designers.
Trinkets may appear to trivialise a serious subject – the extinction of an extraordinary creature by unthinking humans – but they proved to me that the thylacine lies deep within the Tasmanian psyche. It may or may not be extinct, but it cannot be extirpated from the island's culture.
Last August, an Arabian Sand Cat turned up in the United Arab Emirates: it hadn't been seen for more than a decade. Australia's Night Parrot hadn't been seen from 1912 to 1979. Extremely rare sightings since then had not been confirmed by photographic evidence until 2013, on a pastoral lease in remote southwest Queensland. In an equally rare example of a rapid conservation response, the Queensland Government, Bush Heritage Australia, the landowner and a mineral resources company co-operated to create a reserve. Despite attempts at protective secrecy by all concerned, The Australian newspaper let the bird out of the bag and revealed the location of the reserve. But hey, who would expect the Murdoch press to behave responsibly?
Since then, another population of Night Parrots has been found in a national park nearby.
I am currently reading Tasmanian Tiger: Precious Little Remains, by David Maynard and Tammy Gordon of the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery in Launceston. The authors catalogue many 'official' searches for thylacines over the years – by governments, the Parks & Wildlife Service, naturalists and biologists and thylacine researchers, as well as private individuals. Their belief is that, even if a few thylacines survived beyond the beginning of the 20th century, the gene pool would have been too small to support a viable population; that there would be significant obvious roadkill of an animal weighing between 15 and 30 kg and as large as 1.5 metres in length; and that the fate of an already declining number of thylacines was sealed when Indigenous peoples lost control of the island's ecology and settlers introduced alien agriculture.
Those who, against hope, believe in hope are at odds with science-based probability. But if it were up to me, I wouldn't call off the search. Isn't anything possible? And tales of the tiger keep alive the memory of gross human folly. We are witnessing planetary-scale extinctions and need to learn fast.
If you have a story to relate, or an interest in the search for the thylacine, you might like to know that there is a growing group of like minds to connect with. These people are serious, however; cynics, trolls and other troublemakers need not apply.
* On reaching Melaleuca, walkers can continue along the South Coast Track to Cockle Creek
** Before the construction of the Scotts Peak Dam Road, the old Port Davey Track extended northeast of where the Dam is now, west of Mt Anne, then via Mt Bowes, the Weld River and Mt Mueller, thence to Maydena
† We flew with Par Avion Wilderness Tours from Cambridge aerodrome near Hobart
Title of post inspired, naturally, by The Tyger, a poem by William Blake