Of all the world’s cryptids, the most likely to exist is the enigmatic and beautiful creature known as the thylacine. This flesh- eating marsupial is one of the most spectacular examples of convergent evolution, where two different species, often on opposite sides of the world, bear a remarkable resemblance to one another due to each inhabiting similar ecological niches. The thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) is also known as the Tasmanian wolf or Tasmanian tiger and is convergent with the placental wolf. The animal bears a striking resemblance to a wolf or dog but with stripes along its hind quarters. Of course, it is not related to the wolf or the tiger. Neither should it be confused with the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) a superficially badger-like flesh eating marsupial or the spotted or tiger quoll (Dasyurus maculatus), a native cat-like marsupial predator. Both sexes have a backwards facing pouch. In females it is used to nurture and protect developing young and in males to protect the sex organs as it runs through vegetation after prey. The skull of the animal has a gape far wider than that of a wolf or dog. The thylacine’s dental formula are different to a wolf’s. It bore four incisors and four molars in each quadrant of the jaw as opposed to only three of each in true canids. The thylacine has a more powerful bite than a wolf but the skull was less adapted to holding struggling prey. This suggests a different hunting strategy. Wheras pack-hunting wolves would use number to pull down prey and worry it to death, thlacyines may kill small prey animals with one bite and with larger victims inflict a bite then let them bleed to death. It is not as well adapted to fast running as a wolf but seems to have more stamina for pursuit over long distances.
The thylacine is the largest marsupial predator of recent times and has a lineage that reaches back to the Miocene epoch. Thylacines were once found across mainland Australia and New Guinea as well as Tasmania. Standard thinking would have us believe that the species died out on the mainland around three thousand years ago, perhaps from diseases transmitted by the introduced dingo. However, sightings persist in both Australia and New Guinea until the present day.
When white settlers first colonised Tasmania in 1803 they began an act of ecological genocide. The largest broad-leafed trees on earth, the giant mountain ashes, were cut down. The Tasmanian black emus were hunted into extinction by the 1830s. The Tasmanian Aboriginal populations were decimated by hunting and disease. Their culture has almost entirely vanished, and only vestiges remain.
Areas of forest were cut down to allow the grazing of sheep. The Tasmanian wolf was an inconvenience for sheep farmers. Doubtless the creature did indeed kill some sheep. Slow moving, placid targets are hard for predators to resist but the claims of predation by some sheep farmers were on such a scale as to be physically impossible.
Like most politicians everywhere and at every time, the Tasmanian government were self-serving cowards with knee jerk reactions. To be seen as doing something they set up bounties on thylacines from 1830 to 1909. The bounty was set at 1 dollar per head. Between the above dates 2,184 bounties were paid. By the 1920s the Thylacine had become scarce in the wild. A thylacine was shot by Wilf Batty at Mawbanna in 1930. Elias Churchill trapped one alive in the Florentine Valley in 1933.
Many specimens were caught for zoos around the world including London but no concerted attempt was made to captive breed them. The last captive animal died on September the 7th in 1936 at Hobart Zoo, apparently from cold as it had been locked out of its sleeping quarters.
Since the date of the Tasmanian wolf’s official extinction there have been more than 4000 reported sightings
These come not just from laymen but also from some very credible witnesses including zoologist Hans Naarding, who in 1982 observed a large male thylacine near the Arthur River in the state’s northwest. He had spent decades studying animals around the world. In Tasmania he had been studying a bird called Latham’s Snipe (Gallinago hardwickii ). At 2 am he awoke.
“I was in the habit of intermittently shining a spotlight around. The beam fell on an animal in front of the vehicle, less than 10m away. Instead of risking movement by grabbing for a camera, I decided to register very carefully what I was seeing. The animal was about the size of a small shepherd dog, a very healthy male in prime condition. What set it apart from a dog, though, was a slightly sloping hindquarter, with a fairly thick tail being a straight continuation of the backline of the animal. It had 12 distinct stripes on its back, continuing onto its butt. I knew perfectly well what I was seeing. As soon as I reached for the camera, it disappeared into the tea-tree undergrowth and scrub.”
The official government report into the sighting concluded that “...it must be accepted that thylacines survive in a number of areas of Tasmania.”
Another expert witness was Charlie Beasley, a ranger with the Department of Environment & Land Management. It occurred in January 1995. Beasly was bird watching a dusk in a valley in the Pyangana region inland from St Helens in the northeast of the island. He saw an animal sniffing around on a ledge and observed via binoculars and described the beast.
Dirty brown colour with black stripes down it’s ribcage and about half the size of a full grown Alsatian dog. It had a face like a Staffodshire bull terrier but more elongated. The animal stretched, turned and walked back into the dense scrub. The tail was heavy and somewhat like that of a kangaroo and was held out in a gentle curve.”
Beasley had the animal in view for two minutes.
The creature’s continued survival has even been predicted by computer programme. Professor Henry Nix of the Australian University’s Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies developed a computer programme called BIOCLIM. A research tool, BIOCLIM matched what was known about a species habits and preferences and geographical areas. It matched the two up and predicted were, within a given area the target species was most likely to be found. Nix applied this to the thylacine and the BIOCLIM programme. There was an almost perfect match to where the programme predicted the animals would be if they had survived and the areas where sightings were being made. Nix concluded that people were really seeing thylacines. Professor Nix thought that as many as 1000 thylacines may still exist island-wide.
The following factors should also be noted. Firstly there are many iconic extinct animals such as the dodo (Raphus cucullatus ), the great auk (Pinguinus impennis ) and the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius ) that nobody reports seeing. But people report the Tasmanian wolf on a regular basis . Secondly, the south west of Tasmania was never settled save for a handful of tin miners and fishermen at Port Davey. The area itself produced no thylacines during the bounty period. The area is not ideal for the animal but we know that creatures under pressure can retreat to and indeed thrive in less than perfect conditions. A good example is the recently discovered population of Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) living in the high Himalayan mountains in Bhutan at an altitude of up to 11,500 feet, far above their normal range. Therefore it is quite possible that thylacine populations moved into the southwest during the bounty years and remained unmolested. Eventually these would have recolonised other areas of the island. Today most reports come from the northeast and west of Tasmania, and the west coast.
Dr. David Pemberton, curator of zoology at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, whose PhD thesis was on the thylacine, says that despite scientific thinking that 500 animals are required to sustain a population, the Florida panther is down to a dozen or so animals and, while it does have some inbreeding problems, is still ticking along. He said “I’d take a punt and say that, if we manage to find a thylacine in the scrub, it means that there are 50-plus animals out there.”
The thylacine’s closest living relation, the Tasmanian devil has recently had problems with
a disease sweeping through their populations. devil facial tumour Disease is a form of transmittable cancer passed in through bites. It has affected 65 percent of Tasmania and caused an 80 percent reduction in populations in the effected areas. However genetic research into the devils has suggested that the species would only need a base population of around twenty five individuals to repopulate. It the Tasmanian Devil has the genetic capability to do this then perhaps the Tasmanian wolf does as well. It is not without reason that the Thylacine has been called ‘the healthiest extinct animal you will ever see.”
Now we will look at claims of thylacines seen on mainland Australia, where conventional wisdom tells us they died out around 3000 years ago.
Journalist Samela Harris of Naracoorte News began to collect and investigate stories of animals resembling Tasmania wolves reported from South Australia. In 1967 a group of children on a school bus saw a strange, striped, dog-like animal between Naracoorte and Lucindale. The mother of one of the witnesses, Mrs Dawn Anderson also began to collect sightings. Between them they amassed many eyewitness accounts. Mrs Anderson produced a drawing based on the school children’s descriptions. The sketch shows the distinctive, long hind feet of a thylacine.
In mid 1967 Mrs Anderson and her son, observed a thylacine for fifteen minutes as it moved along a ditch in a swamp. In February of the following year she and fifteen other people in three cars tried to corner a thylacine in a reed bed, unsuccessfully. In March of the same year she saw one crossing a paddock.
Semela Harris interviewed a witness called Jack Victory, a Parks Commission employee who had seen one such creature along the Younghusban Peninsular.
“ I was about 400 years away, looking at birds through a telescope. I just didn’t know what he was… he was a large animal, a bit like a fox and a bit like a kangaroo. But he was neither. He started to run along, loping gate. He had a dog’s head and a large, tapering rather stiff looking tail. His torso was striped in grey. The rest of the body was brown.
When we got to the spot where we had seen him, we found his paw prints in the clay. They were about the size of my fist and looked quite similar when I suck my fist into the clay beside his imprint. We estimated his weight to be between 120 to 150 pounds. The animal’s appearance fits only that of the thylacine.”
Tourist officer John Pocock was rounding up emus in long grass on a private wildlife reserve just outside of Rendlesham when he saw an animal observing him.
“It was a weird looking thing, with canine features in the upper part of the body and marsupial features, like a kangaroo, at the rear. It was striped like a tiger.”
A commonwealth film crew was in the area at the time filming wildlife but by the time he had located the crew and brought the cameraman to the area the creature had gone.
A creature that was seen around the hamlet of Ozenkadnook in southern Victoria was given the tongue twisting name of the Ozenkadnook tiger by the media. Farmer Cyril Tucker tracked one in 1962 and came within sixty feet of it. He said it was larger than an Alsatian dog with a low- slung body, a long, thick tail and a kangaroo like head. It was grey with black stripes on the rump. It ran off with a strange loping gait, the hind legs moving together.
Another time he came upon the creature with his dogs. He set the dogs on it and it leapt away making three big bounds on its hind legs, an mode of movement thylacines were known to do. Tucker was lucky the beast did not turn on its pursuers. Thylacines have been known to bite right through the skulls of dogs that attack them.
In the same year in nine members of the Enedhope Hunt Club chased one of the animals through the scrub. Miss Lee Lightburn described it as “amazingly like a Tasmanian tiger.”
In 1982 National Parks Ranger Peter Simon saw a thylacine in a clearing near Gibraltar Creek, Australian Capital Territory. Having seen many illustrations of the Tasmanian wolf, he was adamant that this is what he had seen. He was only one hundred feet from the animal as it crossed the clearing. During the following year two groups of tourists told him that they had seen the same animal in the area.
Wilson’s Promontory in Victoria is another hotspot for mainland sightings. It began in 1955 when something began to kill sheep in large numbers. Sheep were devoured overnight and dragged over 200 yards. People started to report a strange creature that were named the “Wonthaggi Monster” after a town in the era.
On the December 6th 1955 Ern Featherstone, a car salesman, was demonstrating a car to Mr and Mrs T.J Schmedje just one and a half miles from Wonthaggi when a strange creature appeared.
“It ran along the side of the road and disappeared into some scrub. When we stopped it was looking at us. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was brown striped, a sleek coat and got along with a peculiar bound. It was two feet six inches tall and five feet long and had a tail as long as it’s body.”
Mr Schmedje added…
“It moved like a wallaby does when running on all fours. It had a fox like head and long nose.”
In November 1979, Mr and Mrs Charlie Thorpe were driving in the Promontory’s National Park when a creature emerged from the bush and crossed the road in front of their car.
“ We were not moving fast, probably around 40 km per hour and got a good look at the animal. It was taller than my labrador but was lower in the hindquarters. It moved with a peculiar hopping gait. Its tail was very thick at the base and longer than a dogs’s,tapering to a point. It appeared to be a dark to light grey in colour and had distinctive darker bands around the hindquarters. The stripes did not appear to be black but were a darker grey than the rest of the body.”
These are just a few scattered examples of hundreds of sightings that suggest the creature may still be alive on the mainland. A number of films and photographs have turned up purporting to show thylacines on the mainland. Most of these appear to be feral red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) with mange.
In West Papua (formally Irian Jaya) the hill tribes report a dog-like carnivore they all dobsonga. They describe it as looking like a dog with striped flanks, a stiff tail and wide jaws. They say it comes down from the mountains and kills pigs, goats and other livestock. Thylacine hunter Ned Terry visited the area and showed the natives pictures of the Tasmanian wolf which they identified as the dobsonga.
Ralf Kiesel an explorer of Western Papua wrote to renown cryptozoologist Karl Shuker about persistent sightings of thylacines in Baliem Valley. In the early 1970s Jan Sarkang, a Papuan friend of Kiesel. Working with a friend, Punca Jaya, had just made camp for some geologists and were eating a meal. Two dog- like animals, an adult and a pup, emerged from the bush, apparently attracted by the smell of the food. They were pale- coloured with wide mouths and stiff tails. The pup came close enough for one man to feed it. Then he tried to grab it but, the pup bit his hand and both animals ran back into the bush.
When the Centre for Fortean Zoology’s Australian representatives Rebecca (Ruby) Lang and Mike Williams came up with the idea of an official CFZ expedition to Tasmania, I was thrilled to be on board. Mike and Rebecca were to be joined by another old friend of the CFZ, Veteran Australian cryptozoologist Tony Healy. Tony had spent a lifetime on the track of unknown animals all across the world. Also joining us would be Tania Pool, a CFZ member and researcher whom had joined us at the Weird Weekend, the CFZ’s annual convention and the Fortean Times Unconventional on a number of occasions. Rebecca’s friend Hanna would round off the Australian team.
The British contingent left Heathrow on October the 31st. If felt truly special to be searching for the creature so iconic that the CFZ adopted it as its logo and totem animal.
I am used to long flights,but the trip to Tasmania was something else. We stopped in the Middle East, Borneo and Melbourne before reaching Launceston in Hobart over 24 hours later. We were met by our Australian friends and in no time we were driving to Launceston. Tasmania is alive with wildlife and on our first relatively short journey we saw common wombats (Vombatus ursinus), Bennett’s wallabies (Macropus rufogriseus) and a short beaked echidna ( Tachygossus aculeatus).
Launceston, Tasmania’s second city is the size of a medium town in the UK. It has an old world feel about it with colonial era buildings and houses. The Tasmanian wolf is everywhere, on car registrations, in shop signs and council logos. The creature is very much alive in the island’s iconography. It even appears as supporters on the Tasmanian coat of arms.
Moving on inland we reached the small town of Mole Creek in central Tasmania. We had been booked into the Mole Creek Hotel, home of the famous Tasmanian Tiger Bar. The hotel itself has a sort of old- fashioned charm with a 1950s feel to it. I felt very comfortable there and it had a lovely atmosphere. The Tasmanian Tiger Bar is like a small museum filled with thylacine memorabilia. There are paintings, sculptures and a well full of framed newspaper reports of sightings. They even serve Tasmanian Tiger Ale, a very tasty pale ale that imbibed several pints of.
The landlord, a charming man called Doug Westbrook was good enough to give us an interview. He showed us alleged dropping (desiccated and in a jar) and a number of prints. The prints did indeed match those of a thylacine rather than a dog, wombat, fox or any other animal. Doug himself had never seen the Tasmanian wolf but his wife Ramona had. Ramona did not like to speak about her experience, so Doug gave us the details. In 1997 she was driving along a country road about 16km from Mole Creek when a thylacine loped across the road in front of her. She noted the striped rump and still tail. She described the creature’s gait as ‘awkward’ and that its hind quarters seemed to move stiffly. ‘Like a dog with a broken back’ had been her description. As the animal reached the far side of the road it turned its head back to glance at her. Then it was gone into the bushes.
Doug said that in 2011 a French girl staying at the hotel had a very similar sighting. About 2 km from Mole Creek she also saw a thylacine crossing the road in front of the car she was driving. As with Ramona she saw the striped rump the stiff tail and the strange gait. She too had used the phrase ‘like a dog with a broken back’ to describe how the animal had moved.
We visited the Trowunna Wildlife Park close by. As well as birds, reptiles, kangaroos, wombats and echidnas, the collection the island’s other marsupial predators spotted quolls (Dasyurus maculatus ) and Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilius harrisii). Up close the resemblance of the quoll’s face to the thylacine’s is striking. Both have dark eyes, rounded ears and a dog like snout. There the resemblance ends. The body and tail look more like a stout cat with brown fur and cream spots. The bulkier Tasmanian devil looks more like a hybrid of bull terrier and badger. The devils are currently beset by a form of transmittable cancer that affects the face of the animal. First seen in the mid 1990s, the disease causes huge facial tumours that lead to death. Devil facial tumour disease has caused a population crash of 50%. Trowunna maintain a large, healthy breeding population in captivity as a safeguard against extinction in the wild.
We travelled in two magnificent Toyota land cruisers kindly loaned to us by the company and Tony Healy’s trusty old Volkswagen van. On the road Tony unveiled his maps like wizard’s spell books. They were dotted with notes and annotations in astonishing detail. Arrows and dots pointed out locations and dates of sightings not only of Tasmanian wolves but of bunyips, sea serpents, yowies and even ghosts.
We headed out to the Cradle Mountains and the Wilderness Gallery were there was an impressive and shocking exhibition on the thylacine. It featured a thylacine skeleton, pelts, skulls and a reconstruction of an old trappers hut from the 19th century. On display was a book logging the captures and killings of thylacines from the bounty era. It covered the late 19th and early 20th century. It felt odd to be actually touching the book, with its original notations of specimens, locations and payments. The numbers being brought in dropped sharply in the 20th century.
The main exhibit was the Tiger Buggy Rug an object both appalling and fascinating. A carpet made from the hides of eight thylacines. A loso there, film on a loop showing the last captive thylacine wandering around its barren enclosure at Hobart Zoo. I’ve seen the film many times before, but it was intercut with other, older, rarer clips of captive animals.
Annoyingly the whole exhibition focused on thylacine extinction. There was not one word about thylacine survival or any of the 4000 plus sightings since 1936.
Prior to embarking on the expedition, we had all agreed to keep the focus area a secret. Therefore, I will not reveal where we did our work other than that it was in the North East of the Island.
On the way we saw much wildlife including another echidna and the ubiquitous Tasmanian native hen (Tribonyx mortierii). The birds, that are actually flightless rails are found just about anywhere there is water. Our campsite was a small affair off an old logging road. There was an organic toilet, a couple of brick barbeques and a sheltered area with tables for eating.
We set up camp without delay. Tony was sleeping in his van the rest of us in tents. CFZ stalwarts Jon Hare and Chris Clark had two small tents of their own. Mike and Rebecca shared a larger one and taxidermist Jon McGowan, Tania and myself shared Tania’s huge tent (that she had picked up at a second- hand- shop).
The camp had its own residents. One was a noisy brush tailed possum (Trichosurus vulpecula) that disturbed the night with vocalizations that one would not believe such a small and endearing animal could make. The second was a black currawong (Strepera fuliginosa), a yellowed eyed, crow-like bird always on the lookout for scraps.
The forest floor around the camp was studded with what looked like huge worm casts. We dug down into the earth in try and find what we believed to be the massive worms that created them. We had no luck.
That night we conducted the first of our night drives. We had cameras mounted on the hoods of the land cruisers and Tony’s van. These were left running throughout the drives in case our target animal should run across the track in front of us.
The area we were searching in was remote. It was heavily forested and away from main roads. We followed old logging tracks, some unused for years. The forest was thick with wildlife, all of which would make fine prey for the Tasmanian wolf. On the first night alone we saw Bennett’s wallabies, red-bellied pademelons (Thylogale billardierii),a form of small wallaby, wombats and a Tasmanian spotted owl (Ninox novaeseelandiae) .
Despite being the beginning of summer in Tasmania it was still bitingly cold at night.
Next day we took a trek to a local lake, a large, water-filled sinkhole. Around this particular lake people have claimed to have heard the distinctive call of the thylacine at night. It is said to be a high-pitched yap in three parts ‘yip-yip-yip’. It said to be quite distinct from all other native animals and quite unlike a fox’s.
We set up some camera traps, sensitive to both heat and motion. These we baited with leftover chicken, cat food and bacon jerky. We set up other cameras along a long closed and barricaded road reasoning that this would be doubly undisturbed. We searched for road kill to use as further bait but found none.
Along another one of these logging spurs we found some large droppings. They were transparently those of a carnivore, containing as they did bone shards and hair. They seemed too large to be from a devil or quoll and too remote to be from a dog. We carefully preserved them in a solution of 70% methylated spirits and 30% water. Thylacines were reported in this area in 1994 and 1996.
The area had several small rivers running through it and we came upon a bridge that was so rotten it would not hold our vehicles. We carried on, on foot.
Later we visited an open area of button grass. As darkness fell, we took watch. It was bitingly cold and perfectly still. Nothing moved and we saw and heard nothing.
We came upon a dead chicken and hung it beside one of the old logging spurs with another camera trap facing it. Another night drive turned up more wombats, brush tailed possums, pademelons and wallabies.
The following day Tony took his van into town for a service. In the garage he met a woman whose father had seen a thylacine in the general area in the 1970s.
Rebecca, Hanna and Jon Hare drove to town to buy some extra quilts and blankets.
Jon McGowan, Chris, Mike and I searched for snakes with little success. After nightfall we went out on foot spotlighting for animals and again saw much fauna.
We drove down to Allendale Gardens in the morning. These open gardens are a collection of beautiful landscaped areas and natural woodland featuring gigantic, ancient trees that were saplings when Europeans first discovered the island. The landlord Max Cross, a tall bearded, man had seen a thylacine in 1996 and he was good enough to grant us an interview.
He had been driving between Hobart and Launceston when a large thylacine had rushed across the road. Once again, the stiff -looking, striped hind quarters were emphasised. It was the size and general shape of a large dog and he pointed out his own dog Myska, a large crossbreed, as a good comparison. He also mentioned a stiffly held, thick tail. Max noticed how, after crossing the road the thylacine was moving up and down looking for a way through. Another car behind Max’s slowed down and also saw the animal. The occupants of the second car must have reported the sighting as a story about it subsequently appeared in the Launceston Examiner.
Often on our expeditions we turn up information on cryptids other than the one we were are actually looking for. This trip was no exception. We were talking to Max about Tasmanian wildlife in general and he mentioned that when he first moved into the area that something had been killing his chickens. He shot the offending predator and it turned out to a spotted quoll but one of mind boggling- size. This animal is usually around seven pounds in weight and around three feet long. Max said the animal he shot was the size of a cattle dog. This breed of herding dog is slightly larger than a Border Collie, weighing up to forty- nine pounds. He indicated the tail and body length by raising his hand from the ground to just above his shoulder. Max was a tall man, over six feet, so the length of the giant quoll would be over five feet. Max commented on the thickness of the animal’s neck. In comparison the thylacine averaged on six feet in total length with some larger individuals ranging from seven to nine and a half feet long. At the time he had no idea of the value of such a specimen and threw it away. This occurred in 1964.
Later that day we spoke to another witness. Damien Key was also impressively tall and impressively bearded. He worked in a family garage cum shop, but he is also a government licenced shooter who is paid to keep the number of wallabies in check. He goes deep into the bush shooting his prey and leaves the carcasses to feed the Tasmanian devils and perhaps other things as well. He also culled feral cats that, as on the mainland, have proved a horrible menace to smaller native animals.
In 2008, in the area where we were based Damien saw a large, dog- like animal run across the road in front of him. He noted the stiffly held tail but could not recall stripes. However, there are other records of stripless thylacines. Most striped animals have variation of their marking. For example, there are tiger with very faint strips.
Then in 2010, he and a friend saw another thylacine a few miles from his first sighting. This time he did see the stripes as we’ll as the stiff tail and odd hindquarters as it ran away into the bush. The following year he was approached by a logger who asked him if he had ever seen a thylacine. When Damien said he had, the logger confessed he had too, in broad daylight and in the same area. The man had been on foot and walking along the logging spur when he saw the thylacine.
Damien had also heard the distinctive call of the Tasmanian wolf on several occasions. It was distinct from a fox’s and more spasmodic. One of the places he had heard it was at a small, remote airstrip on which wallabies grazed at night.
Later that day, Jon McGowan came across a road kill bandicoot (Perameles gunnii) . He cooked and ate some of the creature. Back in England Jon, who works at the Bournemouth Society of Natural Science, lives almost entirely on road kill feeding his guests on badgers, foxes and other strange delicacies. He offered me some smoked bandicoot flesh, but it smelled a little rancid for me. The rest of the carcass we used to bait a stream close to our campsite the hope to attract the Tasmanian giant freshwater crayfish. Astacopsis gouldi is the world’s largest freshwater invertebrate weighing up to eleven pounds and being nearly three- feet -long. Unfortunately, despite baiting several parts of the stream we never did attract one.
The next day, a wildlife guide and a couple of elderly tourists turned up. The man told us that the creatures that caused what we thought were huge worm casts were in fact burrowing crayfish. They have networks of burrows and shafts running up from the water table, and play a major role in soil turnover, drainage and aeration. The guide said that he too had heard the distinctive yip-yip-yip of the thylacine on two occasions.
The following day was Jon McGowan’s birthday and he received not only a large cake but the gift of a road kill Bennett’s wallaby. The creature had been found by some of the team when they had driven to a small town that morning. Jon gleefully skinned and butchered the creature. We used some of the meat to re-bait a number of the traps. We also took the opportunity to look at the images we had captured so far. The camera from the lake showed a tawny frogmouth (Podargus strigoides), a large nightjar like bird, Tasmanian devils and a spotted quoll. The camera from the logging road showed devils and a feral cat. Jon Hare had spoken to a woman at the cafe in town who had seen a Tasmanian wolf crossing the road close to the area we were camped. Unfortunately he did not get any further details. Tony Healy had spoken to another witness who worked at the town garage. He had seen a thylacine in 1984 at a creek about eight miles from the town. He felt that bush fires may have forced it out of its usual haunts. He and a friend had been on a motorbike at about ten thirty at night. They came across a large, dog -like animal. They noted that it had a long, stiff tail and striped hindquaters. The hind quarters looked large and awkward. When the animal moved, it swung them side to side in a manner that recalled a cow. The movements were not like a dogs. They slowed down to look at the creature and it took a couple of steps towards them. Becoming scared, they turned around and drove away. A woman at the garage also told Tony her father had twice seen thylacines in the 1980s. One at a local creek and another on a certain length of road.
That night we barbecued the wallaby. Even after using the head, tail feet and innards as bait there was a large amount of meat left. It proved to be palatable if a little tasteless. We visited the remote airstrip were Damien said he had heard the thylacine’s call. It was empty and the small Portakabin was lock and did not look like it had been used in some time. The strip itself had been grazed by wallabies, wombats and kangaroos. We also visited the roads were thylacines had been reported. They were exceedingly overgrown. It was obvious no one had been along them in some time. Tony and I saw a magnificent and deadly Tasmania tiger snake slithering across the road in front of us. We leapt from Tony’s van but were too late to catch up with the reptile.
We returned to the airstrip at night to stake it out. We heard a wallaby give a thumping alarm in the manner of an over grown rabbit. We also heard owls. The night sky was punctuated by shooting stars and the rays of the Aurora – Austrails or southern lights. Any thylacines lurking in the shadows remained silent.
Next day, Tony travelled back to the town and later we caught up with him. We met up with him for lunch in a pub. A local man, Mick told us he had seen a thylacine at Serpentine Creek, an area quite some way from where we were searching. He was walking on a path off the river and he saw the animal crossing the path ahead of him in broad daylight. He had been struck by the stripes on the flank. This occurred in 1988. Tony interviewed another man whose brother, a truck driver had seen a thylacine in 1993 whilst driving between Scottstown and Georgetown in the North East of Tasmania.
We tried to visit a small museum in the town to see if it had any material about the Tasmanian wolf but it was closed.
Later we took down the camera traps and reset them with fresh bait at the airstrip and the roads and hills around it. Rebecca and Hanna spent the night at the area where zoologist Hans Nardding had an excellent view of a large male thylacine in 1982. After spending a freezing night in the land cruiser, they saw nothing.
Next day we drove up to Mawbanna were the last known wild thylacine was shot by Wilf Batty in 1930. Rumour has it that six more were caught alive in the general area in the 1930 as one in the 1960s. These days the place looked quite unsuitable being mostly cleared farmland.
That night at camp Jon McGowan returned in a state of excitement after wandering in the surrounding forest. Opening up his had he showed us his prize with all the enthusiasm of a schoolboy. It was only a deadly funnel web spider with venom quite capable of killing a person. Rebecca, being an arachnophobe was appalled as Jon played with the huge arachnid as if it were a pet mouse!
We tried to drive to Lake Rowalla were thylacine tracks had recently been found. However the sat-navs malfunctioned and we got lost. We ended up in the town of Waratah and had lunch at the excellent Bischoff Hotel, a magnificent building dating to the 1900s. Inside was a preserved specimen of the Tasmanian giant crayfish. It was quite as large as a big marine lobster. The owner told us of a local family who saw a thylacine crossing the road in front of their car near Rapid River in the 1970s. Apparently, they disliked talking about it.
At the small local museum a 1970s newspaper was on show. It had a double page spread about the Tasmanian wolf and detailed several sightings.
On the way back we stopped to explore more remote logging roads. On one we found more large droppings from a carnivore and took them as samples. Close to camp a spotted quoll bounded across the road in front of us and we caught it on camera along with several Tasmanian devils.
Rain marred the following day. Exploring the woods around the camp we discovered a cave. We rigged up some ropes and one by one lowered ourselves down into it. Spindly cave spiders with a leg span like a human hand lurked in the cave. Some sat upon egg sacks as large as hen’s eggs. Hikmania troglodytes is the biggest spider on the island and belongs to a primitive group that is ancestral to modern spiders. Its closest relatives live in Chile and China.
Australian TV channel ABC wanted to do an interview with us. As we were nearing the end of our expedition, we agreed. We met them in a small seaside town. Whilst waiting in a café to meet them I picked up a magazine and found an article written in it that was an almost word for word rip off of one I had written years before for the CFZ journal Animals & Men. It was about the creature known as the Gurt Dog of Ennerdale that terrorized the British Lake t in the 1816. Its description and habits recalled a Tasmanian wolf and I theorized that the creature had escaped from one of the horse drawn, travelling menageries that were popular at the time.
Finally they arrived. There was a likeable cameraman in his 50s and a young, somewhat pushy female presenter. The presenter wanted to film us discussing the expedition over a drink in a pub. We went to a pleasant pub overlooking the ocean and she ordered us a round of drinks. We were duly filmed talking about the thylacine and our trip. Then they wanted to film us ‘setting up’ our cameras. Of course, we were not going to let on to the real location of our expedition. We would just recreate what we did in some nearby bushland. As we began to leave we found out that the girl had left without paying for our drinks. We had to pay for them ourselves! We were quite annoyed by this, but things got worse. She was obsessed by bigfoot, and kept saying ‘you have hunted for bigfoot haven’t you?” I repeatedly told her that I had hunted for the yeti, the almasty and orang-pendek but never for bigfoot, to which she said “I’ve heard you have hunted bigfoot”. Again, I reiterated that I had not and neither had the other team members. She seemed like a retarded and ill-mannered child. We were filmed setting up the camera traps and interviewed about the expedition. When the piece was finally transmitted the presenter said that we had previously hunted for bigfoot despite what I had told her.
Later we found a recently dead road kill spotted quoll. Jon McGowan later skinned the animal and cooked it. The meat was succulent and far better than that of the wallaby.
Whilst Jon Hare, Chris Clark, Mike, Jon McGowan and I had been enduring this rubbish Rebecca and Hanna had managed to get a look around the little museum in the town that previously had been closed. They found an interesting photo of a stripless thylacine. This throws an interesting new light on Damien’s first sighting.
On our final full day in Tasmania we had a remarkable stroke of luck. Tony and Mike were talking to some folk in a café in the small town we visited. We had eaten in the café on a number of occasions. As it turned out one of these men was Granville Batty the great nephew of Wilf Batty, the man who had shot the last known wild thylacine in 1930.
Granville was good enough to speak to us for some time. He still had the gun that had done the terrible deed all those years ago. He had sold the farm in Mawbanna where the drama had unfolded. Mr Batty said that there were thylacines in the Mawbanna area up to fifteen years ago. Sightings had dropped off in that area since the 1980s due to the plantations being laced with poison. His father-in-law had heard a thylacine calling whilst he was fishing on the Arthur River. Granville thought the thylacine could well still be about. He said that if he had the money, he would search south of the Arthur River. He related hearing that thylacines were fond of eating birds and that the ones in London Zoo caught pigeons. He also said he had been told of them hunting seabirds on beaches. I myself have read of them catching sparrows in captivity.
We returned to England and our antipodean colleagues to the mainland. The samples were sent off to Copenhagen University to be examined by our old friend Lars Thomas. Surprisingly they turned out to be those of a Tasmanian devil. It must have been a specimen of huge size.
We already made plans to return next year.The small population and vast wilderness convinced me more than ever of the Tasmanian wolf’s continued existence.
n February of 2016 I returned to Tasmania for my second attempt to find the Tasmanian wolf . The last expedition I had taken part in, back in 2013 had consisted of many people from Australia and the UK. On this occasion, Mike Williams of CFZ Australia had decided, wisely, to pare it down. This time it would be a skeleton crew of Mike and myself on the track of the legendary beast.
Flying to Tasmania is a long affair, taking a day or more and three changes. Getting to your destination is the only leg of an expedition that really worries me. Once I’m in the field I’m fine. I finally got to Launceston and was met by Mike. Over a coffee he explained some developments since I’d last been to Tasmania.
I’d missed the 2015 expedition due to a bout of gout and pneumonia. On that trip, the team had been in the north east of the island but met with less success then on the 2013 trip in the north west. The area we had visited on that trip had been subject to savage bush fires. Multiple lightning strikes had caused fires to reduce much of the forests to ash. It’s a natural process in Australia but it rendered the area less than perfect for our purposes.
Mike had been in contact with a farmer in the northeast who said he had captured a thylacine on camera. The man, who wanted to remain nameless, had allowed Mike to look at the pictures after much persuasion, but would not allow copies to be made. Mike was convinced of the authenticity of the pictures, mainly due to one interesting feature. The creature in the two pictures had a shaggy winter coat. Most people do not realize that the Tasmanian wolf grew longer hair in the winter months. Most reconstructions of them show the animal with a short coat.
The first picture showed the creature side on to the camera trap and the second showed it turning away. The stiff tail and stripes were apparent. The farmer had placed the camera trap on a hill on his property for months on end. These were the only two pictures he had gotten over that period. He was cagey about showing them to anyone else or to being interviewed.
Mike had heard of some recent sightings further south on the island and with our former are being burned out we decided to make this our HQ for the trip. As before we decided not to reveal the exact location of the sightings in order to protect the animals.
We camped out at a grassy area with wooded hills on the first night. We found a dead Tasmanian devil on the road. It had apparently been hit by a car. There were no signs of the facial tumours that have been ravaging the population elsewhere.
We had brought camera traps with us. We affixed these to trees in remote areas and used road kill as bait. In addition to this we once again employed bonnet mounted cameras that film constantly as we did our night drives. Most sightings of the Tasmanian wolf are made by motorists at night. Should anything run in front of our vehicle it would be caught on film.
Once more, Toyota had generously lent us a four-wheel drive car for or trip.
Next day, we crossed the Western Tiers, a beautiful escarpment studded with lakes. We made camp and set up cameras. By day we explored on foot and by night we drove the remote country roads. Bennet’s wallaby, pademelon, wombat and eastern quoll (Dasyurus viverrinus ) were all in abundance. The tiger quoll and the Tasmanian tiger were not nearly as apparent as they had been further north.
The following day we drove to a small town to meet our first witness Joe Booth. When mike and I arrived, Joe was in his garage trying out a home-made prosthetic hand that appeared to have been made from a sharpened curtain hook and an old aerosol can. Greeting us enthusiastically Joe, who was an instantly likeable bloke, explained about his home-made hook. The year before he had been out with his mate who was a keen hunter. Joe had been standing outside his mate’s car. On the back seat was a dangerous combination of loaded guns and excitable dogs. As the dogs bounded about one of them knocked the guns which had the safety catches off. One went off blowing a hole through the side of the car. It also took a chunk out of Joe’s side and blew off his right hand.
Joe was lucky to survive and had to have several transfusions. However, he bore his mate no grudge and seemed to take his disability in his stride and did not let it affect him in the least. He found the prosthetic hand given to him by the hospital uncomfortable and got on better with the one knocked up at home.
Joe had been a logger in the 50s, 60s and 70s and seen some of the most massive trees in Tasmania fall to the power saw. He told us that in remote areas the crew would regularly come upon dog-like tracks. He asked the foreman who on the crew had a dog. The foreman replied that they were the tracks of a Tasmanian tiger. One of the other workers scoffed at the idea. A few days later the same man walked around a large tree stump and found a thylacine sitting there. The animal gave a warning gape and the man backed swiftly away.
In the 1950s, Joe had his own sighting. One evening he was putting his car away. It was twilight and he saw what he thought was his neighbour’s dog walking down the road towards him. He called out to it but it didn’t react. As it drew closer and walked past him, he saw it had a thick, stiff tail and stripes along its hind quarters. He then realized that he had seen a thylacine. He had recalled hearing that a crop sprayer piolet had said he had seen one in the vicinity some days earlier. A few days after Joe’s sighting one of his mates who lived locally saw the creature. It ran out of a woodpile and vanished between some barns. This is interesting as thylacines were thought to make temporary dens that they used for a few days before moving on.
Joe’s wife Pat had also seen the Tasmania wolf. Thirty-five years ago, in 1981 she had been driving a couple of miles outside of town. It was winter and twilight. A Tasmanian wolf crossed the road in front of her car. She got to within fifteen feet of it. She clearly saw the striped flank and stiff tail. It was 18 inches to 2 feet tall with a yellowish- brown coat and powerful looking jaws. It was somewhat greyhound- like. Pat had it in view for 60 seconds before it moved off into the surrounding fields.
One of Joe’s interests was the old convict roads. These were constructed by convicts transported to Tasmania in the 1830s onwards. He and a number of friends try to locate and restore the roads. He took us out to show us a rock that had a bizarre carving on it. It had been made by one Nehemiah Rogers. Originally from Brocking in Essex and a stonemason by trade Rogers was born in 1825. Convicted of burglary in 1845 he was transported to Tasmania. Joe didn’t know what the strange symbol carved into the boulder represented. He thought it might have been masonic. To me it looked like a stylized, ejaculating phallus.
Joe explained that the previous year he and his son had been exploring the wooded hills some miles from the town. His son had been on a gravel path and Joe had been deep in the undergrowth some way from him. Stumbling across some ruined huts Joe had called out to his son. Apparently, his shouting had disturbed an animal. His son shouted out to him that a strange animal had emerged from the bush and was on the road a few yards ahead of him. By the time Joe had got to the path the animal had gone. His son described it as the size of a whippet with tan coloured hair, dark stripes on the sides and a stiff tail. It trotted off up the track. The creature, apparently a young thylacine, had left a set of clear tracks. Joe and his son followed them up the road till they vanished back into the bush. On returning to their car it seemed that the creature had doubled back and walked around the vehicle before returning to the forest.
Joe returned next day with a camera and photographed the paw prints. They seem to show five visible claw marks on the front foot. The Tasmanian wolf was plantigrade unlike the placental wolf that was digigrade. This means that it walked on the whole of the foot and not up on the toes like true dogs. The dog’s dew claw equates to our thumb or big toe and is held clear of the ground. Clear tracks of a thylacines front foot generally shows five claw marks, a dog will show four. Also, there was a small indentation behind the metacarpal pad (that equates to the palm) on each print. Again, this is typical of a thylacine.
Mike and I made camp in the area and set up camera traps bated with fresh road kill or oven ready chickens. We spent the day exploring on foot and the nights driving.
The following day we travelled to another town in the area to meet up with veteran Thylacine hunter Col Bailey. Col saw a thylacine back in the 1960s on the mainland. He was on a canoe trip in the Coorong Lakes in 1967.
“400 yards away I saw a dog-like animal on the water’s edge. It was big, like a greyhound, a long animal with short legs, a long tail and a big head. But then it disappeared.”
This fired his interest in the animal, and he moved to Tasmania. Col was lucky enough to meet and interview old bushmen who had been around in the late 19th and early 20th century and mine their wealth of knowledge on the Tasmanian wolf. Without Col’s work and diligence these stories and information would be lost to the ages as all the old trappers and bushmen have long since passed away.
Col saw the animal again in 1995, this time on Tasmania and in deep bush.
“My eyes ran down its back and tail and it hit me — this was clearly a Tasmanian Tiger. I was entranced, riveted to the spot. I stood there and watched it for almost a minute before it hissed at me and turned into the bush. “
Beforehand he had heard the distinctive high- pitched yap of the animal and smelled its pungent odour.
Col kept the sighting under his hat for 17 years in order to protect the creature.
Col, now 78, has written three books on the thylacine, Tiger Tales, Shadow of the Thylacine and most recently Lure of the Thylacine.
We spoke for some time and covered the power of the animal’s bite. A recent paper tried to claim that the animal had weak jaws and would only feed on small creatures like possums. This is totally at odds with field reports at the time which said the Tasmanian wolf killed and ate kangaroos, wallabies and full- grown sheep, killing them with exceptionally powerful bites. Several reports said that when cornered by dogs a thylacine could bite clean through a dog’s skull. A more recent paper refuted the weak jaw hypothesis. Looking at the skull anatomy its authors concluded that the thylacine had a much more powerful bite than a wolf or dog, but the skull was not as well adapted to hold onto struggling prey. Wolves, being pack hunters, surround their quarry and hang onto it, worrying it to death. The solitary thylacine kills with one or more powerful bites.
Col also spoke of the absurd numbers of sheep kills laid at the thylacines door in the bounty years. It would have been impossible for the animals to have killed that many sheep without attacking them 24 /7.
Next day we visited a remote valley area before returning to Joe’s town. The librarian there had a story to tell. Twenty years before, her car had broken down some miles outside of town. There were no lights and she was compelled to follow the road in darkness towards the town. She soon became aware of a soft padding behind her. It was too dark to see anything, but she knew that something was following her. She shouted out and whatever it was ran back into the bush. Later she read of how Tasmanian wolves would often follow men in the bush. She was convinced that it was one such creature that tracked her that night.
We drove down to Hobart to see the thylacine display at the museum. There were stuffed specimens, pelts, skulls, bones and casts of the last known prints taken in the wild (according to them) but not a word on thylacine survival or the 4000 plus sightings since the 1930s.
Later we checked the camera traps. One of the bait carcasses had been partially eaten. A hole was ripped behind the back leg and the internal organs had been devoured. Something had taken the head too. Looking at the pictures we saw two quolls and a Tasmanian devil.
The following day we returned to Joe’s to borrow the photographs and make copies. Joe told us of some men out spotlighting who had seen a thylacine just six months before.
He also told us about the shack that was once home to Elias Churchill, a trapper who captured thylacines alive for zoos in the early 20th century. Col Baily rediscovered the shanty, not used since the early 1930s back in 2006. The hut was restored with a grant from Tourism Tasmania. Mike and I decided to take a look at it.
The location was remote and quite a distance away. Following directions and hand -drawn maps we found ourselves along a track in a wooded area. We failed to locate the hut. Mike walked on ahead and I lingered behind him. On a section of the track I became aware of a weird smell, somewhat like that of a hyena. I am a former zookeeper and regular zoo visitor and I am familiar with the smell. The odour seemed to intersect the track and was only in one area. It was as if whatever had left the scent behind had recently crossed the track. The Tasmanian wolf was said to smell very like a hyena.
We tried to find the shack again the next day and this time managed to get to it. The hut was small, and I was impressed that Churchill weathered the harsh Tasmanian winters in the structure. The remains of the stockade where he kept captured thylacines was still standing as well. Churchill snared them. Kept them in the pen then transported them out of the wilderness on horseback.
We placed a camera trap at the area where the odd smell was detected. On the way back I found some scat and preserved it in ethanol for analysis. It was dark and fudgy matching the description of thylacine droppings as the content of their diet is rich in blood. The dropping that we had found on the last expedition were found to contain bone fragments and were ultimately shown to be from large Tasmanian devils. This sample looked very different, lacking bone chips but containing hair.
Driving down to the South West we visited Lake Pedder, Australia’s largest freshwater lake. It was once a natural lake of modest size. In 1972 The Hydro Electric Commission of Tasmania flooded the lake by damming the Serpentine and Huron River and extending the lake to its current size of 242 square miles. The project was opposed by conservationists and galvanized the green movement in Tasmania. Tasmanian premier Eric Reece supported the project and gave the following, appalling quote.
“There was a National Park out there, but I can’t remember exactly where it was ... at least, it wasn’t of substantial significance in the scheme of things.”
In 1972, the activist Brenda Hean and pilot Max Price were killed when their Tiger moth plane crashed. They were flying from Tasmania to Canberra to protest the damming of Lake Pedder; it was alleged that pro-dam campaigners had entered the plane’s hangar and placed sugar in one of its fuel tanks.
The flooding led to the extinction of the extinction of the Lake Pedder Earthworm (Hypolimnus pedderensis). Another victim was the Pedder galaxias (Galaxias pedderensis) a tiny fish found only in the lake. It is now extinct in the area by populations have been translocated to one at Lake Oberon in the Western Arthurs mountain range and one at a modified water supply dam near Strathgordon.
Sickeningly big business always seems to triumph over environmental or conservation concerns. Though it looks beautiful the lake leaves a bad taste in the mouth. There are pressure groups today that are advocating the draining of the man- made lake and the restoration of the original Lake Pedder.
Joe had told us of another local man, Bill Morgan, who had seen a Tasmanian wolf back in the 1970s. We tracked him down and he agreed to talk to us.
A sprightly 93-year-old Bill had worked for the hydro-electric company. He encountered a thylacine in 1979 but would not reveal the exact location. Bill was in a carful of co-workers. They drove over a bridge and saw a thylacine in the middle of the road. Bill described the animal as ‘beautiful’ with sleek fur and stripes. It moved with stiff looking hindquarters. It left the road and looked back at them as it went. The group had it in view for six minutes.
His friend Max Macallum also saw a thylacine in the same year. The animal crossed the road in front of him as he was driving to his brother’s house.
Bill had recently caught up with his cousin whom had had not seen in decades. Amazingly, just eighteen months before the cousin and five other people in a car, had seen a family group of thylacines. A male female and three pups crossed the road in front of them. It happened on the road to town in West Tasmania.
Bill had no doubt that the Tasmanian wolf was still around.
We visited a range of mountains in which the remains of an old osmiridium mining town was located. Osmiridium, a natural alloy of osmium and iridium was used mainly to make pen nibs. Tasmania was the world’s foremost supplier of the alloy. Only a few preserved shanties remain of the town.
We checked the camera traps and found only devil, quoll and other fairly common creatures on the pictures. The traps were re-baited with fresh meat.
We took time out to visit an artist called David Hurst. He is producing life- sized bronze busts of thylacine heads. He showed us his workshop where he was first carving the heads in wax. They were remarkable in detail. David thinks the animal is still with us and thought that the South West wilderness might prove a bountiful area.
We visited Jo again and we headed up to the hills again. He told us of finding the remains of an aboriginal hearth under a felled tree in the early 1970s. He believed that the hearth had been preserved there for over fifty years.
We met with Kathy Brownie, the proprietor of a local coffee shop. She had played a bit part in the 2011 film Hunter starring Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill and Frances O’Connor. The film sees Dafoe as a hunter employed by a pharmaceutical company to track down the thylacine. An unimpressive flick it is filled with scientific errors such as giving the animal a venomous bite!
Much more interesting was the small museum she maintained in the shop. Among the fossils and minerals were alleged casts of the hind foot of a Tasmanian wolf. It clearly showed the long carpal pad. The casts of the tracks were taken back in 1991 by a guy called Rusty Morley.
Kathy told us that in 1971 she was living in a mining town consisting of wooden shacks and very limited amenities. She said that a bulldozer had uncovered an old thylacine lair that had the remains of prey animals in it. She claimed to have heard the Tasmanian wolf’s call on a number of occasions.
Upon returning to his home we found that seven pigs, escapees from some neighbouring farm, had chomped their way through Joe’s potato plants and were now making free with his pumpkin patch. I chased them out of the garden and down the lane with a mop.
As the expedition wound down, we returned to Launceston and visited the natural history museum there. We found it to be better than the one at Hobart. It covered the possibility of thylacine survival and had a map of sightings from the 1930s to the early 1970s. Why this had not been updated was anyone’s guess.
The next expedition was provincially scheduled for February of 2017.