by Richard Freeman
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.”
I have been on three expeditions to Tasmania to search for the thylacine, but that is a story for another day.. 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.