Tasmanian wolf at the door

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.

 I had always wanted to go in search of the thylacine. Back in the 90s as a student I spent some time planning an expedition only to be lied to and have my research stolen by a UK film company. Something that I am still bitter and angry about.

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. 2013. 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).

Lauceston

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.

Ramona Westbrook

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.

Tony Healy invited by Paul Bestall for the 
Mysteries and Monsters podcast

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.

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) .

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 camera traps set by the research team

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.

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 reaching seven feet.. 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 come 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.

Perameles gunnii

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.

The wallaby found on the side of the road

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 locked 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.

Notechis scutatus

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 locked 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.

Wild Batty

.

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!

Victoria funnel web spider 
Hadronyche modesta )

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.

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