Tasmanian wolf at the door

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.

research area

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.

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 Batty

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.The small population and vast wilderness convinced me more than ever of the Tasmanian wolf’s continued existence.

In 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 area 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.

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 devil 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.

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 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.

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.

“M 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.

Elias Churchill hut

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.

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