The Riddle Of The Tasmanian Tiger
Tasmania's Elusive Phantom
The rain was coming down in a steady stream as naturalist Hans Naarding woke up in the back of his Landcruiser. It was 2 am in the morning, and he moved up to the front of the vehicle, and stared out at the muddy track he had driven in on. The date was April 1, 1982, and Naarding, a ranger for Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Department, was out in the bush near the Arthur River in Northwest Tasmania. Out of habit he turned on his spotlight and swung it around in front of his vehicle.
The spotlight hit upon something standing in the middle of the path. The animal stood still and stared into the light. The ranger watched it for a couple of minutes, mentally taking notes of the animal before reaching to grab his camera bag. The movement caused the creature to quickly move on into the undergrowth again. Naarding got out of the truck and tried to pick up it's trail but was unsuccessful.
When he made it back to the station and explained his sighting, he caused quite a stir. Because what his light pinpointed was an impossibility, a phantom from the past. What ranger Naarding claims to have seen in his spotlight was a Tasmanian tiger (Thylacine) which had supposedly been extinct since the 1930s.
The Sad Story of the Tasmanian Tiger
Tasmanian Tiger was a popular name for a marsupial predator that was dog-like in shape except for stripes running down the back, and a stiff rigid tail that reportedly was unable to move back and forth much at all. The scientific name for the animal is the thylacine, and it was common in Tasmania when settlers arrived there in droves in the 1800's.
The thylacine was the apex predator on the island, and after being blamed for attacking and eating sheep, it was thought of as little more than a pest. Bounties were put out for hunters to shoot as many of the “tigers' as they could. The result of this decades long bounty was the thinning of the thylacine population by the end of the century. Thousands were killed to collect the offered reward. The last Tasmanian tiger shot in the wild was in 1930. The last surviving animal died in Hobart zoo in 1936.
The Tiger's Last Stand?
After fifty years of no definitive proof of the thylacine's survival it was declared extinct in 1986. However there are many that question whether the Tasmanian tiger is really extinct. There have been over 3,800 sightings of the creature since in 1936, many of them by multiple witnesses. Extinct or not, people are still reportedly seeing them in the wild.
The Tasmanian tiger was an unusual animal that had an odd gait due to it's front legs being shorter than it's back legs. The Thylacine could also hop like a kangaroo for short distances, and had a pouch like other marsupials. When threatened it would open its jaws wide up to 120 degrees in a yawn like motion showing its teeth. And finally the “tiger” had its tell-tale stripes down its back and legs. A difficult animal to misinterpret for anything else.
The sightings have been as you would suspect mostly on Tasmania, however there have been a surprising number of sightings on the Australian mainland. There have even been sightings of this elusive animal on New Guinea. The government insists that the “tiger” is extinct, but many still hold out hope that it's still lives on in the more untraveled areas of Tasmania and Australia. The sightings on the mainland are very interesting because the thylacine was thought to have gone extinct hundreds of years before.
A researcher came forward with some evidence that collectors who would trade thylacines to zoos around the world for exotic animals for local collections hatched a plan in the late 1800's and early 1900s, and shipped some Tasmanian native animals to areas in southeast Australia, especially Wilson Promontory Park, a large dense forest on the tip of Victoria. Not surprisingly the park is a hot zone for tasmanian tiger sightings. Perhaps they sent a handful to isolated southwest Australia as well. There must be a reason people in these two areas keep having sightings of something that is not supposed to exist.
Is the Thylacine Still Out There?
Many of the reported sightings could have simply been mis-identification. But a number of reports are intriguing. A few of the more interesting sightings:
1970-In Crabbes Creek, New South Wales, a man working a summer job picking bananas was a witness to a strange creature being cornered by a German Shepherd. The animal was trapped in an old shed, and eventually the dog backed out of the shed with the dog like creature in front of him. The farm owner, the man and other farm workers were all witnesses. Eventually the creature made a run for it, and hid in a hollow log. The farm worker went to get his gun wanting to get rid of the “monster”, but the animal escaped. The description from the witnesses matched the thylacine. During the standoff the animal had opened it's jaws to an unusual degree, and had an odd gait as it ran away.
A somewhat odd report from 1953. An old trapper insisted that he had killed a tasmanian tiger that had been trapped on one of his rabbit lines. He brought the skin back to town, and it appeared in the newspaper that he had killed a tiger. The trapper was surprised to receive a visit from the Tasmanian Animal and bird protection board. The officer confiscated the pelt, and insisted that he had caught a tiger cat, further threatening prosecution if the story went any farther. The trapper insisted that it had been a tiger that he snared, and the game officer then stated it was possibly a hyena. There are no hyenas in Tasmania.
The skins were never seen again, and the story if factual makes you wonder if the government knows that thylacines still prowl the deep forest and uninhabited valleys, and are in an active campaign to keep the findings quiet. Probably make sense since a sightings will often bring out every hunter and trapper within hundreds of miles to kill a tiger.
There are a large number of roadside sightings in both Tasmania and Australia. Hundreds of people have claimed to see unusual animals crossing the road in front of them. Their descriptions often fit the tiger. Once these witnesses see pictures of the thylacine they insist that is what they saw. Almost all note the stripes, and the unusual gait of the animal which looks almost hunchbacked. The tiger had and unusual look and gait because of their close relation to the kangaroo. They had an odd way of movement which led many witnesses to think it was an injured dog until it took off at full speed.
A Questionable Verdict
If the tasmanian tiger is still out there, eventually one is going to be captured, or shot, and we will know for certain. But for now if it still exists, the tiger remains a phantom that roams the deep forests of Australia and Tasmania. There have even been stories of Thylacine type creatures moving around the wilds of New Guinea. I'd like to think it is still out there, and the evidence is tantalizing, however there still is no conclusive proof to go on. The Australian government insists the Thylacine is extinct and extinct is how they will remain until somebody comes forward with a live one.
Analysis of a 1973 Thylacine Sighting
Full View of a Thylacine
Bailey, C. (2003) Tiger Tales: Stories of the Tasmanian Tiger : HarperCollinsPublishers PTY Limited