by Nicholas Shakespeare
One wet night in March 1982, Hans Naarding was surveying snipe in north-west Tasmania when he came face to face with a Tasmanian tiger – a creature that he believed to be extinct.
Naarding is a bushman with many years of experience in Africa and Australia. He sits on a bench overlooking the Hobart waterfront and recaptures that moment. “I had driven down a disused forest track,” he begins in his quiet voice, a tall, thin Dutchman in his late seventies. “The weather was ghastly, with a howling gale and horizontal rain, so I switched off the engine and climbed into the back of my Landcruiser and into my sleeping bag. At 2 a.m. I woke up, grabbed my spotlight, opened the window, put out my arm and shone the torch around – and came to rest on a thylacine. I realised immediately what it was: its dropped jaw was a dead giveaway. It turned its head – I could see the yellow light reflecting in its eye – and it just stood there in front of the vehicle, about five yards away.
“I held the spotlight, while the water ran down my arm into the sleeping bag. He was a healthy male, at least four or five years old. My scientific mind said: I’d better register what I see. I weighed him. I measured him. I counted his stripes – twelve, on a sandy coat. Two things stood out. His stripes, and the massive butt of his tail. The end of his rump was overhanging his hindquarters in a way totally different from a dog, more like a striped hyena that I’d seen so many times in the African savannah.”
Naarding’s testimony is unique – the first recorded by a professional wildlife biologist since the last Tasmanian tiger was thought to have died in Hobart’s Beaumaris Zoo in September 1936.
“I must have seen him for three minutes, as clear as daylight. He didn’t take the slightest notice of the light. I wanted to get hold of my camera bag, but I never got that far. I had to bring my arm in and that upset him and he turned round and disappeared into the bush.”
Naarding remembers: “I shot out – but it was a solid wall of undergrowth. I only got that far” – and stretches his arm. “But I could smell him. A pungent scent very similar to hyena. I knew straightaway that to try to follow him would be pointless. At first light, I drove to the nearest town and rang the Director of Parks and Wildlife. He said: ‘You’d better go back, he might return.’ I thought that was a one in a million chance. But I went back and photographed a jerrycan where the animal had stood.”
Naarding’s sighting was kept secret for fifteen months while Nick Mooney, a colleague in Tasmania’s Parks and Wildlife Service, conducted an intense but fruitless survey of the area. Then, when the news became public, “pandemonium broke out”. Within a week, Naarding had television crews on his doorstep from Japan, Argentina, Europe. “I started to hide, I couldn’t do my work. If I’d known before what was going to happen, I’d have kept my trap shut. Make no mistake, I was thrilled to have seen a thylacine – it will always be a red-letter day. But it was also a curse.” Naarding left Tasmania shortly after.
Unlike, say, the Loch Ness Monster, the Bunyip or the Abominable Snowman, the Tasmanian tiger did indisputably exist, and within the cast of living memory. Once common on the Australian mainland, the tiger – the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial – made its final habitat in Tasmania, an arrestingly beautiful island the size of Ireland that lies 140 miles off Australia’s south coast.
Edward Carr, a cousin of George Bernard Shaw, is one of the few people alive definitely to have seen a Tasmanian tiger. He was at Hutchins school in Hobart in the 1930s. “We used to walk down to Beaumaris Zoo at weekends,” he says in his small bright drawing-room overlooking Tasmania’s capital. “The tiger was in a little cage half the size of this room. It used to wander backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. It was the last one and it died in the end.”
The death of Benjamin, as the “last” of the species was called, from pleuro-pneumonia on the chilly night of September 7 – now designated National Threatened Species Day – caused so little stir that it was not even recorded in the local papers. All that remains of Benjamin, whose pelt and bones were tossed into a rubbish tip, is a mute 62-second clip of black and white film taken by a man who was bitten on the buttock while operating the camera. To add insult to injury, the footage shows Benjamin to have been female.
Watched by a man in a slouch hat, Benjamin yawns, squats, tears flesh off a bone, looks around with an air of hopelessness and distress, and leaps every now and then at the cagewire. No recording exists of Benjamin’s bark, but the last curator at Beaumaris Zoo, Alison Reid, transcribed it as sounding like “ah-ah-ah-ah”.
Benjamin may have been the last Tasmanian tiger to die in captivity, but hardly a month passes without someone claiming to have spotted a live specimen in the bush.
Since Benjamin’s death there have been more than 4,000 sightings. Indeed, it has been calculated that every third Tasmanian has a story which confirms the continued survival of the Thylacinus cynocephalus, an Alsatian-sized marsupial with chocolate stripes across its back, the long stiff tail of a kangaroo and jaws that open wider than a snake’s.
Take Buck and Joan Emberg, retired university teachers who live near Lilydale. One rainy night they were driving home when, according to Buck, “there in the lights stood a mother thylacine and baby thylacine, right next to the road.” He says: “I braked and missed them and as I pulled in I said to Joan: ‘Don’t say anything until you’ve thought this through, but are you sure of what we just saw?’ She paused for 15 seconds: ‘I just saw two tigers.’ ‘That’s what I saw,’ I said. We turned around, hoping. But they had moved off.”
Or Laurelle Shakespeare, who saw a thinnish-looking thylacine near a shack in the Great Lakes. She was with her mother and the owner of the shack when the animal appeared in the middle of the day on a big ridge behind. “It just stood there,” she recalls, “and we stood there and then it flipped around and walked off, quickly disappearing into bush. I can remember feeling scared, a kid seeing something that was not supposed to exist. I turned to mum. ‘That’s a Tasmanian tiger.’ She said: ‘Yes, and we’re not telling anyone.’ Can you imagine? Three of us, seeing the same thing. There’d be people all over the place.”
Such sightings are compromised by the fact that not much is known about how the animal behaved in the wild. By general consent, the thylacine seems to have been shy, elusive and not very gainly. Unable to pounce, it had to wear down its prey. It preferred wallabies and possums, and had a particular liking for merino sheep, which it would bring to the ground by its vice-like jaws and kill by suffocation. A less messy killer than dogs, it had a taste for vascular tissue: lungs, hearts, livers. “The tiger would tear out the jugular vein, suck the blood, then, ripping a piece of flesh from the shoulder, discard the rest,” reported Jackson Cotton, who as a boy took part in a tiger hunt near Cranbrooke.
“They used to roar out at the back of Cranbrooke at night,” Ted Castle recalls in the kitchen of his old shack on Tasmania’s east coast. Ted himself never saw a tiger in the wild, but his father did – plenty. “My dad was a tiger hunter. He had one as a pet, had it tied up. It had got into the killing shed.”
Up the road, his best friend Alf Graham possesses a pair of tiger traps similar to those used by Ted’s father. Alf brings them out into the sunlight. Serrated iron contraptions coated in rust, they resemble the man-traps that local settlers concealed in barrels of flour to deter famished Aborigines. Still in working order, Alf’s tiger traps are of such rarity that a man came recently from the Victoria Museum in Melbourne to view them. “They belonged to my grandfather, George Tam Graham,” Alf explains. “The tigers used to eat his sheep out over where the willows are, where Rocky Hills runs into the Wye. It’s always said that the very last tiger was trapped by him with one of these.” With tremendous care, Alf springs both traps. Then he lays them side by side on the ground, their metal jaws agape. Awaiting the tread of an animal that may or may not any longer exist.
In 1803, when the British first colonised Tasmania, there were 2,000–4,000 thylacines on the island. Pretty soon, the animal was being hunted to death – literally. In 1830, the Van Diemen’s Land Company, in a bid to protect its sheep flocks, offered a bounty of five shillings for a male, and seven shillings for a female, and appointed a “tiger man” as a full-time tracker. In 1888, the Government increased the bounty to £1 for every adult carcass presented, and ten shillings for every pup’s.
In its twenty-one-year operation, the Tasmanian Government Thylacine Bounty Scheme accounted for 2,184 skins. Many were rumoured to have been fashioned into gentlemen’s waistcoats, but David Owen, author of Thylacine: The Tragic Tale of the Tasmanian Tiger, disputes this: “No such waistcoat is known to exist.” A more popular usage was rugs. A rug quilted from the pelts of eight thylacines and bought for £3 sold on 7 September, 2002 for £135,000.
In 1909, the bounty scheme was stopped. A distemper epidemic had drastically reduced the Tasmanian tiger population and sightings grew less frequent, although in 1912 a new hotel in the north-west still felt able to advertise “Tiger-Shooting” as one of its attractions. Live specimens were sold abroad for up to £150 – one of the leading exporters to foreign zoos being the movie actor Errol Flynn’s father, Professor Thomas Flynn.
All of which is to say that the Tasmanian tiger bounded into myth more or less before everyone’s very eyes. From the label on bottles of Cascade beer to the logos of Launceston city council and Tasmania’s local television channel, its distinct outline continues to track you at every turn. “It isn’t just a symbol of Tasmania,” explains the designer who adopted the image for the masthead of Tourism Tasmania. “It’s a symbol of the Tasmanian Experience.” Counterparts to unicorns on the royal arms, a pair of heraldic thylacines stand rampant in the state’s coat of arms. The creature has even lent its name to the island’s first cricket eleven, the Tasmanian Tigers. “It is/was a sleek, cunning and aggressive carnivore – a killer,” according to the former batsman David Boon, himself a local legend also known as the Keg on Legs. “If it still exists, it is … surrounded by mystery and extremely hard to track down. It certainly projects an appropriate image for our cricket team.”
And yet innumerable sightings since 1936 have not produced any concrete evidence that the species has survived, despite considerable financial inducements. In March 2005, The Bulletin magazine offered a $1.25 million reward for a photograph showing “a live, uninjured thylacine” (“No fuzzy photographs, please”). Soon afterwards, an anonymous German tourist claimed to have captured just such a specimen on his digital camera in south-west Tasmania. The photographs (which have never been published) were shown to Nick Mooney, the Parks and Wildlife officer who investigated Naarding’s sighting and who knows more about the thylacine probably than anyone alive. The digital images did nothing to alter the conclusion that Mooney has reached with immense regret. “The overwhelming evidence is that the thylacine is extinct,” he says. On September 7, 1986, four and a half years after Naarding’s torch found a responsive flash in the eyes of that solitary male, it was officially declared so.
Then, in May 2008, incredible news – an announcement that Australian and American scientists had succeeded in extracting a gene from a nineteenth-century Tasmanian tiger pup (preserved in ethanol since 1866) and made it work in a mouse embryo. According to the man who led the research, Dr Andrew Pask at the University of Melbourne: “This is the first time that DNA from an extinct species has been used to induce a functional response in another living organism.”
In Tasmania, the achievement of Dr Pask and his team has been dismissed as “sending in the clones” and has renewed fears of “a Jurassic Park-type scenario”. In that movie, dinosaurs were resurrected out of prehistoric DNA retrieved from fossilized amber – a notion that turned out to be not so far-fetched. Dolly the Sheep was created in 1996 from a single cell taken from the udder of a mature sheep – and in 2001 a rare wild ox known at the guar was cloned inside a cow named Bessie.
The fact that a thylacine gene has now activated cartilage in a live creature – and that the tiger’s surrogate mother might one day be a mouse – provokes a derisive response in experts like Nick Mooney. He has no truck with scientists who seek to clone the thylacine. “‘Clown it,’ we call it. I would argue that it’s quite irresponsible. It’s teaching people ‘extinct’ is not for ever. The same technology should be applied to preventing extinction.”
Even now, the tiger’s closest relative is under threat of extinction. The Tasmanian devil, a pug-sized scavenger that takes its name from a howl that freezes the blood, and which has been likened to “an exhaust pipe dragging on bitumen”, has replaced the thylacine as the world’s largest carnivorous mammal. But since 2001 a fatal and mysterious cancer has decimated the devil – a creature, Mooney argues, which “is every bit, if not more” the almost-mythical animal that thylacines were. “The thought of losing them too fills me with dread.”
Bruce Englefield runs a nature park on Tasmania’s east coast that is largely devoted to saving the Tasmanian devil, whose population has plummeted in seven years from an estimated 100,000 to 15,000. He is scathing of the tiger/mouse experiment: “It’s wrong thinking. The DNA won’t contain the innate behaviour of the thylacine – of all that has been learned over millions of years. And there’s nothing around for it to learn its behaviour from. More likely, it will have the innate behaviour of its host creature.” Englefield conjures this grotesque scenario: “You could have a thylacine that’s born looking like a Tasmanian tiger, but behaves like a mouse.”
For most people, a lot more exciting than creating a Tasmanian tiger with a timid, squeaky voice is the prospect of finding a bona fide thylacine still alive in its natural habitat – as Hans Naarding did. “I cringe if I think of all the projects that are desperate for funds,” says Naarding, who has recently returned to Tasmania.
For many years Naarding hoped that his sighting would result in the discovery of a few isolated pockets of thylacines in the south-west which might have survived on small kangaroos or carrion. “They would have had to adapt, and they could have done up to a point.” He hoped to hear of other credible sightings – “but the vast majority are a flash across the road after Friday pub closing. I’ve never met anyone who’s convinced me they’ve seen one.” He even hoped once again to come across a tiger himself, in the same spot south of Smithton. “I’ve often gone bushwalking and spent weeks up there, but I’ve never seen the slightest sign.”
So does he believe there are any Tasmanian tigers left?
He hesitates. Then says in a quiet, sad voice: “Frankly, I don’t think there are.”