Hunting a Striped Phantom

Times Staff Writer

For years, Trudy Richards searched the forests of Tasmania for the elusive creature with the head of a wolf, the pouch of a kangaroo and the stripes of a tiger.

She put motion-sensor cameras and audio recorders in the forest. She built sand traps to capture a footprint. She trekked through the woods, her camera at the ready. She spent hours on stakeouts -- all in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the ancient thylacine.

And then, she says, she finally saw one. According to her account, a Tasmanian tiger, as the creature is commonly known, walked into her campsite one winter evening just before midnight. Richards says her camera was out of reach but insists there was no mistaking the animal's distinctive black stripes.

There's just one problem. The thylacine has been listed as extinct since 1986 -- 50 years after the last known specimen died in captivity at Tasmania's Hobart Zoo. Although some scientists say the animal might have survived into the 1980s, there has been no confirmed sighting in 68 years. Scientists say the species vanished from mainland Australia thousands of years ago.

Such negativity does not deter tiger hunters like Richards. Tasmania, a rugged island of 460,000 people south of the Australian mainland, is known for its independent streak, and many here reject the verdict of science. For them, the survival of the world's largest marsupial carnivore is a matter of faith.

"They're out there," says Richards, 41, who has no scientific training and works as a clerk at a farm supply store. "They've been out there for the last 70 years. You either believe or you don't."

Like the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot, the legend of the Tasmanian tiger has taken on a life of its own. Hundreds of people claim to have seen one. Volumes have been written about it. Several websites are devoted to the search. Media mogul Ted Turner once offered a reward of $100,000 for proof of the creature's continued existence. A handful of tiger hunters dedicate their lives to finding it.

The searchers take hope from the fact that the Tasmanian tiger -- unlike the mythical creatures of Scotland and the Pacific Northwest -- once existed, roaming Tasmania and mainland Australia for tens of millions of years.

"So many people have seen it, they can't all be lies," says Col Bailey, one of the most dedicated hunters. "I've smelled it and I've heard it and I believe I saw it in 1967. But I've got no proof."

The tiger hunters are not alone in hoping for the animal's resurgence. While they search the dense forest for evidence of a living thylacine, scientists in Sydney hope to prove that, in the Tasmanian tiger's case, extinction is not forever.

At the Australian Museum in Sydney, scientists have taken the first step in cloning the thylacine from museum exhibits and dream of someday creating a colony in the wild.

In 2002, they reported success in replicating thylacine DNA extracted from a pup that had been preserved in alcohol, but since then the work has slowed. Some suggest that the team's biggest accomplishment has been in generating publicity for the museum.

"It's obviously a very long shot," acknowledges Don Colgan, who is heading the project.

More like a large dog than a tiger, the thylacine had a wolf-like head and jaws that opened remarkably wide. Its body was yellow-brown with black tiger-like stripes on its back and hindquarters. It had a long snout and a thick, stiff tail. The female had a pouch that opened toward the rear, an advantage in protecting the young when it moved through brush.

The thylacine was known to eat only fresh meat, unlike its closest relative, the smaller Tasmanian devil, an aggressive, noisy marsupial notorious for devouring carrion.

When European settlers introduced sheep to Tasmania in the 19th century, the thylacine found a ready source of food. Sheep farmers blamed the tiger for huge losses -- sometimes unjustly -- and the creature was soon branded a dangerous pest. In 1888, the government offered a bounty of 1 pound sterling, the equivalent of a week's wages, for each thylacine killed.

Thousands were shot, trapped, snared, clubbed and poisoned. By 1910, the thylacine population had fallen so low that the bounty scheme was abandoned. As the creature was disappearing, museums contributed to its demise by offering large payments for specimens.

Today, the thylacine has become a Tasmanian icon. The tiger can be seen on beer bottles, billboards, postage stamps, license plates, buses, city emblems, the state's coat of arms and the logo of the Tasmanian Cricket Assn. It even found its way onto a postage stamp issued by the African nation of Tanzania. Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service biologist Nick Mooney has spent more than two decades fielding reports of thylacine sightings and following up on those that appeared the most credible.

In 1982, he led one of the biggest official tiger searches after park ranger Hans Naarding reported seeing a thylacine close enough to count 12 stripes on its back. Mooney's team scoured northwestern Tasmania for a year without finding a trace of the animal. Today, Mooney does not rule out the possibility that the thylacine still exists but believes it is highly unlikely.

He has analyzed more than 700 reported sightings and sees a similarity to reported sightings of UFOs. Often, the reports are of brief encounters on a highway at dusk. Many truly believe they have seen a thylacine, he says, but eyewitness accounts are often unreliable.

Some reports come from people who are delusional, he says, like the man who called in 96 sightings, including a tiger stuck in his fence. When Mooney arrived on the scene, the man said he had freed the tiger and had a shredded sweater to show for it.

"With every year that goes by, the evidence is stronger that it's not there," Mooney says. "Common sense would tell you it's not there, but we could be wrong. I would love to be wrong."

The disappearance of the species has spawned a new breed of Tasmanian adventurer -- the thylacine hunter. Often secretive and solitary, the hunters distrust one another yet have a fundamental optimism and believe in the beleaguered tiger's ability to survive against all odds.

They say their goal is to protect the tiger. But they also talk of the millions of dollars they believe the discovery would be worth.

One of the foremost hunters is Bailey, 66, an affable retired landscape gardener who has spent more than 30 years searching for the tiger. He wrote a book, "Tiger Tales," a collection of stories of purported thylacine sightings and old-timers' accounts of the animal.

At his home in New Norfolk, his den is devoted to the creature. Old photos of thylacines, drawings of the animal and photos of Bailey on the hunt adorn the walls. On a map of Tasmania, hundreds of pins show where tigers were killed long ago under the bounty system.

Bailey says his obsession with the thylacine began when he was 29, after he became convinced that he saw one outside the mainland city of Adelaide not far from his home. He theorizes that the animal he saw had escaped from a zoo decades earlier.

Bailey retired here 15 years ago to pursue his search full time.

"It's a passion, I guess. Maybe I am mad," jokes Bailey, whose father taught him how to find his way in the wilderness by taking him into the woods when he was 4 and leaving him.

He says he fields dozens of calls a year from people who say they have spotted a thylacine. No one has ever found the carcass of a tiger, he says, because Tasmanian devils quickly consume every dead creature in the forest.

He recently spent 12 days tramping alone through the rugged wilderness of southeastern Tasmania following his hunch that the creature was there. He wore a foul-smelling potion he made so the tigers would not get his scent, but he still came up empty.

"I'm just waiting for the day when I really get the proof," he says. "Science has this myth, and it is a myth, that the last one died in Hobart in 1936. But you can't put a date on extinction. To say that was the last one is pretty far-fetched."

Bailey is a bit reluctant to talk about the one he is certain he saw a couple of years ago. He was driving across Tasmania's central highlands and stopped to rest. Leaving his camera gear in the car, he walked a short distance into the woods, he says, and suddenly a thylacine ambled by. The animal was gone before he could retrieve his camera.

"I felt like an idiot," he says. "I wasn't expecting it. This animal is like a phantom. It appears and disappears like an apparition. I don't say much about that one."

The little town of Mole Creek in north-central Tasmania was once in the heart of thylacine country. Today, a popular place to see the animal is at the Tiger Bar on the main street of town. On the wall are dozens of thylacine likenesses: drawings, murals, footprints, news articles, a fake tiger fur, and even a cartoon of Tiger Woods as a golfing thylacine. Customers drink Cascade beer -- the one with the Tasmanian tiger on the label.

"My grandfather used to see them," says Ron Lee, 57, a retired logger drinking a beer at the bar. "He used to shoot them."

Lee has lived in Mole Creek all his life but says he's never seen a tiger.

"I honestly think they are extinct," he says. "There are more people in the bush than there ever was. With all the loggers and the bush walkers, there hasn't been one photo or any real evidence that the tiger still exists.

"I'd like to think the tiger's still around," he adds, "but I've spent my life in this area and I've never seen any sign at all."

A frequent customer at the Tiger Bar is Trudy Richards, who lives nearby and features in some of the news clippings on the wall.

Richards, whose cattle-ranching ancestors used to snare tigers in the highlands, says her close encounter occurred about 12 miles northeast of Mole Creek. About 11:30 at night, she says, the thylacine strolled into her camp.

"It wasn't a devil. It wasn't a wallaby. It was definitely a tiger," she says. "The stripes really stood out. That's the first thing you see. It's got the most beautiful eyes, really dark, almond-shaped eyes."

She says she shone her flashlight on the animal and observed it for about two minutes from about 40 yards away before it disappeared into the woods. She says she was unable to find footprints later because the soil was dry. But she does not seem distressed that she has no proof of her sighting.

"It took me 20 years to see one, and that's not a bad average," she says, adding, "You never have your camera when you want it."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Tasmanian tiger

The Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, has been officially extinct for nearly 20 years. It once lived across a wide area, including Tasmania, mainland Australia and New Guinea.

What was it: A carnivorous marsupial.

Size: 30 to 80 pounds, roughly the size of a German shepherd.

Description: Yellowish-brown to gray, with dark stripes across back from shoulders to tail. Dog-like head with a large, powerful jaw and 46 teeth. Had a rear-opening pouch for up to four young.

Habits: Mostly nocturnal or semi-nocturnal, hunting mainly at night alone or in pairs.

Life span: Estimated 12 to 14 years in the wild.

Prey: Other marsupials, but also small rodents and birds; also, reportedly sheep, after Europeans settled in Tasmania.

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Tiger's time

1803: Europeans, who had already settled Australia, begin living in Tasmania.

1824: Sheep grazing begins in Tasmania.

1830: First bounties are offered on the thylacine, because of sheep losses.

1933: Last known wild thylacine is captured and sold to Tasmania's Hobart Zoo.

1936: Last thylacine dies at the zoo.

1986: Thylacine is declared extinct.

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Sources: Australian Museum, Naturalworlds.org

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