We have already seen that the Pleistocene period, which dates back 2 million years to the close of the Pliocene, was dominated by the megafauna, chiefly the marsupial giants. Yet there were small species too, and the recent fossil discoveries at Riversleigh, in Queensland’s north-west, have added greatly to our knowledge of Australian animal life of this time, stretching back to the Oligocene period, over 23.3 million years ago.
The Thylacinids are well represented in the Riversleigh deposits, where the fossil record is diverse, ranging from tiny, specialised forms to large, more primitive kinds. Before the Riversleigh discoveries, the thylacinid fossil record of the Tertiary era was very poor. The Tertiary includes our present Holocene period, stretching back through the Pleistocene, Pliocene, Miocene, Oligocene, Eocene and Palaeocene, which covers a time span of 65 million years.
It was in late Miocene deposits at Alcoota, Northern Territory, that the earliest Thylacine species was found, this was Thylacinus potens, the “powerful” Thylacine, and is the largest known species, and appears to have preceded the Tasmanian Thylacine by about 4 to 6 million years. It is known from one 8-10 million years old fossil deposit near Alice Springs. The fossil remains show that Thylacinus potens was a massive-built, powerful animal, with a robust snout and large teeth, suggesting it had a bite as powerful as a Rottweiler dog.
The Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacinus cynocephalus, the species with which this chapter is concerned, due to modern-day sightings reports both in Tasmania and on the mainland, is probably as old as Thylacinus potens.At last count, palaeontologist Jeanette Muirhead has identified five different Thylacines from the Riversleigh Oligo-Miocene fossil faunas, these species range from one as small as a large domestic cat to one perhaps three-quarters the size of a German Shepherd Dog.
The smallest is only slightly smaller than the largest of Riversleigh’s dasyurids - small mammalian carnivores of the Oligo-Miocene periods. Dasyurids, numbats and thylacinds comprise the superfamily Dasyuroidea and the order Dasyuri morphia, all of which are dominantly carnivorous or insectivorous. Of the Dasyurimorphians, the ‘extinct’ Thylacinus cynocephalus was the largest; although fossil remains of the late Miocene Thylacinus potens suggest it was a more heavily built animal.
Recently found fragmentary evidence and old eyewitness reports suggest to scientists that the last mainland Thylacines may have died out in the Kimberley region of Western Australia as recently as 80 years ago, and at least 3,000 years ago in the southern half of the mainland. Hitherto this approximate date had been given to its entire mainland disappearance. Perhaps the following reports will one day help to write a new chapter to the Thylacine story.
From isolated regions throughout the Australian mainland, and in Tasmania, where the last officially recognised living individual died in Hobart Zoo in 1936, as well as New Guinea, where fossil remains convince scientists they became extinct 9,920 years ago, people in modern times are claiming to have seen, often at close quarters, living Thylacines.
Heather and I have carried out countless field investigations around Australia since we married in 1972, and interviewed far too many eyewitnesses in our search for the Thylacine, to accept that the species is totally extinct on the Australian mainland. For one thing, there was my own, personal sighting of a Thylacine outside Blackheath on the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney in 1972; and also the freshly made paw prints of one or more of these creatures found by ourselves and colleagues at another Blue Mountains location in 1983 and 1984, to be discussed later.
These tracks were cast and later compared with others made from freshly-made paw prints in Tasmania with which they match up. The Dingo arrived in Australia with Man. Just how long ago is debatable. Scientists have long believed this event took place around 8,000 years ago with Aborigines in watercraft from south-east Asia.
However, in the light that Aborigines have been present in Australia for much earlier than that, and with new findings that a continuous land-bridge between Australia and the Asian mainland would have permitted these animals to walk here, despite a present lack of fossil evidence for dingo presence at a much earlier date, it now seems certain its arrival could have occurred much earlier. Current official anthropological opinion recognises our Aboriginal people as the first human inhabitants of Australia.
This view is in error. As will be argued later in this book, Homo erectus was present in Australia in early Pleistocene times where he evolved into the earliest modern humans.
The Aborigines by comparison were mere latecomers. Having been present here only for the last 65,000 years as current scientific evidence shows. Aboriginal traditions speak of their ancestors walking into Australia with the first dingoes, and scientists believe the dingo was largely responsible for the supposed total extinction of the mainland Thylacine.
Yet other factors may have to be taken into consideration, for as I will demonstrate later in this book, other primitive Stone-Age races preceded even Homo erectus on this continent, so that dingo arrival in Australia could have happened long before Aboriginal times, just as the final extinction of the megafauna has been partially blamed upon Aboriginal ‘arrival’, when it is certain they were merely the last Stone-Age inhabitants of Australia, and that the presence of earlier races implies the megafauna extinction may have been a more gradual process, stretching back at least to Homo erectus times, or before!
When Abel Janszoon Tasman landed off southern Tasmania in December 1642, he recorded in his journal that while ashore he and his men “had observed certain footprints of an animal not unlike those of a tiger’s claws”.
The earliest known drawing of a Tasmanian Tiger was produced by George Prideux Harris in 1807, and thereafter interest in the Thylacine steadily grew.
So did the European population, and as farms spread, and with them the sheep population, so did the incidences of attacks upon flocks by Thylacines in the early 1800’s.
Yet, as modern-day researchers have shown, these attacks were not as devastating as the often exaggerated claims of the pastoralists of those times often maintained. Sporadic though these attacks were, they shot the creatures at every opportunity.
By the 1880’s in the wake of exaggerated claims by the graziers, that thousands of sheep were being slaughtered by the ‘tigers’, politicians began to take notice. Thus in 1885 Mr John Lynne, MHA for Glamorgan, moved that the Government provide 500 Pounds towards an eradication program. He estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 sheep were being killed by Thylacines, a gross exaggeration, yet nobody in authority challenged him on these figures.
John Lynne, MHR would earn the dubious title of ‘Tiger Lynne’ for what followed.
Those politicians in favour of the motion moved by John Lynne, argued that sheep graziers in the east coast districts of Avoca and St Paul had already lost at least 20% of their flocks to marauding ‘tigers’. Subsequently a Government bounty scheme was introduced on February 28th, 1888. The bounty payments were officially gazetted at One Pound for each adult animal, with the sum of Ten Shillings being paid out for each juvenile carcass.
The ‘Honourable Member’ for Glamorgan will enter history as the father of the bounty scheme, which ultimately led to the virtual extermination of the state emblem of Tasmania!
In the words of Eric R Guiler OA, Australia’s foremost authority on the Thylacine: “No other Tasmanian parliamentary action has had such a dreadful effect upon any of the state’s fauna”.
I have employed the term “virtual extermination” [of the State emblem of Tasmania], because I am one of those experienced researchers who firmly believes the Thylacine continues to survive, in critically small numbers, in remote corners of Tasmania.
And, as research shows, based upon the great many sightings occurring in certain regions over given periods, in Victoria, NSW and Queensland, its numbers on the mainland suggest it has a better, long-term survival there. Even so, the mainland ‘tiger’ must still be considered a very rare creature, and every effort made to guarantee its future survival. As the Thylacine is best known to Tasmania, we shall begin our study of eyewitness reports there.
The last officially recognised ‘tiger’ shooting in the wild was that of Wilfred Batty at Mawbanna, in Tasmania’s north-west on 13th May 1930.
In Wilfred Batty’s own words, some two or three weeks before he shot this animal, one had been seen in the district. A road gang of about twenty workers who were camped about two miles from his father’s property, had claimed that a ‘tiger’ had on three occasions entered their camp and taken cooked food about a week prior to him having shot this one.
Wilfred said he had also been working with the road gang, but not camped with them. They informed him of the ‘tiger’ entering their camp, but he did not know whether or not to believe them. Even so, he observed that some of the men appeared to have been afraid of the animal.
Wilfred stated that the day he shot the Thylacine, he had been at home with his brother Tom, his sister and also his parents. They had been just about to sit down to their midday meal when his sister spotted the Thylacine at the fowl shed some distance away. There was a scramble for the gun and cartridges, which were hastily given to him by his father, Mr William Batty.
By this time the animal had disappeared behind the fowl shed. As Wilfred reached the shed he spotted the ‘tiger’ looking through the small hole cut in the wall for the fowls to go through. At this moment the fowls were creating a loud noise inside the shed. The Thylacine saw Wilfred and ran off. It had reached a distance of about 35 to 40 yards from him before Wilfred fired and wounded the animal and chased it down.
He said the animal lived for about half an hour after he brought it home. The Thylacine was a male in good condition, and he sold it to Mr Jim Harrison of Wynyard for Four Pounds. Mr Harrison intended to send the Thylacine to the Launceston Museum. The body was sent there by train, but no record has been found of it having arrived there.
In 1937, a year after the last Thylacine in captivity died in Hobart Zoo, fresh tracks of an apparent ‘tiger’ were found on the banks of the Jane River from which plaster casts were produced; and despite its official extinction, according to an article published in the Derwent Valley Gazette of 6th April 1994, in the Winnalea district, south of Springwood there have been 360 recorded sightings of Thylacines in the fifty years from 1936 to 1986.
Mr L.P. Milne of New Norfolk reported an incident in December 1984, involving a friend of his who, in 1945 was staying at a hotel in Strahan and in a conversation with two fishermen they told him that, back in 1936 they had gone ashore near the Mainwaring River to shoot wallabies for bait. One man said he had seen a movement in the tea-tree scrub and fired at it. Instead of a wallaby, he found that they had killed a Thylacine.
This west coast region, on the edge of Macquarie Harbour, on the southern shore of which is the Southwest Conservation area, with Cradle Mountain, Lake St Clare and Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Parks to its east, is a wilderness region steeped in ‘tiger’ lore, where sightings of these marsupials continue into the 21st century.
At Togari, in north-western Tasmania, in January 1970 a Mr Gates was driving around 1pm in good sunlight, along the Montague River when he was forced to stop, as a Thylacine suddenly appeared on the road ahead of his vehicle.
As he sat watching it, the animal quite undisturbed by his presence, continued to slowly walk across the road, crossing over the shallow adjacent river, to disappear on the other side into a heap of logs.
Mr Gates noted that the animal moved with a low, squat gait. It was the size of a small dog, he said later, with body stripes clearly visible, and a very stiff tail. He managed to grab his camera which happened to be in the car beside him and snap a picture. There is a natural animal track across the river at the point where the Thylacine crossed.