Trailing a Tiger

by Rex Gilroy

Director, Kedumba Nature Display


Australasian Post, January 31, 1985

Trailing a Tiger

Far from tassie, baffling footprints, and strange cries from the forest; trailing a tiger.

For 25 years I have been searching the Australian bush for living proof that the 'extinct' Tasmanian tiger still survives on thee mainland. Now at last I could be closing in on the elusive marsupial. Last June, accompanied by my wife heater and a film crew, I was dropped by helicopter into a remote area of northern Tasmania to investigate a report that a small colony of thee Tasmanian tiger or thylacine existed there.

The expedition drew a blank, as in the past, but the search goes on. I am often asked in television interviews, what drives my search, year after year, for creatures regarded by university zoologists as long extinct. The interviewers ask why I believe the thylacine survives in mainland Australia.

First, there are the large numbers if eyewitness claims of sightings of often large, striped, dog-like animals, possibly thylacines coming from over a wide area of rugged eastern Australian mountain ranges, from far north Queensland through New South Wales to eastern Victoria. Second, plaster casts have been taken of tracks found on the mainland which compare with others from Tasmania, leaving no doubt as to the animals identidy. Third I had a personal sighting of a thylacine.

At 10.15 p.m. on Tuesday, February 22, 1972, a friend and I were driving along thee Great Western Highway just south of Blackheath towards Katoomba in the NSW Blue Mountains. As we passed thick roadside scrub, an animal almost the size of a full grown Alsatian dog, with fawn-coloured body fur and a row of blackish body stripes, ran across the highway in front of the car.

For a few seconds it stood there in the glare of the headlights before running off the road into the dense scrub, towards nearby Grose Valley. There is no doubt in my mind that the animal was a living thylacine. Its physical appearance matched that of stuffed specimen's preserved in government museums. Sightings of thylacine-type animals have occured throughout the Blue Mountains for generations. At least a dozen sightings have been made around the town of Springwood in recent years.

In 1975, one Springwood farmer reported attacks on his fowlyard by a large striped, dog-like animal, and almost shot the creature one day as it escaped over a fence with a hen in its mouth. During April 1983 such an animal was reported making raids on a Kanimbla Valley farm. In march 1982, a camper sighted a thylacine-like animal drinking from a creek in the Grose valley.

I later led some naturalists on a search of the area hoping to locate a possible "tiger" lair, but after three days of fruitless effort, fighting our way through impenetrable terrain, we were forced to give up. The camper described the animal he saw as being two metres long, with greyish body fur {coloration can vary} displaying about a dozen blackish stripes extending down the body.

A full-grown thylacine measures 2 m from head to tail, standing about 55 cm, with a rigid kangaroo-like tail which does not wag. The body narrows at the flanks like a greyhound, and the male has a larger and thinner face than the female. The number of stripes can differ with sexes. Males tend to have from nine to 11, beginning at mid-back, and ending at the tail rump, while female stripes number 18 to 22, beginning at the neck base and ending at the rump.

The female pouch faces rear, allowing her young to be protected from injury as the mother moves through undergrowth. These creatures are secretive and with the inaccessability of their mountainous habitats it is no wonder little evidence of thier survival is available to researchers.

It is difficult too arrive at exact population figures for mainland "tiger" colonies, but small colonies of four to eight individuals could exist in remote areas of eastern Australia. There could be a population of at least 400, but this in inconclusive. Thier breeding habits are largely unknown. early observations suggest mating occurs in summer when three of four young are born. Some breeding occurs throughout the year since young were found in the pouch at all months of the year.

The young probably have a life in the pouch of about four months and then run with the mother, hiding while she hunts for food. The last known "tiger" was killed by Wilfred Batty on his Mawbanna {T} farm in 1930, and the last captive specimen died in Hobart Zoo in 1934. Despite scientific claims to the contrary, mainland sightings persist, and the number of Blue Mountains sightings long ago convinced me to concentrate my investigations there.

North of the Grose Valley lies a vast and still largely unexplored wilderness, an eerie region of forest-covered mountains, valleys and swamps. In January, 1983, a group of hikers were camped on a mountainside when they were awoken by strange cries from the nearby forest. later, one of the men spotted a striped dog-like animal standing near the camp in the dim glow of the dying campfire.

In September, 1983, I led a search into this region accompanied by expert bushmen Rod Gerney and Robert Ashworth and several assistants in a convoy of four-wheel drive vehicles. While searching the muddy bank of a remote swamp for signs of animals, we came across tracks left by various marsupials. We also found two unusual sets of tracks. These superficially resembled those of a dog, but displayed marsupial features.

Plaster casts were made and later matched with others found in Tasmania in 1974 whose peculiar paw structure identified them as thylacine.We returned to the swamp last February, and found more evidence. The swamp is surrounded by dense scrub at the foot of a deep gully encased by steep cliffs. There is a maze of rock crevices and caverns in which any animals could live unseen, and it is into this gully that the 'tiger' tracks led.

About the edge of the swamp I found another set of "tiger" tracks. This animal had walked around the edge of before drinking, then retraced its steps back towards the gully. Later, above the gully, during a detailed search for more evidence we came across tracks of a full-grown animal, an apparent female, beside which were the smaller tracks of a young cub. These tracks were at least several hours old. However in the dense scrub we came across signs of a scuffle over a large area, between a wild pig and a thylacine, as indicated by thee dozens of tracks embedded in the soil.

These were only half-an-hour old and led deep into dense forest. Nearby we found a pile of day-old excrement containing pig bristles and crushed pig bone. Had it been left by a thylacine? It is obvious a colony of six to eight of these creatures exists in the gully. A photographic surveillance of the swamp is being set up in the hope of capturing at least one