Lure of the Thylacine
True stories and legendary tales of the Tasmanian Tiger
by Col Bailey
In this, his third book, Bailey has endeavoured to present accounts which cover as many aspects of the thylacine debate as possible. Most of his more than sixty stories cover a time period from the mid-1880s to the early twenty-first century. There are also a few concerning the pre-settlement days and the Aborigines’ attitude towards this most remarkable animal. Many of his fascinating stories cover the bounty period, which led to the destruction of thousands of thylacines.
The stories bring out the attitudes of different groups of settlers and their relationship with the thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger. Unfortunately in most cases the tiger was seen as the villain, demonised as a killer of sheep and a danger to humans and victimised by pernicious bounties provided by governments, companies or private individuals. Only in more recent times has this animal been romanticised, even to the point of adulation.
Bailey saw his first thylacine while canoeing, of all places, along the Coorong in South Australia and his most recent sighting was in South West Tasmania in 1995. Since that time he has been determined to prove to the world that the Tasmanian Tiger is NOT extinct. He is absolutely convinced that this once prolific animal is still with us. He has been collecting and recording bushmen’s and trappers tales as well as accounts of anyone who ever was lucky enough, or not, to see one. In doing so he has added a vast amount of knowledge and understanding about this little known animal.
The thylacine figured prominently in Aboriginal folklore with links going back thousands of years. Fossil evidence shows that thylacines were once widespread throughout Australia, and New Guinea. There are also cave paintings of them in Arnhem Land and The Kimberley Ranges. Eyewitness accounts of Tasmanian Aborigines killing and eating tigers figured prominently in the early days of European settlement.
According to Tasmanians it is just impossible that thylacines could, or can, be found anywhere else but Tasmania. Not only is it impossible, but also too upsetting for them to even contemplate such an outrageous thing. Be that as it may, South Australia too had its tiger. This ‘monster’ was spotted in the early 1890s around Tantanoola. The Tantanoola Tiger, as it became known, has been seen as late as the 1970s.
A skeleton of a tiger was located in a cave in 1965 on the Nullarbor Plain. Sightings have been reported from such places as Mount Gambier, Kingston, Keith, Furner, Salt Creek, Lucindale, Robe, Beachport, Millicent, Naracoorte and many other places in between. The last sighting was reported in 1974 near Frances. Many residents from the South East were disturbed by the attitude taken by the South Australian Museum, which dismissed them as hoaxes and the tigers as wild dogs.
Descriptions of the Tasmanian Tigers varied greatly, even from sightings in the same area. According to one man, who had done a lot of hunting, ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. I was too frightened to get out of my car to have another look at it. It had a head like a calf with big broad ears. It head was dark brown and there were fawn stripes all over its body and tail. I’d hate to meet it in the dark’.
Another account states that ‘it had a most peculiar body. It had long coarse, brown and black hair and toenails that looked like claws. The body was that of a dog-like animal with a wolf-like face, it was over three feet long and had a huge tail’.
Meanwhile back in Tasmania Mary Roberts’ work with thylacines won her worldwide recognition as an authority on the marsupial. She was elected as a corresponding member of the Zoological Society of London and was often visited by Professor Theodore Flynn, father of Errol Flynn, who was Professor of Biology at the University of Tasmania.
Mounted specimens are held at the Berlin Museum and in 1998 a special display of the Tasmanian Tiger at the Tasmanian Museum was opened by Dr Heinz Moeller, Professor of Zoology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. The exhibition took up 350 square metres. The display encouraged visitors to face facts and learn from past mistakes and become aware that the same tragic scenario could well happen again.
Bailey’s stories are full of anecdotes of the Tasmanian Tiger from all parts of Australia but naturally the majority are from Tasmania. He relates in detail the government’s infamous tiger bounty scheme of 1888 which operated for the next twenty-one years and saw thousands of thylacines slain for the £1 reward on offer. It brought in more than two thousand tigers and resulted in the serious decline of their numbers. It was a desperate attempt to rid the island of every tiger, after all the only good tiger was a death tiger.
The hysteria surrounding the tiger caused many intending migrants to give Tasmania a miss and instead settle on the mainland to protect their children from being devoured by tigers. Even so, tigers were liked for their skins which adorned many homestead walls and floors.
Tiger skins have become collectors’ items. In 1988 one was sold for $12,600. At a recent Sydney auction a skin was sold for $68,000. Tasmanian graziers were at the forefront of the decimation of the tigers as according to many of them they suffered heavy losses of sheep and cattle. Many of them offered a higher bonus than the £1 on offer from the government.
Tigers were trapped in snares and poisoned. They were a bane to trappers, being difficult to catch at the best of times.
However, their reluctance to take a bait made it extremely difficult if not impossible to poison them. The bait needed to be alive and kicking. Pit-fall traps proved to be much more successful. Regardless of the many ways they have been tried to catch, the tiger has survived the efforts of bounty hunters, graziers, trappers, axemen, bushmen, shepherds, prospectors and even disease.
On the brighter side, some became man’s best friend after being caught. Some trappers or lonely bushmen kept them as pets. One enterprising Tasmanian hunter put a thylacine on show in his backyard in Waratah, which turned out a pleasing economic success as even in Tasmania many people had never seen a Tasmanian Tiger. Thylacines were also sold to animal traders and overseas zoos.
Tasmanian Tigers were sold and transported to Victoria and introduced into Wilsons Promontory National Park by James Harrison in the early 1900s. This could account for some of the sightings in the South East of South Australia. The London Zoo had the world’s largest collection of tigers outside Australia. It was also in London where John Gould drew his famous sketches of the Tasmanian Tiger.
Other tigers finished up in the Launceston City Park Zoo which at one stage had forty-five of them. The Adelaide Zoo had a number of them in the 1880s. On 13 May 1930 the last known tiger in the wild was shot by a young farmer in Mawbanna in Tasmania’s North West. The death tiger was photographed by Pat O’Halloran. Being one of very few known photographic records of a tiger taken outside a zoo it has become one of the most important pictures ever taken in Tasmania. The last captive tiger died in 1936 in the Hobart Domain Zoo. It had been trapped by Elias Churchill in 1933.
As with every other issue there are those who believe the tiger has survived to this day and those who don’t believe it. Bailey belongs to the first group, whereas the scientific community support the second. For the unbelievers there are still all the fine stories of the old-timers to enjoy, even though some would bring a tear to the eye. It is Col Bailey’s hope that this book will encourage all readers to question the current official wisdom about the tiger and to appreciate this very special animal. There is no doubt in this reviewer’s mind that one can’t help but to take note of his message and hope that we will be looking after our endangered species before they are gone too.
Review by Nic Klaassen
Lure of the Thylacine by Col Bailey,
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