Monday, 25 October 2010

FALLBROOK: Yard sale find may be rare, valuable pelt from extinct animal

Fallbrook resident Bill Warren had no idea what he had when he bought a well-worn, striped animal pelt for $5 at a yard sale earlier this year, but after weeks of research he says he's confident it is from a carnivorous marsupial called the Tasmanian tiger that could be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Cashing in on his find isn't going to be easy, though.

Warren, 66, said this week he wants to sell the pelt at an overseas auction, but that he can't because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the tiger as an endangered species even though it hasn't been seen in captivity or in the wild since 1936.

As far as Warren is concerned, the animal is extinct, not endangered, which is an important distinction. It's illegal to sell endangered animals or any of their parts across state lines, but it's OK if they're extinct. "(The Tasmanian tiger) has been extinct 74 years," Warren argued this week, adding that the wildlife service didn't classify the animal as endangered until 1970, or 34 years after the last known Tasmanian tiger died in the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania.

Warren said he bought the pelt two months ago at a yard sale in Rainbow from a woman who told him she bought it in Boston 32 years ago. "I had it on my wall a couple of weeks before I went on the Internet looking for striped animals," Warren said in explaining how he discovered that the distinctively striped pelt might have come from a Tasmanian tiger. Warren said he sent high-quality photos of the pelt to John Long, an Australian native and vice president of research and collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Reached at his office Monday, Long said he can't confirm the pelt as having come from a Tasmanian tiger without seeing it in person, but that the pelt's pyramid-like design of stripes were unique to the animal. Although the Tasmanian tiger ---- also called a Tasmanian wolf ---- resembled a canine, it was actually a carnivorous marsupial about 6 feet long, weighing about 45 pounds. Long said farmers on the Australian island of Tasmania put a bounty on the predator to protect their livestock. The animal was hunted to extinction in the wild, he said.
Warren may have a good case in trying to convince the wildlife service to re-list the tiger as extinct.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international agreement among governments adopted in 1963, has listed the Tasmanian tiger as extinct since 1936, or since the last-known tiger died in the zoo in Tasmania. Warren said he hasn't found anyone in California interested in buying the pelt. But in Australia, where two of the animals adorn Tasmania's crest, the pelts can bring a small fortune, he said.

ABC News in Australia reported in June that replicas of the pelts sell for thousands of dollars. Warren said he has been in contact with Australian auction houses eager to get his pelt and that one auctioneer told him he has sold Tasmanian tiger pelts for $270,000 and $68,000.

Warren said wildlife service officials told him that while they would consider his request to re-list the animal as extinct, it's not likely to happen anytime soon because it would require time-consuming studies. "I thought they could just push a button and just remove it from the list, but they're not moving that fast," he said. "Studies?" he added. "I said, 'Go to the Internet. Go to Tasmania. Look around. Put your boots on and take a good look. You won't find one.'"

Tim Van Norman, a chief of permits for the wildlife service, said this week that the tiger's listing as endangered may be an oversight. "It is believed to be extinct, but for whatever reason, it had been put on the list and has not been taken off," he said, adding that since the animal roamed another land, questions about its status may have never come up until now.

Van Norman said the wildlife service is reviewing its list of foreign species considered endangered, including the Tasmanian tiger, but that it's not clear how long the review will take. For now, he said, rules are rules and Warren can't sell his pelt across state lines without a special permit from the wildlife service. Warren said he plans to pay the $100 fee to seek a special permit from the wildlife service, hoping agency officials will recognize his argument that the Tasmanian tiger was already extinct by the time the service listed it as endangered.

Wildlife service public information officer Vanessa Kauffman said Warren has another option: filing a petition seeking changes to the endangered species list. After checking records, she said nobody has ever petitioned the service to remove the Tasmanian tiger from the list.

Warren said he plans to be the first.
Call staff writer Gary Warth at 760-740-5410.

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