Friday, 12 May 2017

Risking it all in a last-ditch search for Australia’s lost tiger

Two tantalising sightings of possible Tasmanian tigers have inspired a renowned conservationist to find out if thylacines really are extinct
By Graham Lawton

“THIS thing has taken on a life of its own,” Bill Laurance tells me over a glitchy Skype connection from a fieldwork site in Borneo. I’m not surprised, but I don’t say anything. What do you expect when you’re one of the world’s most respected conservation biologists, and you suddenly announce that you’re going in search of thylacines?

Laurance is not averse to publicity, but he is not one for stunts. A professor at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, his day job is to document the wanton destruction of the natural world by hunting, logging, climate change and the rest. “I’m repeatedly accused of being a depressing speaker because of the topics I talk about – habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and all that stuff,” he says. But sometimes something falls into your lap that you just can’t resist. For Laurance, an American living in Australia, it turns out to be the Tasmanian tiger.

Once the world’s largest marsupial predator, thylacines have long exerted a strong tug on the imagination – and the conscience. They lived all over Australia until about 4000 years ago, when they were wiped off the mainland, probably as a result of competition from newly arrived dingoes. They persisted on Tasmania, but the last known animal died in a zoo in Hobart in 1936, just 59 days after the Tasmanian government passed legal protection to halt an extinction for which it was largely responsible. For the previous 100 years, European settlers had subjected thylacines to remorseless persecution. With a government bounty on offer, sheep farmers shot, trapped and poisoned the animals in their thousands. The last wild thylacine was shot dead in 1930.

But sightings continued across Australia. Almost all have been dismissed as hoaxes or cases of mistaken identity: foxes, dingoes, feral pigs or even the rear ends of wallabies. But a few are less easy to discount.

One of those sightings was made by Brian Hobbs, a tourism operator and experienced bushman from Queensland. One night in 1983, while camping on the Cape York peninsula in the state’s far north, he twice saw a group of four dog-like animals with thick tails, short hair and stripes on their sides. “I’d never seen anything like them before, ever,” he later said.

Hobbs kept it to himself for 34 years. But earlier this year, prompted by a report on his local radio station about the possibility of de-extincting thylacines, he contacted the station. They recorded an interview in which he offered to reveal the location to anyone serious who wanted to investigate.

Which is where Laurance enters the story. As a frequent voice on the station, he was asked to comment on Hobbs’s account. “After hearing it I thought, huh… and so I phoned him. I didn’t lead him at all; I just tried to get him to tell me what he had seen. I kept asking open-ended questions – describe this, describe this. It’s a very plausible observation. Of course, he could have seen pictures of thylacines and internalised them, and it was in the 1980s, which counts against him. But he said he sat on it because he didn’t want to be seen as a kook.”

One key detail was the eyes. If you shine a torch on an animal’s face at night, the colour and shape of the reflected “eyeshine” is usually enough for an experienced zoologist to identify the species. Hobbs described the eyes as shining red. “That’s not common,” says Laurance. “On that basis, we’re able to discount dingoes, dogs and feral pigs. Those were the things we really wanted to rule out. Foxes don’t occur up there because it’s too warm.”


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