Energy/Environment First Look

Decades after extinction declaration, hunt for Tasmanian tiger resumes

There have been many reported sightings, but one, in particular, was enough to get scientists to begin the search for a creature thought to have gone extinct in 1936.

Heidi DeWalt of the Australian Museum views a stuffed Tasmanian tiger, on May 16, 2000. Decades after being declared extinct, Tasmanian tigers have reportedly been spotted in far North Queensland, Australia, prompting scientists to launch an official search for the long lost marsupial.
Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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Caption

The Tasmanian tiger is a creature of legend. The only confirmed sightings since the last one held in captivity died in Australia's Hobart Zoo in 1936 are stuffed ones, aging photographs, or depictions on beer bottles.

But ever since, reported sightings, ranging from the plausible to ones that sound like a video of a flying Frisbee being declared a UFO, have piqued the interest of scientists.

Many who are certain they’ve spotted the small, dog-like form of the carnivorous marsupial with distinctive black stripes on its hindquarters have only told trusted friends for fear it would draw people to hunt the creatures.

But recently, a team of scientists from James Cook University in Queensland decided to launch a new study after a journalist encouraged Bill Laurance, one of lead researchers to take seriously an account by Brian Hobbs, a former tourism operator in Far North Queensland.

To conduct the study Professor Laurance and his colleague Sandra Bell will deploy 50 camera traps on Cape York, a rangy and remote peninsula in the country’s northeast.

"Laurance said Mr. Hobbs account stood out as being 'fair dinkum' and was clearly not fictitious," Australia’s ABC news reported

"He was quite detailed in terms of his descriptions of eye shines and aspects of the body pattern and movements," Laurance told the ABC. "All stuff that we were able to go back and cross-reference against other accounts."

The Tasmanian Tiger, also known as Thylacinus cynocephalus or thylacine, were once common in Tasmania and on the Australian mainland. But that was more than 100 years ago before a big Tasmanian land company offered a bounty to kill the tigers because they were hunting newly introduced sheep. The state later introduced its own bounty between 1888 and 1909 and eventually paid out more than 2,000 rewards, according to NPR.

The scientists said Hobbs description, although from a camping trip in 1983, corroborates with many other accounts since and was particularly noteworthy because of its detail and because the behavior he described was inconsistent with other dog-like mammals in the region. The ABC offered excerpts from his account earlier this month:

"I hopped out of bed and put her [his dog] on a short leash, grabbed a spotlight and started to look around the camp towards the ravine area where I'd been walking the dog previously," he said.

" 'All of a sudden I had these sets of red eyes looking at me and there was a male, a female and two pups – I got within 20 metres of them.' "...

" 'These animals, I've never seen anything like them before in my life,' he said.

" 'They were dog-shaped – I had a shepherd with me so I certainly know what dogs are about – and in the spotlight I could see they were tan in color and they had stripes on their sides."

Still, the scientists say the likelihood their camera traps will spot one of these creatures is remote, but with concern about other animal populations on the peninsula declining, Dr. Bell says time is of the essence.

"It's really important to get all the facts together and there are a lot of different things we need to be sure of before we spend the resources to actually go out look for something," she told the ABC.

"We have had declines in our mammals all through Cape York and through Australia, so my concern is that if we leave it too much longer to just go and have a look then we could actually miss out on seeing something."