Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Does the Thylacine still roam Victoria?

Over at The Casey Weekly, the Thylacine is the talk of the town. Here's what report Catherine Watson had to say about it:

The Tasmanian tiger was declared officially extinct when the last zoo animal died in Hobart in 1936. But over the years there have been several possible sightings on the outskirts of Cranbourne.

An image of a Tasmanian tiger sticks in many people's minds. Pictured in the Hobart Zoo in 1936, the lone animal stares warily out of her cage, the last remnant of a doomed species. She died soon after the photo was taken.

The Tasmanian tiger haunts the Australian imagination as no other animal does. Perhaps it's because Australians watched it become extinct before their eyes and only realised when it was gone what they had lost.

Less than 30 years earlier, the Tasmanian government had been paying out a bounty on tigers. It wasn't until 1936 that it was gazetted as a protected species.

Even in the 1950s, 15 or 20 years after the animal had been declared nationally extinct, reports of possible sightings prompted carloads of men with dogs and guns to set out on tiger hunts. The hunts were always unsuccessful, and a question mark remains on whether the tiger survives on the mainland.

In June 2009, the Cranbourne Journal (predecessor of the Casey Weekly) ran an article on a possible sighting of a Tasmanian tiger crossing Chevron Avenue, Cranbourne South, in 2001. Another Cranbourne resident claimed to have seen a tiger in Tooradin in 2000.

But does it survive on the mainland? The Australian Rare Fauna Research Association has about 3800 mainland sightings of an animal answering the description of the tiger in its files.

ARFRA secretary Dorothy Williams says a quick search brings up reports from Crib Point (1973), Warneet (1997) and Tooradin (2000).

While this is no hot spot for sightings, there are clusters of sightings not far away in the Dandenongs to the north, part of the east coast of

Western Port, and south from Wonthaggi, among many more scattered Gippsland sightings.

"It's always possible that some unexpected event can send an animal away from its usual territory."

She says the accounts differ from one eyewitness to another, but two details are constant: vertical stripes on the animal's back and its peculiar gait. People often report that the animal they saw ran clumsily, and nothing like a dog or fox.

What the association doesn't have yet is a photograph, the remains of a tiger from the mainland or - best of all - a live animal.

DNA tests of such an animal would solve the final mystery: whether mainland tigers - if they exist - are related to Tasmanian tigers, whether they are remnants of a separated mainland population or whether they are a different but similar animal.

The association is careful in its use of language when talking about possible sighting. It does not claim that the tiger exists, only that it has too many credible reports to ignore the possibility.

In 1979, there was a much reported report of a Tasmanian tiger by fencing workers at Lang Lang early one morning. This is one of the few daytime reports, it was seen by several people and - very importantly - they hadn't been drinking.

DISTINGUISHING features of the thylacine:

■ Stripes across the rump and lower tail (in most individuals).

■ The thickness of the tail at the rump.

■ The low hock (heel).

■ Size: ranges from the size of a fox to a large German shepherd, depending on age and sex.

■ Colour: sandy to dark brown with darker stripes.

■ Gait: unusual, slow and clumsy to very fast, sometimes bounding or sitting up.

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