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Hunting a Striped Phantom

The extinct Tasmanian tiger lives on in the minds of hundreds of people who believe they have seen the dog-like marsupial in the wild.

November 17, 2004|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

MOLE CREEK, Australia — For years, Trudy Richards searched the forests of Tasmania for the elusive creature with the head of a wolf, the pouch of a kangaroo and the stripes of a tiger.

She put motion-sensor cameras and audio recorders in the forest. She built sand traps to capture a footprint. She trekked through the woods, her camera at the ready. She spent hours on stakeouts -- all in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the ancient thylacine.

And then, she says, she finally saw one. According to her account, a Tasmanian tiger, as the creature is commonly known, walked into her campsite one winter evening just before midnight. Richards says her camera was out of reach but insists there was no mistaking the animal's distinctive black stripes.

There's just one problem. The thylacine has been listed as extinct since 1986 -- 50 years after the last known specimen died in captivity at Tasmania's Hobart Zoo. Although some scientists say the animal might have survived into the 1980s, there has been no confirmed sighting in 68 years. Scientists say the species vanished from mainland Australia thousands of years ago.

Such negativity does not deter tiger hunters like Richards. Tasmania, a rugged island of 460,000 people south of the Australian mainland, is known for its independent streak, and many here reject the verdict of science. For them, the survival of the world's largest marsupial carnivore is a matter of faith.

"They're out there," says Richards, 41, who has no scientific training and works as a clerk at a farm supply store. "They've been out there for the last 70 years. You either believe or you don't."

Like the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot, the legend of the Tasmanian tiger has taken on a life of its own. Hundreds of people claim to have seen one. Volumes have been written about it. Several websites are devoted to the search. Media mogul Ted Turner once offered a reward of $100,000 for proof of the creature's continued existence. A handful of tiger hunters dedicate their lives to finding it.

The searchers take hope from the fact that the Tasmanian tiger -- unlike the mythical creatures of Scotland and the Pacific Northwest -- once existed, roaming Tasmania and mainland Australia for tens of millions of years.

"So many people have seen it, they can't all be lies," says Col Bailey, one of the most dedicated hunters. "I've smelled it and I've heard it and I believe I saw it in 1967. But I've got no proof."

The tiger hunters are not alone in hoping for the animal's resurgence. While they search the dense forest for evidence of a living thylacine, scientists in Sydney hope to prove that, in the Tasmanian tiger's case, extinction is not forever.

At the Australian Museum in Sydney, scientists have taken the first step in cloning the thylacine from museum exhibits and dream of someday creating a colony in the wild.

In 2002, they reported success in replicating thylacine DNA extracted from a pup that had been preserved in alcohol, but since then the work has slowed. Some suggest that the team's biggest accomplishment has been in generating publicity for the museum.

"It's obviously a very long shot," acknowledges Don Colgan, who is heading the project.

More like a large dog than a tiger, the thylacine had a wolf-like head and jaws that opened remarkably wide. Its body was yellow-brown with black tiger-like stripes on its back and hindquarters. It had a long snout and a thick, stiff tail. The female had a pouch that opened toward the rear, an advantage in protecting the young when it moved through brush.

The thylacine was known to eat only fresh meat, unlike its closest relative, the smaller Tasmanian devil, an aggressive, noisy marsupial notorious for devouring carrion.

When European settlers introduced sheep to Tasmania in the 19th century, the thylacine found a ready source of food. Sheep farmers blamed the tiger for huge losses -- sometimes unjustly -- and the creature was soon branded a dangerous pest. In 1888, the government offered a bounty of 1 pound sterling, the equivalent of a week's wages, for each thylacine killed.

Thousands were shot, trapped, snared, clubbed and poisoned. By 1910, the thylacine population had fallen so low that the bounty scheme was abandoned. As the creature was disappearing, museums contributed to its demise by offering large payments for specimens.

Today, the thylacine has become a Tasmanian icon. The tiger can be seen on beer bottles, billboards, postage stamps, license plates, buses, city emblems, the state's coat of arms and the logo of the Tasmanian Cricket Assn. It even found its way onto a postage stamp issued by the African nation of Tanzania. Tasmania Parks and Wildlife Service biologist Nick Mooney has spent more than two decades fielding reports of thylacine sightings and following up on those that appeared the most credible.

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