Extinct, or Just Elusive

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There is wilderness in Tasmania where the hardiest of bushwalkers can walk a month without meeting a soul, relying on food drops and their wits to sustain them through plains of button-grass, grueling mountain ranges and thick, silent forests sprawling over thousands of hectares. It is country that few have seen all of, extraordinary for its impenetrability as for its beauty-not every walker who has wanted rescuing has been found. Who could say what roams in such a wilderness? And why should an animal much smaller than a man, a stealthy and nocturnal creature used to living and hiding there, be easy to see?

So say those who believe that the Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) still exists. And there are plenty who do, though no confirmed sightings of the thylacine have been made since the last captive one died in 1936. There are still more who wonder if it's possible-like the Australian Museum, which, in announcing this month its plans to clone a thylacine, coyly described the species as "presumed extinct." Even 16 years after its demise was officially declared, reports of sightings still trickle in each year from tourists, farmers and forestry workers. The animal they see is always just a little too far off-a striped creature swiftly vanishing beyond the reach of headlights or binoculars-but that's been enough to keep the certainty of people like Col Bailey alive. For 35 years, Bailey has been searching for the tiger. After all those years, he says he came closest 18 months ago at a mountain spot he had been watching. There was mist and it was dawn, but he believes he could smell the tiger he'd just missed. "I wasn't quiet enough," he says with regret. "But at least I know now that they do pass through that area."

Tasmanian biologist and tiger expert Nick Mooney has a theory that if it were not called a tiger-if its other names, such as hyena, pouched wolf or the Aboriginal corinna, had stuck-fascination with the thylacine would have dwindled. As it is, for all their stripes and carnivorous tastes, the thylacines were more shy marsupial than Shere Khan. But their elusive ways didn't save them from being hunted as sheep-killers in the 1800s, when a one-pound bounty brought in thousands of skins. Once its numbers had plummeted by early last century, the thylacine began its makeover from pest to prize. Dozens of expeditions, some of them lasting months and one involving Sir Edmund Hillary, returned with little but footprint sightings. Nick Mooney spent 15 months in 1982-83 in and out of the wild northwest after a colleague reported seeing a tiger. He found nothing-though that proves, he says, only "that there was probably no tiger living there when I was there."

After 20 years spent chasing up sightings, Mooney, of Tasmania's Department of Primary Industries, Water & Environment, thinks it likely the tigers are gone. But even he isn't certain. "It's been a long time between thylacines," he says, "but it's very homocentric to say, Well, they can't be there because we can't find them." Many reports he dismisses as "gibberish"-one group has hit the department with Freedom of Information requests, convinced it's hiding a colony of tigers for research. But he still gets reports credible enough-the last one several weeks ago-to coax him out to sites of claimed sightings. "People will be reporting thylacines for another hundred years," he says, "regardless of the facts."

The trappers who used to snare tigers in the bush around Col Bailey's home are long gone. But Bailey still has the old men's stories of where they knew tigers to be and, from his home in the forest-bound hamlet of Maydena, he follows every cold lead. His devotion to the hunt has made him a magnet for about 30 reports of sightings every year, as well as the occasional call from a curious overseas film crew. But he keeps the details of his hunts to himself. Even among tiger enthusiasts, there's not much sharing: "We keep our trade secrets. We don't blab very much." And if he found a dead tiger, Bailey says, he would put it in his freezer and "tell my wife. She's stood with me all these years." But he might not say exactly where he found it. "There are very few people I could trust with this."

In the meantime, Tasmania has a craftier predator to worry about. Somehow foxes have arrived on the island-it's thought about 20 pups were deliberately released in 1999-and Nick Mooney, now scientific adviser to the task force trying to catch them, says "a drum roll of extinctions" is feared. Shooters are being used, poison baits are being prepared-and if they fail, there's always one politician's suggestion that a line of Tasmanians walk across the island, searching for foxes and tigers at the same time. Not likely: after 66 years of uncertainty about the thylacine, the Tasmanian bush has already shown how good it is at keeping its secrets.

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