Monday, 23 June 2014

Col's 46-year tiger hunt

Col Bailey is a man in the know.

As someone who has spent the last 46-years of his life researching and searching for the Tasmanian tiger, it's unlikely anyone can hold a candle to Bailey's unique store of knowledge and insight. 

One of the most revered commentators on the existence of the thylacine today he has buried himself in the bush in pursuit of tigers and turned tracker on the old-time trappers to raid their stores of insight.

Along the way he has built an incredible understanding of not only the fascinating predator known as the thylacine, but of bush men who trapped tigers and their lost lore.

The author of two books on the subject and the go-to guy for both print and picture media his name and face are well known in all the eddying circles of thylacine obsessives.

I first spoke to Bailey when I was investigating thylacine sightings in SW Victoria in my role as a newspaper reporter and found him to be an interesting character. Both knowledgeable and forthright in his beliefs Bailey speaks with the authority of a man who not only knows his subject inside out but someone who, through long years of rumination, has learnt to spot cranks a mile off.

I caught up with Bailey who - ever the gentleman - agreed to respond to some of my questions on his extraordinary life in pursuit of the Tasmanian tiger.

TONY BLACK: Col, when I first ran into you at the very early stages of my research into the Tasmanian tiger it was clear that you knew what you were talking about, but then it's 46-years you've been at this.  

COL BAILEY: My quest actually commenced in January 1967 with a possible sighting along the shores of the Coorong lagoon in south eastern South Australia. To this day I am uncertain whether the animal was actually a thylacine, but regardless, that unforgettable event encouraged a curiosity that led to my ascertaining everything I could about this strange and unusual creature that many believed extinct.

Can you tell us a little about how you first heard about the tiger, I believe you were a very young lad.

My father shared stories of the Tasmanian tiger when, as a 10-year-old, my curiosity in the natural world prompted me to ask many and varied questions. Although my interest in the tiger was at that time minimal, those early discussions came home to roost following the Coorong episode, and especially so were articles that dad had shared concerning the search conducted by Victorian naturalist, David Fleay in Western Tasmania in 1945-46. 

In the 1980s you met an old fur-trapper called Reg Trigg, he had a profound impact on you, didn't he.

Yes, Reg Trigg was a fountain of knowledge concerning the thylacine, and in sharing a multitude of information laid the foundations for ‘Tiger Tales’. His impact was not only philosophical but all revealing, mainly because of his hands-on experience with a Tasmanian tiger.

How would you describe that collection of stories in Tiger Tales?

The book was actually inspired by my column of the same name that The Mercury newspaper published in the Derwent Valley Gazette during the 1990’s. This was a collection of stories gathered along the way, primarily from old bushmen and trappers. Because of an ever- widening interest in the Tasmanian tiger, I sensed the need to meet a niche that was to that time largely unexploited.

The tiger had an enormous impact on those early settlers, and right up to the mid-1930s when it became very scarce, people knew it was a bit special.

The Tasmanian tiger has always been a mystery animal, right from the commencement of white settlement in Tasmania, and over the years its almost covert presence has expanded beyond all probability. With the advent of the bounty scheme it became a despised and derided adversary throughout the island, hunted and destroyed to the very brink of extinction, and as a result its latter-day adulation is remarkable in itself

It's clear that the tiger occupies a particular place in the hearts and minds of people to this day, isn't it?

Because of its amazing battle to survive, the thylacine has endeared itself to the populace to such an extent that today, it takes its place in the top echelon of the world’s most revered rare species. The most hardened sceptic would hope for its survival, but this possibility diminishes with each passing year as the ranks of true believers in an extant population shrink accordingly.

You're fully committed to the belief that it survives, aren't you?

Yes, fully committed, and not without good reason. Over the past twenty years I have seen, heard and smelt the thylacine in wild and isolated wilderness areas of Tasmania.

Why do you think there is so much fevered opposition to the claims of the tiger's existence?

There is little doubting that much of the rank scepticism surrounding the thylacine’s continued existence has been brought about by the scientific opinion that the last of its species died in the Hobart Zoo in 1936. However unsubstantiated this claim may be, for we cannot put a date on extinction, it is an assertion that has grown in prominence over ensuing years. It must be understood that scepticism is contagious and the majority of such people have little perception of the actual animal, preferring to run with the tide of public opinion rather than form an honest conclusion of the true situation.

When I first spoke to you, some years ago now, I was working as a newspaper reporter in SW Victoria where we'd had numerous tiger sightings - do you think some early environmentalists released tigers on the mainland? Or, do you have another explanation for those very plausible claims I encountered?

Some years ago after giving a thylacine talk at Mt Field National Park, I was approached by two men claiming their fisherman grandfather had traded Tasmanian tigers from his boat at Port Welshpool in Gippsland to people connected with a Victorian Acclimatisation Society. Their response was prompted by my mention of Tasmanian tiger sightings in South Gippsland and querying how these animals could have possibly arrived there, short of a remnant population – an extremely remote possibility.  Were these sightings imaginary or did they have a plausible explanation? [I realised that my own sighting along the Coorong also fell into this category]  This got me thinking that perhaps such a possibility existed and the tiger had somehow hung on over the ensuing 100 years. Were these traded animals eventually released into the Victorian countryside? Rumours abound of a release into Wilson’s Promontory National Park by private collectors in the early years of the 20th century but the story has no substance.

Your latest book, Shadow of the Thylacine, is winging its way to me and I'm looking forward to reading and reviewing - can you tell us a little about it?

This is the story of my prolonged pursuit of the Tasmanian tiger; a quest to prove to the world that this animal does still exist. It has been an extensive and challenging journey of research and discovery that has taken me to many far-flung areas of the island. I take the reader from my earliest days to the present, endeavouring to focus on the many high points along the way as my fascination with the natural world gradually took shape. Of integral influences that shaped my quest in the form of the true experts, the old bushmen and trappers that knew the thylacine first hand. And of my personal accomplishments in visual, audio and scent sightings that spurred me on in the face of adversity.

In your new book you detail how you came face-to-face with a tiger in March 1995 ... your heart must have been in your mouth! 

My coming face to face with a living, breathing thylacine deep in the wilderness of the Weld Valley in South West Tasmania was an almost surreal experience. I was there with the precise intention of locating a thylacine after having received covert information from an unlikely source. But it was actually the last thing I expected to see, my belief of an extant population by that time hanging by a thread after much unproductive searching over many years. On fully realising what the animal was, my whole body went into lockdown as the shock of seeing it hit home. The tiger stood staring at me and I stood staring back, now totally consumed by this incredulous situation. The fact that I was unable to move likely bided me more time to fully take advantage of this truly unique circumstance. There was absolutely no doubting what the animal was. To merely stand and watch on as the tiger disappeared into surrounding scrub was something I will never forget, but owing to my circumstances at the time I could do little about it.

Do you believe it's just a matter of time until the Tasmanian tiger is actually proven to be extant, how do you think that will be greeted by the public and do you think it will be good for the remaining number of tigers?

The complexity of this question overrules a satisfactory answer. It is in the realm of the unknown. It may never happen. However, hypothetically, the answer may be as follows: Public reaction to such a momentous event may be unbelievably perceptive, considering its importance. Nevertheless, there will be those who would seek to fully exploit the situation by way of media publicity and personal gain. There may also be those who seek to destroy the animal. For this reason it is imperative that such an event be kept highly covert until such time as the animal/s can be successfully rehabilitated and safely released back into a semi-captive environment from where breeding can commence. There is little doubting the public interest, and were the above to be successfully implemented, the eyes of the world would be firmly centred on Tasmania. Therefore the significant question remains; who could be entrusted with such a vital programme? There are no experts alive today, no experience in the field, no hands-on skill or understanding of the living thylacine. There is unfortunately so much we don’t know about this animal that it will be all trial and error. For this reason the right people must be chosen to carry out what will undoubtedly be one of the most challenging and far-reaching wild life programmes of the 21st century. There are far too many questions to answer here for there to be a quick and easy solution. It is after all in the realm of the unknown. But having said that, it may well happen in the foreseeable future.

:: Shadow of the Thylacine is available on Amazon now, or from Five Mile Press. Watch a detailed online review on YouTube