Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Questions on the Queensland Tiger Search

ANYONE who takes an interest in the story of the Tasmanian tiger (thylacine) has had a lot to think about this last week. 
News outlets the world over have been busily splashing headlines about a number of new sightings alleging to be the thylacine in the far north of Queensland. As ever with new thylacine sightings, a certain amount of excitement follows but the excitement this time round has been exceptional.
It's an interesting story, with some very interesting elements that will set antennae twitching among thylacine researchers. I don't count myself among this number - my novel about the demise of the thylacine in Tasmania involved a lot of research but those very few thylacine experts out there have spent lifetimes studying the subject.
What I do know, however, caused me to wonder what exactly was going on in Queensland. The evidence from the sightings is very interesting, and from seemingly reliable sources, but what perplexed me more was the fulsome backing from the James Cook University academics involved. Academics tend not to be so confident where the thylacine is concerned.
Knowing what I do about the Tasmanian thylacine, the method of research that is going to be used (going on the press reports) prompts more questions. 50 high-tech baited camera traps are to be set in the territories identified but this has been tried in previous searches without success. Thylacines, at least those in Tasmania, were not carrion eaters so the 'bait' presumably would need to be live.
Live traps bring their own problems to a search. Not least the inevitable human involvement necessary and thylacines - again, the Tasmanian ones we have some knowledge of - were notoriously wary of human scent. If you've seen the movie The Hunter you'll recall Willem Dafoe had to smear himself almost completely in scent-masking mud and gloop to have any chance of fooling his prey.
I was, though, much more heartened by the eye-witness reports. Brian Hobbs, who the media describe as a tourism operator in Queensland, said the animals he saw were shy creatures. Now this does fit with original testimony on the thylacine and made me think. When I was a newspaper reporter in SW Victoria I interviewed people who claimed to have seen thylacines and some had clearly viewed the YouTube footage of that enormous gape with the teeth inside and invented an aggressive predator to suit their story.  
But, again, I latched onto some doubts about the sightings. The second witness, a parks ranger this time, detailed a pack of animals and in a separate location. Thylacines were not known to travel in packs, but were solitary night hunters. And the chances of two separate populations surviving at different locations seemed slim to me; though I did wonder if we were dealing with one population that moved about over considerable distances as thylacines were known to do.
In the end, I was left with more questions than answers about the latest sightings and the planned search they'd sparked in Queensland. But, as I say, I'm no expert. The research required to write a novel is nothing compared with the intensive, life-long study and scientific analysis that accompanies the work of a man like, for example, Col Bailey.
Bailey, has been one of the leading experts on the thylacine for decades. He has conducted innumerable searches, written three books on the subject and was the man that Australian film director Daniel Netteim called in to add credibility to Dafoe's character in The Hunter.
Now in his 80s, Bailey remains lively in all debate about the thylacine. He's known for his forthright views, expressed in numerous newspaper and television interviews throughout the world. He seemed like the perfect man to put my questions to on the latest Queensland thylacine story - so that's what I did. 
TONY BLACK: Another search, another round of media excitement - I've noticed over the years that you tend to be far more reserved in your assessments of such events, Col. Is this time any different?
COL BAILEY: Yet another mainland search for the holy grail of rare and supposedly extinct animals. It may well be the media who, as is usual, come out in front again. The thylacine or Tasmanian tiger most certainly did at one time exist in Queensland but is believed to have died out there several thousand years ago. However, over the past 100 years or so, consistent reports have ensured the possibility of the tiger’s survival, and the latest round of sightings only add to the anticipation.
The people reporting the latest sightings - one a former Queensland National Parks Service ranger and the other a tourism operator - seem to be reliable witnesses, but you've spoken to a lot of reliable witnesses in the past, can we place too much emphasis on such claims?
NPWS officers and tourism operators? Tasmania has had its fair share of this type of sighting too. They are, after all, at the forefront of Parks maintenance and adventure tour activities that often place them in remote and seldom accessed wilderness areas. They above all people should be conversant enough with this animal to give a balanced opinion, but as is so often the case, human error can so often overrule common logic.
The tourism operator, Brian Hobbs, says he saw a pack of animals in the Cape York Peninsula. Does this sound like thylacines to you?
Thylacines in Tasmania have never been known to be a pack animal, rather a solitary, lone-wolf, hunter - type top order carnivore. However, a family grouping of mother and young were often seen in days – gone-bye. This could comprise of an adult female and anywhere up to four immature offspring, once commonplace, but a highly unlikely prospect these days.
Hobbs' description of the animals he saw as quiet and non-aggressive does sound very like the thylacine to me. The popular myth is of a much more threatening animal, does this say anything to you?
Records of thylacine behaviour generally describe a shy, placid animal with a non-aggressive attitude towards humans. The exception was their savage attitude to other animals, domestic dogs and the like. Very few recorded instances exist of their unrestrained belligerence towards humans.  Conversely, there do exist inconsistent hearsays alleging otherwise, these being more in the realm of fiction.
The ranger's sightings were in a separate remote location in the far north of Queensland. Would this suggest the possibility of a separate population or a roaming population? 
This is perhaps a more interesting aspect of this scenario, casting as it does a more credible light on the probability of a thylacine presence in the area. Thylacines are by nature territorial animals, roaming over large swathes of countryside, this dependent on the nature of the terrain and the availability of prey species within that expanse. Therefore, there remains the possibility of their inhabiting such an area as that in question, its seclusion and inaccessibility having previously protected them from detection, thus enabling them to survive against the odds. 
When the ABC put Hobbs' description to Professor Bill Laurance from James Cook University he came to the conclusion, after dismissing everything else, that it was a thylacine sighting. I generally find academics extremely reluctant to nail their colours to the mast so strongly when it comes to such sightings - should we read anything into this?
Professor Bill Lawrence, as an academic of some standing, has either intentionally or inadvertently laid his reputation squarely on the line in advocating a thylacine presence, regardless of whether it is in Queensland or anywhere else in Australia. This therefore gives considerable credence, particularly to the QNPS ranger’s sighting rather than that of tourism operator Hobbs who would be less experienced in these matters, particularly in the identification of such an unfamiliar animal as the thylacine. This then perhaps, throws a new perspective on Bill Lawrence’s undertaking, considering the likelihood of a pending field survey and investigation of the matter.
The field survey is going to be led by Dr Sandra Abell, also from James Cook University. She has only recently discovered a population of the near-extinct northern bettong nearby. On paper it sounds like a serious search by well-qualified people - how do you rate it, and also, their chances?
The interest being shown by James Cook University is noteworthy and strongly suggests an academic awareness of the possibility of thylacines in north Queensland. In appointing Dr. Sandra Abell, the recent discoverer of a near extinct bettong population in northern Queensland to lead the investigation, their chances of their locating a thylacine presence, however inconceivable it may appear to some, cannot be ruled out entirely. It is possible too, that a form of allopatric speciation may have taken place through isolation that differentiates the Queensland tiger from our own Tasmanian version.
More than 50 high-tech baited camera traps are to be used in two sites. I'm presuming this will have to be live bait to even tempt a thylacine but given the animal's wily nature does this sound like a sound plan to you?
The employment of baited camera traps, be they live or dead baits, does pose several pertinent questions. Such contrivances have, from time to time been used in Tasmania without success. Live baits comprising poultry, domestic stock and small animals etc. have proven extremely time consuming with on-going care and maintenance commitments. Dead baiting with offal, various animal parts along with a variety of other mediums have failed to bring positive results. Unless Queensland thylacines have differing gastronomic desires to their Tasmanian cousins, the results may well end up the same. I have long stressed that human scent associated with such tactics can and does act conversely, as the thylacine will stay well clear once human scent is detected. However, back in the days when thylacines were common in Tasmania, their guard was down and they were nowhere as restrained and cautious as they are today. If by chance there are thylacines living in that surreptitious Queensland haven in unmolested bliss, they may well take the bait and be reeled in. Whatever the outcome, it will most certainly be an interesting exercise.

:: Col Bailey's most recent book, Lure of the Thylacine, is available on Amazon Australia and Amazon UK.