In a time before Human Beings really made their presence felt, just about every continent enjoyed a thriving large cat species, Australia’s of course being the legendary Tasmanian Tiger, or Thylacine to the initiated. Cannon would state that the last Thylacine died on 7 September, 1936 in Hobart Zoo. But did it?
This is one of the questions fuelling the fire within the Thylacine Research Unit, a small team of researched dedicated to retracing the final steps of the Thylacine, and challenging the idea that the animal has actually taken it’s last steps at all. When you consider that just this week, fishermen hooked a shark off the coast of Australia deemed to be a ‘living fossil’, the idea that a population of Tasmanian Tigers remains at large doesn’t seem so strange.
With researching heating up, we spoke with Warren Darragh, head of all things tech-based for T.R.U about their research, and learn where the team is at with discovering surviving Thylacine.
The Neversphere: I’d like to know about the creation of T.R.U. What were the circumstances that led to you establishing the unit?
Warren: TR/u was created by Chris Coupland. He had been working with Tasmanian Devils in a couple of the private wildlife parks in Tasmania for over a decade. A day wouldn’t go by without a tourist asking Chris if he thought the thylacine might still be extant. Chris had always been adamant that the thylacine was extinct. He had spent his entire professional career working with marsupial carnivores including a lot of time in the field and there had never been anything that had even remotely looked like evidence to suggest they were still around.
When news of the Tasmanian fox task force being set up became widespread Chris and his long-term mate and former work colleague Bill Flowers thought that if a fox population could hide in Tasmania then perhaps there could be a small population left out there.
Chris and Bill then started to use their knowledge of other marsupial carnivores to devise how they might look for the thylacine. They quickly discovered that many of the searchers lacked a lot of the hands-on animal knowledge that they possessed and that technology had been developed to might assist them in the search. They decided to form TRU and about 12 months after that I joined the team to provide technical expertise to the team.
After a couple of years of research and setting up a YouTube channel we were approached by a production company and ended up making Hunt for the Tasmanian Tiger for Animal Planet. It was shown in 170 countries and was the second highest rated show on Animal Planet in Europe. That then led to an appearance on the highly popular US show – Expedition Unknown. We are now in the final stages of having our latest show the Thylacine Road Trip released via a streaming service so people can follow our research.
The Neversphere: For you, what was the moment that convinced you beyond any doubt that the Tigers aren’t extinct?
Waren: The answer to this question is what separate TRU from the majority of other researchers. We actually think the thylacine is extinct. If you start with that base position you are less likely to jump to conclusions about any evidence that you may be presented. Our research has led us some down some very interesting paths. Whilst our scepticism has been tested on a number of occasions we believe the thylacine is extinct. But we accept it is entirely possible that they are out there. Essentially, we are looking to prove ourselves and others wrong.
The Neversphere: As per the history books, the last Tasmanian Tiger died in Hobart Zoo around 1936. What has your research taught you what happened to the Thylacine after that date?
Warren: This is an interesting question. I think it’s impossible to date extinction. It is highly unlikely the last thylacine perished in Hobart in 1936. Our research suggests that there is a solid case to be made that they hung around at least until the 50s perhaps even as late in the 1980s.
The Neversphere: Recent sightings have put Thylacine-type creatures as far as Queensland. That might seem strange to the layman. How widespread would the surviving tigers be, and how do you theorise they made it to the mainland?
Warren: They’re even stranger to serious researchers of thylacine. A quick glance at the research proposal put forward in this instance shows that the researchers are not looking for thylacine. Rather they are looking at other species in the area and they are ‘looking for thylacine’ in the same way as anyone who puts a remotely operated camera in the bush is. If one turns up that’s great. It’s really about drawing attention to their work. If thylacine hadn’t been mentioned no one would know they were doing any research into endangered animals.
There are a lot of conspiracy theories about thylacine being introduced into the mainland. There is no evidence to support this. You would expect that someone would have got a good photo or hit one with a car by now. There are too many other reasonable explanations for what people are seeing, foxes, dogs, feral cats.
Recent reports from mainland thylacine investigators only serve to confirm mainland thylacine extinction. Blurry pixelated photos and videos just serve to disappoint.
The Neversphere: Your website mentions regular reports of sightings from the public. I imagine many of these will be a case of mistaken identity. How do you determine a genuine sighting from a misinformed one?
Warren: We follow a system for the classification of thylacine reports that was developed in conjunction with the Tasmanian government and a world wildlife sponsored research expedition – its called the Smith system. It has a number of criteria that assess how valid a potential sighting is. They range from very good to poor.
On top of this, we have our own developed system: Assess the habitat, previous bounty claims (history), and previous sightings (history). We call this the 3H system. When we combine the two systems it allows us to quickly determine if a sighting is worth following up. If a sighting is a near a major town/suburb, for example, does it make sense that the world’s most elusive animal is hanging around? Probably not.
This doesn’t mean people are dishonest, merely mistaken.
The Neversphere: Once you’ve confirmed the report as genuine, what’s the next steps for the unit?
Warren: It really depends on a number of factors. One of the main ones is has the witness told other people. If they have the likelihood of us investigating is dramatically reduced. One of the reasons for this is that if there are thylacine in a particular area you are only going to find them if you use the right techniques. If other people start entering the area any evidence left may be compromised.
Additionally, we have some expensive equipment that we need to leave in place for sometimes months at a time. The more people that know about the location the higher the probability that the gear may be stolen or tampered with.
The Neversphere: From your perspective, what is the general consensus from the public on the existence of Thylacines in 2017?
Warren: I guess there are a couple of groups of people. There are those that are true believers who are adamant that thylacine are still extant. They see any potential sighting as proof the animal is still with us. The next group are people who are 100% adamant the thylacine is extinct. They believe there is no point looking as its just a waste of time. The final group of people are those who accept the fact that there is no evidence that the thylacine is extant and the balance probabilities is that it is extinct. They understand that there’s a small chance that a handful of animals are still left. TRU is in the last group.
The Neversphere: From Tigers to Panthers, every few years, months even, there seems to be a big cat sighting in Australia. In your opinion, why has it been so difficult to obtain hard evidence of a big cat species existing in Australia?
Warren: I think people like a mystery and there is this hope that despite the wilful neglect of people that animals like the thylacine might be able to be saved. In terms of big cat species, I think there are a plenty of large feral cats out there.
The Neversphere: Personally, I’m a believer. Living in the inner city of Sydney I doubt I’ll have a chance to spot on by chance. What can I do to help further the research?
Warren: We have people from all over the world that support our research. Many of them read all the books there are thylacine and help with suggestions and encouragement. On the other end, we have people who sponsor our field work including sponsoring cameras that are then named after them and are in the field right now gathering video imagery of the Tasmanian bush.
Of course, when Thylacine Road Trip (TRT) is released they can subscribe and watch that show as that will help fund our future research.
Stay tuned to the official TRU website for updates.