The Report of the Search for the Thylacine
that was conducted by Jeremy Griffith,
James Malley and Robert Brown.
17th December, 1972
Jeremy Griffith’s Report
In early December 1967, I went to Tasmania specifically to search for the thylacine. In 1965 I had written my first letter of enquiry about the thylacine to the Tasmanian Animals and Birds Protection Board. I was 21 years old and had been raised on a New South Wales sheep property. I possessed $400, some camping gear and a hound dog, Loaf, which I had trained to follow scent trails. My plan was simply ‘to have a look for myself’. With the help of Mr Ernest Mills of Longford, I acquired a trail bike on which I made short trips with old Loaf into remote parts of the north-west. In January 1968 I accompanied a walking club expedition to the south-west coast. We lost our food supplies that had been dropped by air and had to have a helicopter called in to save the situation. On that trip I met Fred and Lyn Dutton who were later to show me great hospitality and provide me with a home away from home.
By March I had abandoned the idea of using a tracking dog. I had been carried away by all kinds of reports of the existence of thylacines, wasted a month in the Norfolk Ranges after mistaking a wombat footprint for that of a thylacine, taken up photography, and been badly lost near the Lindsay River. To keep body and soul together I worked in a pea cannery.
Then I met James Malley, a 28 year old unmarried dairy farmer from Trowatta in north-western Tasmania. He had recently engaged a share farmer to run his property. During the previous ten years he had investigated reports of thylacine in his area but while these were encouraging, he still lacked proof of the survival of the species. The search then became based upon the combination of James’ intensive local knowledge and tracking ability with my enthusiasm and bushcraft.
In late March and April we made many short excursions into the bush and talked to the interested locals. In May I worked in the Cleveland Tin Mine and saved $200. I fruitlessly watched a nearly abandoned boiler on the White River. A thylacine was supposed to have lived in it in 1967 and Dr Guiler of the Hobart University Zoology Department with others had set there an electric eye camera and a large two door box trap (in 1972 Dr Robert Brown had hair samples taken from the boiler at the time of Dr Guiler’s investigations, identified as ‘definitely not that of a thylacine’. And James was to show that the original premise for believing thylacine was there—one based on animal prints found near the boiler—was dubious).
I went home to Armidale late in May to go droving our sheep as there was a drought.
I returned to Tasmania in August. James had been to Fiji for a holiday and there met Mr Don Horter, a producer of American wildlife film. James interested him in financing our work with the condition that we raise some reciprocal finance and that we gained the approval of local authorities. I was also able to interest the ABC in Sydney in our search but again needed recognition from the Tasmanian Animal and Birds Protection Board, we met the Director Mr Hemsly and Dr Guiler on my return.
Although we held meetings with the authorities, we got nothing but total frustration from them. The non-cooperative attitude of the Tasmanian authorities was to seriously frustrate us on every phase of the search. The Premier of Tasmania Mr Reece made a statement that in his opinion the thylacine was better left extinct! (Advocate newspaper, 30th September, 1968)
During October, I worked again at the Cleveland Tin Mine. The Spring and Summer of 1968 were extremely wet with very few fine days. However, James and I made expeditions in many parts of the state following leads, tracking remote areas and talking to people about the thylacine.
Our longest expeditions were across the Arthur River to the Balfour Plains in December and along the north-west coast to the Pieman River in January 1969. In February I made a daring trip in a tractor tube down the Arthur River to track its sandbars and mud flats.
I then returned to NSW to begin a Zoology course at Sydney University. The ABC gave $200 as goodwill for an abortive attempt they had earlier made to use my story for their Chequerboard series. It was a very difficult year for both my studies and finances. The summer vacation of 1969-70 I spent working to save money. Then I won a Teachers College Scholarship and that eased the situation. While at University during 1970, I approached every likely magazine or organization to seek funds to return to Tasmania the following summer vacation.
My basic thought was and remained that considering the possible shy nature of the animal and the ruggedness of the Tasmanian wilderness, there remained an undeniable possibility that the thylacine was not extinct. My philosophy throughout was, ‘What is best for the thylacine?’ It was what I called a ‘total approach’ and it has made decision making very easy for me.
Then, The Australian newspaper gave us $500. And I produced a 16 page proposal to the Australian Conservation Foundation which was at first unsuccessful, but I wrote again and it gave us $200 (this the Director later described as a Christmas present). Their support meant valuable status and in the way we operated, would go a long way. The Ansett Airline gave me a free return air fare to Tasmania. Between December 1970 and February 1971 James and I made further excursions in Tasmania. My diary shows that in the first 19 days after my arrival we averaged five hours tracking a day and travelled 2,100 miles using James’ car.
By that time we had ‘dug up’ so many ‘Tiger stories’ we were overwhelmed. We found it impossible to interpret it all and seemed to oscillate between following up hearsay leads from others and following up our own hunches based on the merits we saw in various areas. We had arrived at the conclusion that the snarers’ practice of poisoning (devils raiding snare lines was possibly the principle) was the cause for the disappearance of thylacine in many areas (Later, re-reading his account of his 1946 search I found Mr David Fleay had reached a similar conclusion. We had arrived at the same idea independently). The only large game area that had been almost untouched by snarers appeared to be south-west coast between Macquarie Harbour and Port Davey. Moreover, this area is more or less isolated geographically. It could have thus avoided the supposed disease outbreak that was thought to have decimated the states’ thylacine population early in the Century.
While digging through library material, I found various mentions of thylacine being in this south-west coast region even in recent years (Mercury 29th March 1946: footprints reported by geology party – Mercury 4th January 1957: BHP helicopter sighting – Smithton Chronicle 19th February 1969: footprints reported. In retrospect, one must seriously doubt all these reports—footprints are subject to even greater misinterpretation than sightings. I believe the BHP helicopter sighting was concluded later to be a wild dog). As well as these reports, Dr Guiler had mentioned in the report of his unsuccessful 1962 north-west search that ‘undoubtedly, thylacine exist in the south-west’. In 1972 I was talking to another member of Dr Guiler’s 1962 search and learned that he was the origin of Dr Guiler’s belief that there was definitely thylacines in the south-west. It was evident this informant had never seen thylacine in the south-west or had any other truly substantial reason to say they were there.
I seriously question the credibility of many, if not all, of Dr Guiler’s claims indicating the presence of thylacine. From our experience these claims appear to be based on unsubstantial evidence and are extremely misleading. For example in the Australian Journal of Science (1958, page 215) Dr Guiler reports a suspected sheep killing by thylacine in the Derwent Valley. He says the plaster casts he took of the spot ‘were emphatically not similar to’ those of a dog. This report is at present quoted in the Hobart Museum exhibition on the thylacine as evidence for the thylacine’s present survival. Many interested people who have written to us have also quoted it. Sometime after the report was made by Dr Guiler he trapped an Alsatian Dog at the place of the sheep killing, however, this fact has not been made public. In Emily Hahn’s book Zoos (1968) she quotes Dr Guiler as saying: ‘I’m happy to say that some thylacine are still in circulation’ and asked how many thylacine survived he replied that he didn’t know: ‘I think there are certainly 20 pairs, maybe 50, maybe a hundred but this is only a guess, based on reliable reports. I myself know of one den, but it’s in difficult country. I know of 20 localities, and we get constant reports. A sheep was killed about 30 miles from Hobart, probably by a thylacine.’ The den mentioned would be either the White River Boiler or the Rossarden Cave, both of which are discredited in this report.
In late December 1970 and early January 1971, we undertook a search of the coastal area between Macquarie Harbour and Port Davey. It was our most ambitious expedition.
James and I first briefly surveyed the south-west from the air. We were able to get into the country by fitting in with Mr Peter Simm’s arrangements to go into that area to record aboriginal carvings. And incidentally, while there, James and I found what could well be the best preserved aboriginal hut sight in the state. It was only what James called ‘small volcanoes’ in the ground but for these primitive people I guess it was the equivalent of, lets say, the Greeks’ Acropolis.
The Tasmanian aboriginals are now extinct. We tracked all the coast north and south and walked out via Moore’s Valley and Birch’s Inlet and finally back to the coast again where we hailed a fishing boat. At one stage, we had a nasty experience negotiating a swamp.
It is our experience that tracking along beaches is especially efficient and had there been a thylacine population there, we consider we should have found it. We doubt that there could be thylacine living anywhere in the south-west if there are none on that coast as the environment would seem to be superior there from every point of view to anywhere inland except perhaps some of the easterly fringe country such as the King William Range, Florentine Valley and Hartz Mountains areas. These three areas were to be the only potential thylacine areas in the state that James and I were not to have familiarized ourselves with by the conclusion of the search in 1972.
During that summer of 1970-71, we also spent a lot of time searching the Middlesex, Surry Hills and Waratah country. I left for Sydney University in February, having found no proof of the thylacine.
In May 1971, James telephoned me. He had found some interesting tracks at Beulah in the middle north of the state. I flew down but we decided the tracks were not clear enough to be used as evidence. This very small area at Beulah has produced a number of sightings in recent years and we have spent weeks in the area though nothing substantial has been found.
During the latter part of the study year of 1971, I spent night after night trying to develop a camera monitor. Although by now we were proficient at tracking, this did not seem to help us reach a confident decision about the existence or otherwise of thylacine in areas (especially alpine regions where tracking is difficult with the ground moss covered). To compliment our tracking the ideal was some sort of monitoring system to work for us over a long term. Left alone they would become free of human scent. This seemed important as the thylacine has a well developed sense of smell. The question of how to achieve this at all, let alone achieve it cheaply, occupied my mind for a long time. I decided a live fowl was the best decoy as birds are favoured by many carnivores and could be transported and kept self-sufficient relatively easily—actually it was to be some seven months later before I could get the watering and feeding systems working satisfactorily. I put much thought into the design of the fowl cages so that they would be cheaply and simply constructed and would fit on the back of a pack while not being too heavy. For the camera to watch over the fowl, I first modified a Kodak Instamatic with a small Meccano engine and gear box which rewound itself after being triggered. This worked, but was too delicate. I then heard about cameras which had a built-in self-winding mechanism, but these ‘Halinas’ did not have the battery-free flash cube fitting. This meant there had to be an electrical circuit and that caused no end of trouble. It was not until the last three or four months of 1972 that I got the cameras working satisfactorily. Many hundreds of hours were spent on these monitors and by then nobody else could bear the sight of them. In the end, I was able to produce each whole outfit, including the cost of a fowl and its wheat for $20. Each could monitor an area indefinitely as long as it was checked monthly. Ideally, only a thylacine or wild dog could trip it as the nylon trip line was set too high for other Tasmanian carnivores such as Devils or tiger cats to trip. This worked as only a very few of the many visiting Devils managed to trip the line. The occasional herbivorous intruder was finally deterred by erecting a slight brush balk.
I used the same idea when I developed a ‘thylacine only’ snare in November of 1968 to be used on a blood scent trail, if it were ever decided to catch a thylacine.
Towards the end of 1971, the problem was to finance my return to Tasmania. I felt it was obviously time that we did the job properly and not ‘on the cheap’. Thus began another letter campaign to possible donors all over the world. Nothing resulted so I became less ambitious and tried writing articles for magazines hoping to collect author’s fees. However none of these articles were accepted at the time. (in December of 1972 however, the Natural History magazine of the New York Natural History Society published one. Mr Ronald Strahan, the director of Taronga Park Zoo edited that particular article for me. He helped me on many other occasions and for all of these I am very grateful).
I was even seriously thinking of swinging from the Harbour Bridge and refusing to come up until someone gave us finance. What deterred me from doing this was the thought that someone would be tempted to take a pot shot at me from some harbour-front housing unit.
At the last moment, I heard about the Science and Industry Foundation in Canberra. I flew there with almost my last dollar. By now, I had realized that in every organization, there is one key person that you approach and impress with your conviction. The person in this case was Dr Harry Frith of the CSIRO Wildlife Department and after talking with him for an hour, he rang the Science and Industry Foundation people and said ‘I’ve got a young man here with a project—its not the sort of thing you generally support but I think its something you should support. I’ll send him round’. I could hardly believe my good fortune. My submission to the Science and Industry Foundation resulted in us receiving $1,541 to establish, in association with the Tasmanian National Parks and Wildlife Department, a thylacine Centre and to investigate the thylacine question. It seemed high time the question was tackled. I felt that with the methods James and I had evolved, the Wildlife authorities could do it with little cost. They seemed the obvious people to be making the investigation.
After arriving in Tasmania on the 11th January 1972 James and I went to Hobart. Mr Murrell, the new National Parks and Wildlife Director did not know who we were and Mr Hemsley, the previous Director (who is now in charge of wildlife matters) who knew us well, said ‘What I want to know is what you are going to do if you find it?’ and ‘how many hours have you spent on this James, and not found anything?’ He was actually sniggering at us. Mr Murrel said ‘We don’t want you disturbing the bush.’ Their attitude seemed incredible. In fairness to Mr Murrell, we should have sent him this proposal for consideration beforehand, but it had only just been ratified by the Science and Industry Foundation. It was a shattering experience for James and I. Much later that year after an unbelievable struggle by us and others, especially the Tasmanian Conservation Trust, we managed to get the authorities to a more or less ‘neutral’ position of attitude regarding our endeavours. But they never helped us in any way.
After that meeting I did not know what to do so I went to sleep in the back seat of the car. I woke up at Fingal to which James had driven. He had heard about a chap who was supposed to have seen thylacine on a number of occasions. Indeed, we seemed to have arrived in a nest of thylacine there were so many sightings claimed. Dr Guiler had two huge box traps planted in the bush where he had tried to trap a thylacine a few years earlier (Later near the very end of 1972 we were to discover that the footprints that had been the basis for Dr Guiler's belief that thylacine were living there, were in fact wombat footprints).
Compared to what we were used to, this part of the east coast was a gold mine of thylacine leads. We returned to Trowutta for a few days and there I assembled my first 12 monitors. I had earlier bought twenty ‘Halina’ cameras in Sydney. I returned to Sydney in February to do a ‘post’ exam which completed successfully my Science degree. Meanwhile, James returned to the east coast.
On my return we struggled to evaluate the overwhelming amount of evidence for the thylacine’s existence on the east-coast. We stayed in an abandoned hotel in Fingal. I started installing monitors and immediately encountered teething problems with them. For instance, bush rats would eat the plastic on the cameras or snow would bury them. One camera unit was burnt out in a bushfire and another one was stolen. Such problems were to make necessary repeated alterations and testing for many months. James was understandably exasperated with them because they were showing so many early faults. He thought we should throw them in the river. I kept telling him the original merino sheep was not much good either. Indeed, we seemed to be wasting time with the monitors.
It was our strong belief that throughout Tasmania the public attitude regarding the existence of thylacine was not at all conducive to helping us locate them. Too often people would be ridiculed if they claimed a sighting not only by their friends but by the media. It had reached a point where we felt that the most meritorious sightings would not be reported and only an occasional or sensational one would be reported. Therefore we took every opportunity to encourage the public to take the whole thylacine question seriously. By now we were accustomed to periodic newspaper reports about us, captioned by ‘Tiger hunters off again’ or some similar headline. On the 24th March we made our second of three segments for This Day Tonight TV programme. In this segment one of the monitors was shown and interviews were made with several people who had claimed recent sightings. We met Mr Ewence, The Examiner newspaper Editor on the 30th March. He was very receptive, and advised us to see the Minister for Wildlife and also agreed to publish our Footprint Chart. I had originally drawn this chart up in 1969 as it was an obvious necessity. It was based on a study of the pads of museum specimens of thylacine, some drawings made by Pocock in London (Proc. Zool. Soc 1926 1037-1084) and on our general knowledge of tracking. I had modified the chart a number of times and we had used it as our ‘calling card’. A simply keyed version was published in The Examiner on 5th April 1972, but it brought no good evidence in return. Tracking is an art of skill requiring practice and even with the chart in hand people still failed to differentiate the different animal tracks. However, I feel that should someone find a clear set of thylacine tracks, the chart, if available, confirmed their suspicions and most of all, reminded them of the importance of preserving the tracks until an expert arrived. The chart also gives us status among bushmen who might otherwise think we did not know our business. This chart is now reasonably well distributed throughout Tasmania. It is most significant to me that we have never seen a indisputable thylacine print either in the museum collections of possible thylacine tracks (other than the few that turn out to be made from the feet of museum specimens) or while investigating the many reports of tracks that we have received, or in the thousands of miles of our own search. James for one, is almost unerring when it comes to tracks whether it be a foot of an baby or an Echidna. The two possible exceptions are the indistinct tracks that James found at Beulah and a plaster cast taken by Mr Reuben Charles at Mawbanna in 1961. This cast is now in the possession of Mr I. Stephens at Mole Creek. The Mawbanna cast is impressive but not indisputable. Both the Beulah and Mawbanna areas will continue to be monitored throughout 1973.
Regarding scat (droppings)—there is no accurate description of thylacine droppings. Devils have surprisingly large droppings which often contain many bone chips and much hair. We have collected samples of some unusual droppings and we have plans to send them to the curator of vertebrates at the National Museum of Victoria where we understand they can be identified.
We saw Mr Murrell again on the 30th of March in Hobart to try to obtain finance from the state Government as the Science and Industry Grant had almost been spent. The Grant was originally designed to last only two months. Mr Murrell said I should produce a written submission.
I compiled a report on our recent research in the north-east and sent it to both the responsible Ministers and Mr Murrell. In it I plotted and recorded the details of the 40 odd ‘sightings’ we had collected reports of in the north-east since January. Most of these sightings had occurred within the last ten years. The importance of the sightings, I pointed out, lay in their apparent non-random distribution and in the credible location of their occurrence. Having interviewed and been impressed by many of these sighters, James and I were convinced they were not all mistaken. I also pointed out however that the evidence for saying thylacine existed was still intuitive. I made the point that if they were anywhere in the north-east, they could not help but be seriously threatened from 1080 poisoning. Therefore it was important that we locate them and take steps to ensure their protection. I went on to criticise the prevailing situation of apparent total lack of public and official knowledge about the thylacine in the face of all these claims and gave my own explanation for this lack. I added that where the thylacine was concerned there was no official cooperation, coordination sense or direction.
On the 24th April, I again met Mr Murrell and he said that I should have documented the evidence more completely. He offered to put our cast to the next meeting of the National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Committee.
I returned to the north and we compiled a complete case history of one of the likely thylacine habitats in the north-east and supported it with signed statements from all those who had claimed sightings there. We sent this back to Mr Murrell on the 29th April. We included a page entitled ‘The Solution As We See It’ in which I pointed out that the central problem was to come to grips with the phenomenon of sightings and I proposed a formula enabling that. It was that ‘one official centre be set up to investigate sightings’, and that the public should be ‘made aware of the centre and informed of the importance of reporting sightings as soon as they occurred, encouraged at every opportunity to take the thylacine question seriously’ and finally, ‘issued with Footprint Charts’. I further suggested that potential areas should be surveyed and tracked and, if necessary, monitored. I described our method of investigating an area.
The report was favourably received by the then Liberal Minister of Wildlife Mr Beattie and this was indicated by a letter he sent us. However, there was then an election and a change of Government which meant the report would be reconsidered.
I felt a favourable reception of the report from the National Parks and Wildlife Advisory Committee next meeting in May was vital and I set out to lobby most of its 12 members. I was delighted with our reception and felt we should have gone to these people a long time before. Apparently the Committee wholly supported our endeavours at the May meeting excepting of course Dr Guiler. However, it is advisory body only and after a long silence and much prodding, Mr Costello, the new Minister for Wildlife, announced on the 26th June in Parliament that the Government disapproved of the search and would not help finance it. We weren’t officially informed as to why it disapproved of the search.
In April we were out of finance so I returned to Sydney to think the whole situation over. James had to return to his farm to catch up on a lot of work there. I felt we were at last coming to grips with the problem and that we must continue the search. I decided to ‘come at it with all guns blazing’. I had $160 left to my name. Ansett had given me a return air fare and that got me back to the Island. I planned to hire a display room situated as centrally as possible in Launceston and to hold an exhibition of all the material we had collected over the years that related to the thylacine. I would charge to enter. I gambled that if I was to demonstrate my conviction in this way, people would support me. I planned that the centre should grow into a coordination room where I could get the whole project ‘off the ground’ and do as far as practicable that which I had earlier said the Government should do. I was still inspired by the strong belief that this remarkable animal must be ‘out there somewhere’. I went to The Examiner to offer a weekly report on the search in return for some funds. Mr Ewence was not interested in articles but when I persisted and told him more of what we were doing he called in the Managing Director, Mr Rouse and they tried to think of ways to help me. Mr Ewence then had a momentous inspiration. He rang a contemporary of his, Mr Faulkinden of the British Tobacco Company who said that they might indeed help—‘Send us a proposal.’ Mr Rouse then rang a friend who dealt in real estate and so found a vacant shop that the owner, Mr Green, agreed to lend me rent-free for a few weeks. Various businesses in Launceston donated materials—I was determined to do a damned good job of the exhibit. I had 14 six feet by four feet Canite sheets which I framed in brown-stained two inches by one inch beams. I set them round the room and filled the gaps with red crepe paper. I draped the ceiling with hessian. Then, for the front display window, I painted a giant eight feet by six feet black-on-red blow-up of a photo of a thylacine which showed a shooter with the dead ‘Tiger’ across his knees. For the shop entrance I painted a cartoon of the thylacine on the states’ coat-of-arms. The Examiner gave me the help of a sign writer and a carpenter for a day and John Green, the shop owner’s son, helped me put the display together. A desk and the loan of Mr Rouse’s typewriter finished the job. I had put up all the cuttings and photos I had and I made an exhibit of the various snares and traps used during the history of thylacine hunting. I opened the display on June the 1st 1972. The Examiner gave me and the exhibits launching front page publicity for so many days that it became embarrassing. A friend came down from Sydney to help me and she did a tremendous job, typing up all the information about ‘Tigers’ that seemed to pour in.
I was working like a dog, but it was exhilarating. The Northern branch of the Tasmanian Conservation Trust organized an appeal for funds for us by mailing letters to business houses. This was a big job but unfortunately few were successful. Peter Fleming, The President of the Trust Branch officially opened the Tiger Centre for me one evening a few days after the unofficial opening. By now I had submitted my proposal to British Tobacco and they presented us with a cheque for $2,600 on July the 4th—a tremendous occasion for me. It meant that at last we could conduct a thorough investigation. The Examiner gave me the use of a Landrover for the duration of the exercise. I was elated.
The Tiger Centre was a great success and we raised, I think, about $200 in donations across the desk during the three weeks it was open. However, and more importantly to me, we received some 82 reports of sightings from the north-east which were each ‘typed up and plotted’. We also received leads on many thylacine artefacts including early letters about thylacine and photos and film clips of thylacine. The number of reports confirmed for me that the north-east was exceptionally rich in thylacine sightings and was therefore an ideal area to investigate the sighting phenomenon.
It was during the exhibition that I met Dr Robert Brown.
He started asking some very heavy questions and then invited Cathy and I to dinner and here again we became engrossed in conversation. He was the first person I had ever met who fully reinforced my inner beliefs about the importance of what we were doing. He had come to Tasmania to specifically look at the Lake Pedder and thylacine questions for himself. He had decided that Lake Pedder was now ‘a lost cause’, but that a lesson should be learned from it. He had therefore put together what struck me as a brilliantly composed advertisement condemning the impending extinction of Lake Pedder. He ran this advertisement in all Tasmanian newspapers and in The Australian on June the 13th. It cost him nearly all his savings. Towards the end of our dinner with him he had offered to give us $500 towards the search even though, he said, he did not believe any thylacine survived. In a booklet Bob later put together to raise further funds he summarised his point of view. He said, ‘It can be seen as improbable that the thylacine will be found and preserved. That is sobering. But obviously no future time will be more favourable for making a diligent and exhaustive attempt to recover it. The idea of passing up this opportunity is neglectful, we think it is untenable.’ Bob was 27, single and practicing as a locum doctor in Launceston. I also met John Hirst at the Tiger Centre. He had written a forceful letter in support of my effort to The Examiner newspaper and now offered his help during his weekends and evenings.
My proposal to British Tobacco had been based on the idea that James and I wanted to continue to search the north-east much as before. The major need apart from the Landrover (which would allow us to operate as separate units) was to get greater public awareness and therefore cooperation. We felt the only way we were going to elucidate these sightings was to get to the scene of them very soon after they occurred. The opportunity of doing this had eluded us till then. Thus, we needed an advertised centre that could receive sightings around the clock. Bob reasoned that it was important that we should do a complete job, prepare a full contingency plan for all eventualities and generally not compromise our effort. To raise the necessary extra funds he then prepared and had printed 100 booklets which with suitable covering notes from the Queen Victoria Museum and an accountant, were sent to conservation organizations around the world. We received $250 from the Australian Conservation Foundation, and that turned out to be all. A disappointment was that the World Wildlife Fund did not finally refuse our request until months later and we had been gambling on their acceptance.
When the Centre in George Street closed in early July, we moved into a house Bob had found for $18 a week rent at 168 Vermont Road. This was near Bob’s workplace. I put up for display all the plotting maps and filing systems. Bob had a phone service connected and hired an Alibiphone to record messages if he was out. The Examiner agreed to run a daily advertisement in the newspaper for the duration of the exercise. It read: Tasmanian Tiger Sightings or enquiries phone 263163.
Trevor Briggs, a radio buff and lecturer at the Launceston Technical College invented and constructed (for the cost of the parts only) six radio transmitters. James was to use these on special tracking pads which he could set strategically along scent trails. They would be triggered by a trip line set too high for Devils to trip. When activated, the transmitters gave out different frequency ‘bips’ that could be received up to five miles away using a Pye Bantam transceiver (this was lent to us by the local Channel 9 TNT TV Station). A lot of time was spent by Trevor in the construction and subsequent testing of the transmitter. We needed a licence to use each of them. These transmitters were also a vital part of the contingency plan, they could be called on to be attached to snare springer poles if it was decided that a capture was warranted. The Pye Bantum would also enable regular contact with Bob at base through pre-arranged call-up times. The signals were relayed via Channel 9’s Mt Barrow Station in the north-east. The transmitter system and the Pye Bantum call-up system were excellent ideas which never fully realized their potential. The call-ups proved unreliable because, due to the rugged nature of the country, contact could not always be made so we resorted to regular phone calls. The transmitter tracking pads were used a few times and would have had a lot more use had we received the good sightings that the history of thylacine sightings in the north-east had led us to expect.
John Hirst undertook a propaganda campaign. He went through the phone directory and posted Footprint Charts and covering letters to all sawmills, schools, shops and hotels in the north-east (and a few other areas in the state). Some 400 of these letters were posted. Bob made monthly reports to our sponsors and other interested parties and handled all sorts of correspondence that arrived from far and near. The search received local press, radio and TV coverage—this we encouraged as part of our campaign to engender public cooperation. Now that James was unburdened of the monitors and me, he was able to concentrate on investigating any leads and surveying and tracking. I continued to perfect the monitors and install them. It took up to seven hours to install a monitor and usually a few days to fully interpret each area beforehand so as to strategically locate the monitor. Our policy was to put a monitor in wherever we received a sighting and between times to systematically monitor every likely thylacine habitat as revealed by our plot of past sightings in the north-east.
Morris Clark, a bushwalking friend, developed the films that I brought in from the cameras after every monthly check of them.
I encountered mechanical trouble with the Landrover on nearly every trip that was very frustrating. On the 7th of October I had a tyre blow out and hit another vehicle. Although the Landrover was very slightly damaged, the other vehicle was a ‘write-off’ and it was only lucky that no one was killed. In the six months from July to December, I averaged about 500 miles a week in the Landrover.
By the end of September, there were 13 monitors staked out in the north-east and I was satisfied that every area that our surveys and the plot of past sightings had suggested as harbouring thylacine was adequately monitored. Many monitors were located in the most remote game areas left in the north-east and I made no compromises in trying to find the best locations.
About the end of September I first became disillusioned with our chances in the north-east. This was in spite of the many extraordinary convincing past sightings that we had recorded. For example, a certain five mile stretch of mountainous road had a history of at least a dozen sightings and for about half of these we had signed statements by people insisting that a thylacine had been seen. Early this year (1972) a north-west coast farmer and his family were travelling along this particular stretch of road in the early afternoon. They are adamant that a thylacine crossed the road about a hundred yards in front of them. They stopped and watched the animal trot 200 yards across an open paddock and then into the bush. They all said that they definitely had seen the stripes and were sure beyond all shadow of a doubt, that it was a ‘tiger’ and they signed a statement to that effect. It turned out that they had no prior knowledge of tiger sightings in that area and in fact, had not been along that road before. The evidence of this type was very impressive. I think we were to receive well over a hundred sightings in all—sightings that were claimed to have occurred within the last 20 years in the north-east. Many of these were so convincing that to say they had all been mistaken was, it would seem, to insult one’s own intelligence.
However, doubt them I must. In defence of those people who have claimed sightings, I should say that I cannot prove them wrong. There is no suggestion on my part that they have lied. In nearly all cases they honestly believe they have seen thylacine. I am not questioning their integrity but rather their interpretation of what they have seen. Above all, they should not be condemned or ridiculed. What I would like to see is a psychologist construct an experiment to investigate something of the, lets say, fancifulness of the human mind (eg. Given a person has A amount of interest in object X, there arises B circumstances suggesting X, but not actually X, then that person is likely to believe it was X to C degree). I believe if this were done the results would be surprising.
The reasons for my disillusion were three-fold.
Firstly, I had at last familiarized myself with all the areas concerned and in some areas it was unbelievable that there could be thylacine surviving and in many other areas, it seemed unlikely. This seemed so because of the degree of disturbance caused by man, for example logging activity and 1080 poisoning. Secondly, all our tracking and monitoring efforts had not been fruitful. Thirdly, since July, we had not received one sighting where the sighter was adamant that it was a thylacine he saw. The history of sightings had led us to expect approximately one very good sighting a month. The few sightings that had come in were from people who had seen something they only ‘thought’ might have been a thylacine. These sightings, by the way, still received our maximum attention and were monitored religiously. It should be appreciated that up until our publicity programme, most people were only vaguely aware of the thylacine and its circumstances. The situation now was that the public was aware that we were earnest and, perhaps more significantly, it was more aware of thylacine’s appearance and of the thylacine’s rare status. I doubt that there was anyone in the north-east who had not discussed the ‘Tiger’ question at some time or other during the previous few months. So, looking at the formula again, circumstances B had changed in so far as people were better informed now and presumably therefore less likely to mistake another animal for a thylacine. However, interest A should have increased so that you could expect people to be more eager to see a thylacine. Also, an increase in A and B would, you might expect, have the effect of bringing more sightings to light as more would be reported. But the situation was that no ‘definite reports’ of sightings had been recorded in the north-east. This theoretically suggests that there was much better interpretation by the public. We strongly suggest that some of these sightings would, given time and no serious attention, have become ‘definite reports’ because in time poor sightings tend to become better in the mind of the sighter and conversely, ‘definite sightings’ tend to become less definite. I stress that this is all very theoretical and we claim no definite insight into the ‘sighting phenomena’.
On the 17th August 1972, we received our first ‘definite sighting’ since July. However, it came from the north-west which was outside our area of contrived influence. The north-west is served by The Advocate newspaper which had always been very helpful through the interest of its reporter Mr Kerry Pink. Although this paper ran periodic informative articles about us, we hadn’t made a thorough attempt to inform the public in the north-west. The four forestry workers who reported the August sighting did so because they knew James as a friend and had seen him on television where he had been stressing the importance of people reporting sightings quickly. We arrived on the scene 11 hours after the sighting was made. They showed us where they had been parked in their car while having their morning tea when, they claimed, they saw not more than 150 yards down the road in clear view what they all accurately described as a thylacine. It walked down the road for about 40 feet before, they said, it saw them and then it went off into the bush. Tracking conditions in the area were only ‘reasonable’, and for five days I tracked no thylacine, but we did track wild house cats and James eventually saw and photographed a striped cat in the vicinity. James put in scent trails and I installed a monitor, but no evidence of thylacine was found. The forestry workers were adamant that it was not a feral cat they had seen even though we explained that some such cats can reach a surprisingly large size in their wild state.
On the 23rd August, we received our second ‘definite sighting’ for that June to December period. Again it was from the north-west. A mainland engineer who had been in Tasmania for two days was driving alone through the Hellyer Gorge on the Murchison Highway. He claimed an animal that he later identified as a thylacine had jumped off the bank and run across the road about 15 foot in front of his car. He was climbing through some steep bends and travelling very slowly. He had no idea what animal it was and it was only later while talking to his wife on the phone that he realized what it could have been. He was later told to contact us. He had not known of our existence. Upon talking to him two days after his sighting, I was most impressed. However, the location was unlikely: vehicles travel that road every five minutes or so and this was the first sighting to be claimed in that area for many years. I dragged a scent trail and tracked the area, but I was ‘washed out’ in heavy rain only the day after. I installed a monitor but nothing was found to indicate thylacine. At that time I wished I had old Loafy the hound dog with me as I think with a very good scent dog I could have sorted out such fresh sightings very effectively. Later, I wrote to this man and sent him photos of all the various animals one might expect to find at the Hellyer Gorge and I asked him to give us his considered opinion again. I am very surprised that he has never replied. Perhaps he did not receive the letter. There was a third and final sighting claimed for the north-west in the June to December period. This sighting was very impressive as the sighter had stopped his car and watched what he accurately described as a thylacine eating a wallaby beside the road in a very remote area of the north-west. But this sighting was made on the 23rd June, 1972 and not reported until the 14th July so beyond ‘monitoring’ the area, there was little we could do to investigate the sighting.
The situation by the end of August was that I was completely disillusioned with the north-east, but still monitoring it, and now had my attention turned to the north-west. James and I knew the north-west well so (as the whole aim was to find any thylacine) we decided to give this area our attention in the closing months. We sent to Sydney for another ten cameras and a working bee from the Conservation Trust helped us build ten more fowl cages. By the end of September in the north-west I had 11 monitors installed from Beulah in the east to Woolnorth in the extreme north-west and as far south as the Heazlewood River country. For the final months, therefore there were 25 monitors operating across the northern half of Tasmania, 11 were functioning. They were to photograph at various times, 36 Devils, 20 Bennett’s wallaby, 8 Paddymelon wallaby, 8 Brush possum and 8 birds, but never a thylacine. James concentrated on the Arthur River country and was to ‘scent trail’ a number of areas and again track many miles of country. However, we were to draw a ‘complete blank’ as far as any substantial evidence of thylacine was concerned.
In December we received our first and only ‘definite sighting’ in north-east for the June to December period. Improbably located on the outskirts of Launceston the sighting is almost certainly of a stray dog. Even so it is being investigated—so far without results. The details of all sightings have been recorded. These together with the complete collection of material relating to every aspect of the investigation have been filed and placed in the custody of Mr Bob Green, curator of vertebrates at the Launceston’s Queen Victoria Museum.
In November, I gave a paper on the ‘thylacine on the Central Plateau’ to a Tasmanian Royal Society Symposium held at Poatina. This paper gives my interpretation of the effects of man on the Tasmanian Wildlife especially the thylacine. In the Natural History article (December 1972) I relate my knowledge of the history of the thylacine and summarize our reasons for believing that any existing thylacine must be located.
In late November an ABC programme was made on our work for the Big Country series.
The overall picture I had now arrived at was not a happy one. We had tried in every way possible to find tracks without any real success. We had tried to create a climate of interest that I hoped might bring some proof to light—again without success. We had, I believe, successfully perfected and tried all the best ways of locating any thylacine. Worst of all for me, we seemed to have uncovered serious shortcomings with all the evidence claimed in the last 30 years that had suggested the survival of thylacine. Also the wilderness was not as unintruded by man as I had once expected.
I now felt that we had at last come to grips with sightings and towards the end it was the sightings that had held my optimism. My disillusionment with them has meant that I now believe the thylacine is extinct. James, however still has a conviction that thylacine exist mainly because he won’t accept that all the sighters could be mistaken and this in his case, is reasonable as James knows some of the people who have made sightings especially well. There is perhaps still reason for hope. For instance, the Moose which is a comparatively huge animal was recently rediscovered in New Zealand where it had not been seen for about 30 years. It was introduced to NZ from Canada early this century. If this can happen with a Moose then why not a thylacine? Furthermore, there are obviously still areas in Tasmania that we have not combed and there may be thylacine there—there may even be thylacine in areas we have searched. I consider that it is fortunate that James is still optimistic because I know he is the only person in Tasmania with the knowledge, knowhow and experience to adequately investigate sightings. I, for instance, would not be interested in searching further at any price unless proof of their existence were found: I believe we have taken this search to its natural conclusion.
I said earlier that, above all, sighters should not be condemned or ridiculed in any way. The great danger is that if the thylacine were to exist and in a state of total disbelief, a person does see one, no one will believe him. What is needed then is for the serious sighters to report the sightings immediately they occur (that is vital) to a recognised official centre. The sighting can then be investigated and hopefully, evidence found to confirm it, for, without proof, we will have to assume misinterpretation.
Finally I would stress again that we have not proved that the thylacine is extinct. The consolation we offer is that at least an exhaustive attempt to save the thylacine was made, even if it was too late.
Jeremy Griffith B.Sc.
c/o 52 Wolsely Rd, Mosman, Sydney, NSW