Wednesday 19 August 2009

A Thylacine Sighting

[a previously unpublished account of a thylacine sighting in Tasmania's Central Highlands]

The year is 1980. A friend – I’ll call him Ewan – is waking from a night’s sleep in the back of his VW Combi van. It is winter in Tasmania's Central Highlands, but the snow is as sparse as the tree cover near the lakeside shack. It is a clear, cloudless morning, sharp as a tart apple. Ewan’s wife Catriona is already up, starting a fire and possibly breakfast in the adjacent shack.

The rear door of the van is open. Ewan lies in bed, facing the scene outside. Though reading, a part of him is also contemplating the chilly gap between the van and breakfast. At the edge of his vision there is a movement. He lowers the book, and finds himself looking straight at a tiger – a Tasmanian tiger or thylacine that is. He pauses long enough to think, “I don’t believe this … thylacines are extinct”, then suspends his disbelief and simply watches as the dog-sized marsupial carnivore picks its way easily across the grassy ground near the shack. It is less than 20 metres away, moving slowly, nose to the ground, perhaps sniffing for food scraps.

Ewan is a fine photographer; he also knows that his story will be scarcely credible. Yet to take his eyes off the tiger, to reach behind the front seat for his camera will be to miss an experience that few living people have ever had. He watches for perhaps 2 minutes as it moves nonchalantly across his field of view, coming to within 10 metres of the van.

He has seen the stuffed thylacine in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. And he’s watched old footage of the last tiger to die in captivity – in Hobart Zoo in 1936. The one he is now watching is more compact, slimmer, and rather more supple than that. “It didn’t look as ancient” he later recalls. But the characteristic stripes on its haunches and the rather rigidly held tail are unmistakable. This is no dog.

Eventually the tiger moves on. It shows no sign that it’s aware of Ewan’s presence. Having other things to see and do, it simply walks over a small rise and out of Ewan’s life.