New York scientists Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson went to Tasmania in search of the Tasmanian tiger which has been considered extinct for decades. During their travels, they encounter many rare species and meet unique characters who believe the tiger still exists. Host Steve Curwood speaks with Mittelbach about her new book “Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger.”
CURWOOD: With the reappearance of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker not so long ago, the scientific community is once again wrestling with an old question: How much looking does it take to say something is gone? That's been the case with the Tasmanian tiger, considered extinct for decades. Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson became fascinated with the species and went to Tasmania, an island off the southern tip of Australia, to search for the creature. The two scientists wrote about their journey in the new book, “Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail for the Tasmanian Tiger”. Margaret Mittelbach joins me now, and Margaret, reading your book, I was surprised to learn that your search for the Tasmanian Tiger actually begins in Manhattan of all places.
MITTELBACH: Our search really began at the American Museum of Natural History. They have a wonderful taxidermy of a Tasmanian tiger there and my co-author and I had seen this animal in a glass case there and it’s just spectacular. It’s got the body of a wolf or some kind of canine with a sandy colored coat, but it has striped tiger and it also has a pouch to carry its young like a kangaroo. So it’s this very unusual creature, not something you’d normally see and we decided to find out more about it. The thing that really tipped us over the edge was one day we went to the museum and the glass case was empty and a librarian told us the tiger had been moved to an exhibit on genomics. A museum in Australia was very seriously attempting to extract DNA from their own specimens of the tiger in order to resurrect the species. And the notion was that perhaps extinction isn’t as final as it sounds. When we did further research we found out that many people in Tasmania still believe the tiger existed, even though it had been labeled extinct and frequently went looking for it and some people have actually devoted their lives to searching for it. So that was further impetus to see where this animal was. It seemed to be in some kind of state of limbo, either in the past, or maybe even in the future, but where was it now, let’s go find out.
CURWOOD: I want to find out about your journey to find out, but first tell me biologically, what is the Tasmanian tiger?
MITTELBACH: Its scientific name is Thylacinus Cynocephalus, which means pouched animal with a dog head. It’s a carnivorous marsupial, the largest carnivorous marsupial in the world, so even though it looks a little bit like a canine, it’s not related to a dog or any placental species closely. It’s more closely related to kangaroos and other marsupials.
CURWOOD: What was the last known Tasmanian tiger seen alive out in the wild?
MITTELBACH: The last Tasmanian tiger that was known to have existed actually died at a zoo in Hobart, Tasmania’s capital in 1936. Since then there have been many sightings in the wild, but none of them have been verified. That said, in the early 1980s a very well-respected wildlife biologist in Tasmania, Hans Narding, saw a Tasmanian tiger at night and he observed it for three minutes. He wasn’t able to take a photograph, but his sighting led to a two-year long search of the area where he saw it and unfortunately, they didn’t find any evidence of the tiger after that, but most biologists in Tasmania believe that his sighting was real.
CURWOOD: Just for the moment assuming that it is extinct, what would have driven it to extinction?
MITTELBACH: When Tasmania was first settled by the British in the early part of the 19th century, they set up a large sheep farming industry and Tasmanian tigers occasionally preyed on the livestock and this disturbed the farmers down there. So they lobbied the government to set up a bounty to put on the thylacine’s head and that was finally done in 1888 and they paid one pound sterling for every dead tiger. So killing tigers basically became a business. One pound sterling was a lot of money back then, probably a week’s wages and over the next 30, 40 years tigers became increasingly rare and so it was basically hunted to extinction.
CURWOOD: So you take off for Tasmania and what are you hoping to get out of this trip? There are pretty big odds that you’re not going to come face to face with a thylacine if the people who have been there hunting it for decades haven’t been able to find it.
MITTELBACH: Right, our expectations of actually seeing a thylacine were very low when we left New York. But what we did hope to see and certainly did see were all of the amazing animals that survive in Tasmania. Some of those include the Tasmanian devil, which is an amazing little creature. It’s of course known from the cartoon, but it’s a real animal too. And we met this great guy, Jeff King, who used to be a cattle rancher and he ended up becoming a conservationist and turning his entire property into a wildlife preserve and occasionally he takes people to see Tasmanian devils in the wild. He actually collects roadkill, dead wallabies, which are small kangaroos that have been killed by cars, and he takes them to his barn and puts them in his freezer. Then when he decides he wants to go see a Tasmanian devil, he defrosts the wallaby, ties it with a rope to the back of his pickup truck and then drags it across his property to create a scent trail. So he’s basically chumming terrestrial style and the devils have an incredible sense of smell, so they will follow that trail.
And what we did with him was we went to a little house he has in the bush or fishing shack that he uses as a blind and he stakes out a dead wallaby in front of a window. You go there before sunset and then you wait until darkness falls and eventually Tasmanian devils will come down to the carcass to feed and it’s just an amazing sight. They are about the size of a bulldog and they look a little bit like a black bear cut off at the knees. They have short black fur and these sort of hairless snouts and they start to get to work on the carcass and they have huge heads and powerful jaws and when they fight to get a better position on the carcass, it’s really a creepy scene and you just get this chill going down your back and they start whirling around and trying to bump each other off the carcass. It looks like a barroom brawl.
CURWOOD: So let’s talk about the tiger hunters. Tell me, who are these people and what makes them go out day after day to track what might be just little more than just a ghost of a species?
MITTELBACH: They just have incredible faith that animals are resilient and some of the tiger hunters, they either have heard the animal many, many years ago crying in the bush or they believe they’ve seen it.
CURWOOD: You say some people have heard the cry of a Tasmanian tiger, what is that sound?
MITTELBACH: They make a variety of sounds, but the one that people describe most and then will demonstrate for you is this kind of “yip, yip” cry. And they also make a coughing bark.
CURWOOD: Margaret, in your book there’s a part where Col Bailey, whom you describe as a true believer in the Tasmanian tiger, takes you to a place where he believes the tiger still roams. I’m wondering if you could read from this please?
MITTELBACH: Sure. “We walked silently until Col found an animal trail and turned off. He motioned for us to go ahead of him, and parted some woody shrubs for us to take a look. Through the green brush, we could see a sunken plain surrounded by low wooded hills. It looked like a vast natural amphitheater. “It’s a very rare find when you get something like this,” Col said in a low voice. “This is all natural. It’s never been cleared. We’re thirty miles from the nearest town.”
In the foreground, the green and tan grasses of a marsupial lawn had been nibbled down by wallabies and wombats. On the horizon, rugged mountains of bare rock gleamed white in the sunshine. “There’s the Tiger Range,” said Col. “They hide up there during the day and come down to hunt at night. They’ll creep along through these grasses and pounce on a wallaby.”
We had gotten so used to the pattern of the animals in Tasmania, invisible during the day and abundant at night, that the thought of a thylacine emerging from the wooded hills to dispatch a wallaby seemed entirely plausible. The wild landscape, the ghost town, and the hot breath of the leatherwood-scented wind were working their magic.
We closed our eyes and mouthed, “We do believe in thylacines. We do believe in thylacines.” When we opened them, we half expected to see a Tasmanian tiger standing in front of us. But the natural amphitheater remained empty.”
CURWOOD: Sounds like at this point, you’re getting kind of obsessed with these.
MITTELBACH: Well, I think we started out being obsessed and got even more so as we were there because just as you meet people who tell you they’ve seen tigers, they’ve heard tigers, and about half the people in Tasmania, I think, believe that tigers are still out there. You start to believe, well maybe there are, maybe I’ll see one and your hopes start to rise enormously. When the ivory-billed woodpecker was rediscovered that was almost like a holiday or Christmas Day to me, and people have quoted Emily Dickinson’s poem, that “hope is the thing with feathers.” And I think the ivory-bill has proved that that’s true. But my co-author Michael and I like to say “hope is the thing with stripes,” and who knows, if the Tasmanian tiger is rediscovered someday that would be very exciting. We hope that it is. Whether it will be, we don’t know.
CURWOOD: Margaret Mittelbach and Michael Crewdson are co-authors of “Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger”. Thanks for taking this time with me today Margaret.
MITTELBACH: Oh, thanks Steve.
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