(page 9)

1936 to present (continued):

    Bill Clarkson's encounter:

    Bailey states: "The old West Coast Road was synonymous with Tasmanian tiger sightings from its earliest days.  Opened in 1932 and later re-named the Lyell Highway, it snakes its way through a vast uninhabited and pristine wilderness.  Once the domain of fur trappers and gold prospectors, the country on the western side of the road descends countless hundreds of metres into a virtual no-man's land of primordial rainforest, tea-tree swamps and button grass plains.  This spectacular country is now the home of the mysterious thylacine, better known as the Tasmanian tiger, and it was here that a thylacine was observed crossing the bitumen road from east-to-west early on a misty April morning in 2004.  Bill Clarkson, a middle-aged game hunter, was returning home from the north-west. He regularly traversed that same section of the west-coast road but nothing prepared him for the unexpected sight he came upon as he turned a bend on a lonely, undulating stretch near Mt Arrowsmith.  His fellow hunters claimed to have seen the same type of animal, but Bill only half-believed them - until now.  There, in the half-light of an awakening dawn appeared a thylacine, an animal that science assures us is as extinct as the Dodo.  After phoning me to report his good fortune, I later met up with Bill in a New Norfolk café to discuss his sighting over a cup of coffee.  His vivid and detailed description of the animal was spot on.  He was driving at around 70 kilometres per hour through an early morning mist with his lights full on.  There was little if any traffic on the road at the time, and he was driving carefully, ever observant for wildlife crossing the road.  He had just topped a rise, and as he was descending around a sweeping left hand bend, he noticed an animal about 100 metres ahead starting to cross the road from east-to-west.  In slowing down, he estimated it would be well across by the time he arrived, but at the last minute, it appeared to hear the vehicle and suddenly doubled back.  This caused Bill to brake heavily, and in doing so, swerve to the left, narrowly missing the animal".

    Clarkson: "My lights were full on it and I don't know who got the bigger shock, the animal or me.  It was incredible that I didn't clean it up.  I stopped only a fraction from it, and for a while I was scared I'd hit the thing.  Although I have only ever seen photos of these animals, there was definitely no mistaking what it was.  It appeared startled by the glare of my headlights and totally confused.  I started opening the driver's side door to get out and try and help and I must have spooked it, because once again it began making for the other side of the road in a slow, staggering, semi-hopping sort of motion.  It appeared to be dragging a hind leg, but I'm sure I never hit it.  It might have pulled a muscle pulling up short like it did.  Maybe it was in shock?  When I got out of the vehicle, it was so near I could have almost reached out and touched it.  It never made any noise that I could hear, other than to give a loud, angry-sounding hiss as I opened the car door to approach it.  I plainly heard that."

    Bailey: "Asking Bill to best describe the animal, I was careful to ask no leading questions, preferring to let him tell me the full story uninterrupted.  It is always a mistake to put words into the mouth of people describing a thylacine sighting because they often unintentionally end up saying exactly what you want them to say."

    Clarkson: "It was a mid-brown colour with shortish hair, and it had this long, hairless tail.  It looked a bit like a medium-sized dog with stripes, and the stripes stood out.  They seemed to be a dark brown colour - not black, but a dark sort of colour."

    Bailey: "Did you notice any odour when you got out of the car to approach it?"

    Bailey [comment]: "Appearing to ponder the question carefully for several seconds before answering."

    Clarkson: "No... I can't say that I did notice any smell.  There was a strong diesel smell coming from the 4WD that probably eliminated any other smells in the immediate vicinity.  The air was fresh with little if any wind."

    Bailey: "Did you notice where the animal went?, I asked to establish in which direction the animal headed."

    Clarkson: "Oh, it definitely moved to the west side of the road.  It appeared to be heading straight on down into the valley, and as I remember it slowed and deliberately looked back at me before disappearing."

    Bailey: "Did you attempt to follow it?"

    Clarkson: "No, not actually follow it, but I did walk over to where it had left the road and as it sloped down into the valley, but by that time it was out of sight".

    Bailey: "Did you notice any smell when you followed it?"

    Clarkson: "No... I don't reckon I did."

    Bailey: "Did you have time to count how many stripes it had?"

    Clarkson: "I've got no idea really.  Other than to say it had enough stripes down its back to say without doubt that the animal definitely had these dark brown stripes."

    Bailey: "Do you think the earth alongside the road was damp enough for the animal to have left any footprints?"

    Clarkson: "No... no... I don't reckon it would have left footprints, because as I remember, the sides of the road were fairly stony... rocky would be a better word."

    Bailey: "Did you notice any eye shine when you caught it in the headlights?"

    Bailey [comment]: "He again paused to give the question serious thought."

    Clarkson: "Look, I can't really be sure - I was more concerned at not hitting it when the 4WD began to slide on the wet road.  When I first saw it, I was at least 100 yards away and coming upon it fast.  I anticipated that on slowing down it would have been out of the way by the time I reached it, but when it began to double back, that's when things got a bit sticky.  Naturally, I slowed right down and hit the brakes, and this probably avoided a collision."

    Bailey: "What gave you the idea it was a Tasmanian tiger?"

Clarkson: "My son brought home a circular from the National Parks and Wildlife a few years back after visiting one of the parks... Cradle Mountain, I think it was.  It was a double-page pamphlet with a picture of a Tasmanian tiger and some information.  It gave the impression that the tiger is extinct, but after what I've just seen, I can tell you that it's definitely alive and kicking - now I'm a true believer."

    Bailey: "I rated this report 9.5 out of 10.  This was one thylacine sighting that definitely warranted further action.  Some months later I descended down into the Jane River country, that dank, gloomy morass of deep valleys and vicious horizontal thickets, along with its hideous quagmires and tea-tree swamps where the risk of misfortune rides high on the shoulders of a lone adventurer.  Why?  Because there are thylacines down there in that seldom visited land of weather extremes, where average annual rainfall can top 250cm, and snow can lie 150cm deep in the middle of summer.  But there is life down there - all sustaining prey species that frequent the pockets of button grass dotting the landscape - for this is where the thylacine has made its last stand.  And if providence provides sufficient protection, it will hopefully be there for a long time yet."

Lyell Highway near Derwent Bridge, Tasmania
Forest along the Lyell Highway near Derwent Bridge, Tasmania.

    What scientific evidence exists to support Bailey's stance?

    Michael Sharland in his regular "Peregrine's Nature Notes" column in the Mercury newspaper of the 9th October 1943 (p. 13) speculates on the continued existence of the tiger:

    "Some time ago, Ranger Fergusson and I discussed the possibility of the tiger occurring in the reserve (Lake St. Clair Scenic Reserve), in which there is ample cover for this animal, which hides by day and hunts at night.  And, from recent reports, there is a fairly good supply of food.  He felt confident that he would one day sight a tiger there, and I suppose there are few men with the same opportunities as he for observing wild animals, because when conditions permit, he travels all the tracks in this mountainous reserve, camps in remote places, and sees much of the life of forest and button-grass plain.  His news, imparted to the National Park Board, that in August, a tiger twice came round his camp at the lake, has been well received by naturalists.  It indicates that this creature, once persecuted to the verge of extinction, is still in existence and reminds us that this is but one of several which must hunt over wide areas of mountain country unseen by man.  For many miles in and around this reserve and stretching away across range, forest, and valley to the west and south-west there is no limit or boundary to potential tiger-inhabited country.  Normally, the animal will shun the neighbourhood of camps and settlement, but when these places are so scattered and isolated, it has little trouble to keep to the bush and out of sight, and so, with the difficulty of our ever thoroughly exploring the country zoologically, we cannot determine whether or not it is decreasing or the extent of its range.  Such chance encounters as these, and there have been a number of them in different districts in recent years, are, however, indications that all is well with this most primitive of Tasmanian carnivores".

Beaumaris Zoo (SB) - circa 1916
Two resting female thylacines at the Beaumaris Zoo (SB), circa 1916.
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