Thylacine

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08 Jul 1999 Australia: Llewellyn joins quest for tiger

By Steven Dally

Primary Industry, Water and Environment Minister David Llewellyn has declared himself a believer in the existence of the Tasmanian tiger. Mr Llewellyn yesterday said he lived in hope a Tasmanian tiger might be found despite the thylacine's extinct status. "Yes, I am a believer," he said. "I live in hope that there will be one found one of these days. "My objective as a political candidate was always to find one in an election campaign."

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13Apr2002


AUSTRALIA: A Tiger by the tale

A Tiger by the tale MICHAEL Moss has spent a large part of his 36 years searching for live examples of both the Tasmanian tiger and the extinct marsupial lion (he thinks it should be correctly called a leopard). While such an interest may immediately make some readers think Moss is a nutter, he comes across as a dedicated amateur researcher who is not given to overly extreme flights of fancy. Seeking more information on possible sightings of either of the aforementioned beasts, he applied to the Tasmanian Government under the Freedom of Information Act in February for any records of sightings it held. Early this week he received a reply from the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment, which said it had 42 pages of information regarding sightings or evidence of Tasmanian tigers and "big cats" in the state.

Moss's hopes of a research breakthrough were dashed when the letter went on to say, that 40 of the pages were being withheld because, "the disclosure of the information would be contrary to the public interest, because the disclosure would be reasonably likely to impair the ability of an agency or minister to obtain similar information in the future". The bureaucrat who penned the missive also added that the information could be withheld as it was "likely to threaten endangered species". Not surprisingly, Moss believes the Tasmanian Government is "hiding something pretty big". A giant pussy cat, perhaps?

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21Mar2001 AUSTRALIA:



Chasing the tiger - CLASSMATE.
By SIMON BENSON.


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Some people know it as the Tasmanian Tiger, others call it the Tasmanian Wolf. Its real name, however, is the thylacine and it once roamed the Australian landscape as our own king of beasts - a top order carnivore akin to the tigers of Asia or the wolves of South America. It was at the top of the food chain, feeding on and striking fear into the hearts of kangaroos and other marsupials, as well as rodents and birds. Yet somehow this unique creature, that has captured the imagination of scientists and conservationists, was itself preyed upon - mainly by humans.
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In 1936, after 25 million years of evolution, the last known survivor died in Hobart Zoo. The species then became officially extinct. It is believed to be the only animal that has been completely killed off, primarily due to direct human interference. Scientists are now working to "right that wrong" by bringing the thylacine back to life.
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Borrowed from the fantasy of Jurassic Park, researchers at the evolutionary biology division of the Australian Museum, will extract DNA from a specimen preserved in alcohol and use it to reconstruct living clones. It is that specimen which is now the centrepiece of an entire exhibition at the museum, devoted to raising interest in the project. It is the first scientific project of its kind ever attempted and some people have criticised it for being "an expensive and self-indulgent exercise by scientists, trying to play God". If it succeeds it could create whole new science for biology conservation, ensuring that no more animal species on this planet are lost again. As well though, there was something drastically different about the thylacine, that set it apart from just about any other carnivore on earth. It had a head like a wolf and the body of a dog and massive jaws not seen in other animals.
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Unlike most carnivores on earth at the time, it was also a marsupial. Despite having enormous crushing teeth and powerful front limbs, it also carried the legacy of its marsupial heritage - it had pouches like kangaroos for carrying its undeveloped young. After millions of years of evolutionary change, only one member of this family remained - thylacinus cynocephalus, the Tasmanian Tiger. Yet, this animal, which adapted to the harsh Australian environment in a way very few large carnivores could, was completely wiped from the landscape in less than 4000 years.
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- First the introduction of dingos from Asia 4000 years ago, wiped them from the mainland. They were then confined to Tasmanina - hence their name - and when Europeans arrived they were hunted and shot through unfounded fears they were killing farmers' livestock. Leader of the cloning project, Don Colgan, is a geneticist with the Australian Museum. He says there is really a lot to be learned from the demise of the thylacine. "This animal was the sole relic of a family that dominated the Australian landscape for 25 million years," said Dr Colgan. "I think it is accepted that we feel a sense of guilt about what happened to this animal and are determined not to allow it to happen again.
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"The project itself centres on a specimen of a thylacine pup, preserved in alcohol for more than 100 years." Unlike other cloning projects involving living animals, trying to clone an extinct species ranges from being highly difficult to near impossible, because there are no living cells. This entire project could take as long as 20 years - because much of what they are attempting has not been tried before. And so what happens when it is brought back to life? The animal would have to be introduced to a habitat free of dingos, before being able to re-adapt to an environment that has changed since its extinction.
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Other DNA samples from specimens around the world would also have to be found to add to the genetic pool of the first thylacine population (to make sure the clones are not all too closely related). Professor Mike Archer, the director of the Australian Museum, says that one day the thylacine could also become a pet, just like the family dog. Back from the brink Other attempts to bring species back from the dead: * Last year scientists from Advanced Cell Technologies (ACT) in Massachusetts cloned a gaur, an endangered species of wild ox. This was the first case of a species being born by putting its DNA into the egg of another species. Noah the gaur was born by using the egg of a domestic cow, which shares characteristics with the gaur. Unfortunately, Noah died soon after birth but scientists say it was due to an infection not because it was a clone. ACT is planning to try this technique to create a bucardo, a species of Spanish mountain goat recently declared extinct. * The Norfolk Island morepork, a variety of boobook owl, was brought back from the brink by mating it with a similar species. In 1987 when the population dropped to one single female, two male New Zealand moreporks were introduced to mate with her. Although the two species are very closely related, the Norfolk Island morepork now only exists in hybrid form. Even if cloning had been available it is doubtful that with a population of one the species could return to sustainable levels.
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Cloning is only capable of producing copies carrying exactly the same genes, which means a lack of diversity. Currently technology is not up to introducing enough beneficial mutations to create diversity. Scientists cloning animals must find DNA specimens from several different gene pools. * Plans to revive animals such as dinosaurs and woolly mammoths based on the genetic fragments retrieved from dinosaur blood in fossilised mosquitoes or frozen mammoth carcasses are faced with this problem. There is probably not enough dinosaur DNA to create a real-life Jurassic Park. Bringing species back from extinction or even from endangered status is useless unless the conditions that endangered numbers in the first place are dealt with. With dinosaurs that might not be a problem since there is unlikely to be an asteroid to wipe them out again, but in the case of most vanished species, humans have destroyed their environment.
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Environment Australia says that cloning an extinct species that is no longer part of a functioning ecosystem is preservation not conservation. Cloning also does not form any part of its recovery plans for endangered species.
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- ON THE LOOKOUT BOOKS
*Tiger Tales By Col Bailey (Harper Collins 2001) $19.95
Tales from Col Bailey about the search for the Tassie tiger.
*Tasmanian Tiger By Marion Isham (Bandicoot Books) $9.95
Two children see a Tasmanian Tiger and follow a trail to find it.
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- PLACES
*The Australian Museum College St, Sydney.
This is where the debate over cloning the thylacine began and should be one of your first ports of call in Sydney when it comes to all things thylacine.
*Macleay Museum Gosper Lane, University of Sydney
Currently running two exhibitions about endangered and extinct species. Preservation deals with preserving specimens and Extinction deals with animals that have suffered at the hand of man.
*National Museum of Australia, Canberra
The newly-opened national museum has a display devoted to the thylacine and its path to extinction.

Source: DAILY TELEGRAPH (SYDNEY) 21/03/2001 P39

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Call that rang the changes at museum


By Leigh Dayton
December 27, 2003

For Michael Archer, the trouble began with a phone call last October.

Although he wasn't part of the conversation, the impact on the now outgoing director of the Australian Museum in Sydney was enormous. The trickle-down of events has seen his managerial expertise publicly pummelled, the financial woes of the museum laid bare and the Independent Commission Against Corruption intervening in a bizarre tale of passion and theft involving more than 2000 specimens from the museum.
"It would be dishonest to say it hasn't been a difficult and challenging year," Archer admitted. "It's also been very frustrating not being able to respond to the erroneous claims that appeared in the press."
According to Archer, he has not told his side of the complicated story of interpersonal politics and pilfering for good reason. "We were all committed to silence while our own investigation (into the thefts) was under way because we didn't want to alert any possible suspect. "Later, (the) ICAC insisted on no discussion of the matter at all and the ministry said that, if anyone made a statement, the appropriate person had to be the trust president, Brian Sherman," said Archer, noting that the museum fell under the purview of the NSW Arts Ministry.
But now that the ICAC has reported and turned the matter over to the NSW Director of Public Prosecutions -- and Archer is vacating the director's chair -- he can go public. He did so this week in a series of candid conversations with The Weekend Australian.


First up, that pivotal phone call. The participants were Sherman and Tim Flannery, director of the South Australian Museum. As Sherman later told The Australian, Flannery had rung him in "my capacity as a philanthropist" to ask for project money. In the course of the conversation, Flannery -- who applied for Archer's job and is rumoured to be one of four shortlisted candidates -- raised the matter of specimens going missing from the museum, many of which he had collected at great personal risk in Papua New Guinea. He claimed Archer had not replied to his emails and that nothing was being done to investigate the thefts. Sherman immediately rang Archer. "Brian came to me about a report from an outside person, he wouldn't say who. I knew it had to be Tim as he was the only outside person I had discussed it with," Archer recalled.
"I immediately rang Tim to say what on earth had he done. There was a long silence, then Tim said, 'I didn't mean to cause any trouble', and apologised for not telling Brian that I'd brought him up to speed and kept him in the loop." Flannery is currently on leave and was unavailable for comment. Previously, The Australian reported Flannery's claims that "the museum had not taken the theft seriously enough and that efforts to recover the material have been inadequate".


The truth, according to Archer, is that in 1997, when previous museum managers first became aware that items were missing, steps were taken to find the culprit and stop further losses. Police were called twice, but they found no evidence and recommended tightened security. Documents obtained by The Weekend Australian confirm Archer's claim that between 1997 and 2003 major security improvements were made. An electronic swipe-card system was installed in 1998, doors were replaced, recording cameras installed and new collection access guidelines established.
"From before the time I arrived in 1999, the thefts from the collections had stopped because of the implementation of the measures police had recommended," said Archer. "The only specimens that went missing after 1998 were some skulls of bats and other small mammals taken from three parcels in the mail room, and a frozen parrot from a freezer behind a door that was being fixed."
The perpetrator himself later admitted this to the ICAC.


As well, in November 1998, managers began a stocktake of all specimens listed under an international convention on trade in endangered species after staff found that a rare clouded leopard skin had vanished. About 120 specimens were identified as missing, including three Tasmanian tiger skulls. Since the museum holds roughly 13 million specimens, managers focused on prized specimens, assuming the thief stole for financial gain. As the subsequent ICAC investigation revealed, however, self-confessed culprit Hank van Leeuwen was a wildly eclectic collector who had toyed with opening a private museum, filled with his purloined treasures.


As Archer settled into his new job, he began to hear rumours about thefts and asked former executives for a briefing. "They told me what had happened, that the (then) trust and the police had been informed and that the matter was under control," Archer recalled.
"It was presented to me as a problem that had already been fixed." Still, collection managers occasionally discovered that more items were gone. Again, security was beefed up and efforts to tally and value missing material continued. Archer planned an insurance claim if police wouldn't investigate for a third time. Meanwhile, Archer asked staff to report any evidence or misbehaviour on the part of any suspect. After investigating three allegations "focused on van Leeuwen", Archer found nothing to support them. "You can't accuse or harass people without evidence," he said.


Earlier, in 1999, Archer had transferred van Leeuwen because the then pest inspector didn't get on with his department head, and had moulding and casting skills sorely needed elsewhere. "It seemed nuts not to use him in that context. I had no idea who the thief was; it wasn't even clear to us that the thief was still in the museum," he recalled. According to Archer, Flannery contacted him in early 2002. "At that time I fully briefed him, not holding anything back, although, as it turned out, he'd known about the thefts as early as 1997 but not mentioned them to me until 2002. "I told him -- and only him -- about everything that had been done, and would be done, such as briefing the trust for a second time when our ongoing investigation was complete and we knew what to tell them," Archer added. "That's why Tim's assertion (to Sherman) that I hadn't replied to him and was doing nothing was very surprising." Archer also bridles at the suggestion that -- right or wrong -- Flannery's call to Sherman was the only reason the ICAC was brought into the picture, leading to the identification of van Leeuwen. "We had a thorough process in place."


He is also angry that someone made "selective leaks" about the conversation between Sherman and Flannery and subsequent events.
"We don't know who, but we have our suspicions," Archer said, speaking for other senior managers. Archer believes the leaks fuelled "inappropriate" media and public interest in the case. And now? Most of the lost specimens are home, and Archer says the odds they'll go walkabout again are "virtually zero". So what about allegations of staff unrest and financial and accommodation troubles? What will face the next director? "That's all another story," sighed Archer.

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24 Jun 2000 AUSTRALIA:

DEAD or ALIVE?


By SARAH HUDSON


SARAH HUDSON scours the undergrowth of supposition for a peek at an elusive quarry MORE mysterious than an X-Files alien, more ferocious than the average koala, and more spotted than the bunyip, it may be lurking in a bush near you.

A Tasmanian tiger, that is. Although thought to have been extinct since 1936, judging from recent news of cloning attempts, upcoming book launches, exhibitions and ever-present tiger spotting, interest in the marsupial is more intense than ever. The enigmatic creature has, over the past few years, taken on mythical proportions with die-hards determined to prove the thylacine is not extinct. When confessed die-hard Mike Cleeland, database manager for the Australian Rare Fauna Research Association (ARFRA), heard scientists were planning to clone the tiger, he - only half-jokingly - remarked "Why bother?" Why indeed? At last count ARFRA, which is dedicated to investigating mystery animals, had reported 3800 Australia-wide sightings of Tasmanian tigers since 1984.

The most recent sighting was on June 3 in central Gippsland. Cynics could say sightings became more tempting since American billionaire Ted Turner offered $100,000 for a living specimen in 1984. "Its existence is becoming more readily accepted in many rural communities," Cleeland says. Cleeland, a science teacher, experienced his only sighting in 1992 in Gippsland, one of the favorite tiger-spotting areas in Victoria, together with the area around Warrnambool. "I had stopped to have lunch and I had a clear and obvious view about 60 metres away of a Tasmanian tiger," says Cleeland, who taught animal identification for four years. "You don't need to be Einstein to identify a Tasmanian tiger. It's obviously the distinctive markings, but particularly the distinctive tail that thickens where it joins." The moment he opened his car to reach for his camera, the tiger ran away. And this, says ARFRA president Dr Bob Paddle, is the problem with tiger hunting.

Paddle, the author of The Last Tasmanian Tiger, due for release in November, says there are too many sightings and not enough evidence. The psychology lecturer, who has also helped create an exhibition of the creature at the National Wool Museum in Geelong, is certain the last tiger died in a Hobart zoo in September 1936. "Until you give me a body, not blurred photos, not footprints, not a video of a dingo or a fox so starved its ribs look like stripes, nothing is going to change my judgment," Paddle says. Paddle says he became the president of ARFRA after speaking to the founding member about his sightings. "I became interested about three years ago after talking to the then president, Peter Chapple. "I had been studying the animal for years from extensive historical records in London, Washington and New York about the vocalisation of the thylacine - its hisses, snorts and screams. "But Peter knew this knowledge from what he'd heard and seen. He knew a coughing bark was directed to the family group, that a scream or squeal meant frustration and anger."

 While these facts tempted his curiosity, Paddle remains sceptical and is constantly amazed at the amount of sightings. "The problem is either people are so over-enthusiastic that they see tigers walking down Swanston St, or there's another group who deliberately reproduce hoax photos." Cleeland agrees not all sightings are authentic - but believes most are. "I'm sure people make genuine mistakes and there are some hoaxes, but there are scores of good, honest and reputable people out there who have nothing to gain from bringing forth spurious evidence."

TIGER FACTS


* The Tasmanian tiger, a marsupial, was mainly nocturnal and a predator which lived off other marsupials such as wallabies, possums and birds.


* Its scientific name is Thylacinus cynocephalus.


* Both sexes had a pouch. The female could carry up to four young.


* The female was distinct from the male in that she had a wider head and snout and was smaller and lighter in color. They stood about 60cm high at the shoulder.


* A mummified specimen exists in a cave on the Nullarbor Plain. Carbon dating estimated it died 3300 years ago. By the 1800s sightings were isolated to Tasmania.


* It is helpful to refer to it as the Tasmanian wolf because many of its features were more dog than cat-like.


* It resembled a kangaroo when it used its two large rear feet and tail, for balance, to stand up.


* Unlike dogs, they had five toes on the forefoot and four on the hind.


* At the end of the 1800s, too many sheep were being killed by the thylacine and so the government introduced a bounty. It was so successful their numbers were critically low by 1910. A disease is believed to have contributed to their deaths as well as loss of habitat.


* A law was passed protecting them in 1936, but what is believed to have been the last one died in a Hobart zoo that year.


* The thylacine was declared extinct under the Tasmanian Threatened Species Protection Act, 1995.