Don's diary

March 27, 1998

Wednesday

Film crews live in an en suite world ... and there is nothing en suite about Derwent Bridge bunkhouse. It is an apt end to a frustrating day. We had hoped to shoot a scene at a rather unassuming shack tucked away in the Dee Bridge/Derwent Bridge district of Tasmania - a sad monument to the demise of the thylacine, the largest carnivorous marsupial to have lived in recent times.

The thylacine, a wolf which carried its young on its belly in a backward facing pouch, is popularly known as the Tasmanian tiger because of its striped coat. Derwent Bridge was the spot where the government paid out most bounty payments to white settlers who ruthlessly pursued the tiger for killing sheep. The chaotic construction of corrugated iron and timber, accessible only by a rotten tree trunk spanning the Dee River, now houses a suspicious sheep farmer and a pack of ferocious dogs ... the scene is hastily rewritten off location.

Thursday

Today I interview Eric Guiler, a bulldog of an Irishman who came to Tasmania in 1947. His research on Tasmanian tigers started when one or two trappers who had caught them were still alive. Their first-hand knowledge is an important component of his books and papers. I was keen to quiz him about the biology of the beast. Did it live in territorial pairs? Did it hunt alone or in packs? How long did it carry its young in its pouch? He has ideas but he admits it is all guesswork - we shot this animal before we knew anything about it. I recall the words on a small plaque below a thylacine in Sydney Museum: "Our ignorance about this animal remains a shrine to our greed."

Friday

Not all today's tiger tales are based on recollections of fathers or grandfathers. Since Benji, the last tiger, died in captivity in Hobart Zoo in 1936 there have been more than 300 sightings. Many of those were reported to Colonel Bailey, a Tassie tiger devotee. He writes a "Tiger Tale" column for the Derwent Valley Gazette and though he has yet to see one himself he has an unshakeable conviction that they are still out there. We spend hours filming at his house - a whitewashed bungalow in Maydena, a "last town before the wilderness" kind of place. Here, in a tiny room bursting with tiger paraphernalia - books, newspaper cuttings, wood carvings, badges, pictures - he enthusiastically bashes out articles on an old typewriter about sightings.

Saturday

From believer to sceptic. Today I meet up with Nick Mooney, a national park warden who is certain the tiger is no more. He gives me a crash course on tracking techniques in the Tasmanian bush. I discover how Tasmanian devils mark territories by leaving piles of droppings on small hummocks - apparently their square droppings do not roll off!

Sunday

Another day, another location and another couple of tiger hunters. Today I meet and interview the Tassie tiger research team. Trudy and Jo are a crazy couple who race around the bush on all-terrain vehicles. Their research centre is a pub in Mole Creek. It has few books and no computers or photocopiers but a wonderful set of murals on the bar wall: Tassie tiger females with voluptuous breasts lounging on river banks, and males (one assumes) on motorbikes, playing snooker and downing pints. They too have never seen a tiger though Jo claims to have heard a "yip yip" call of one once. Yet they are convinced it still exists.

Monday

A drive northwest to Murrawah and a long boat trip up the Arthur River where the most recent sightings were reported.

Tuesday

Lots of scenes of me driving the boat up and down the river, setting up and striking camp and putting automatic cameras in the bush. The crew is busy cataloguing the film and soundtrack from today and the director and production assistant are planning the forthcoming schedule. Sitting at the edge of the Arthur River, water lazily lapping the bank, I have a rare moment to reflect. I think I expected my hunt for the tiger to end as all the others had before me. But now I have, at least, seen thylacine country, been able to trace its history and meet the human characters who are still part of it.

The inspiration for my trip was Aubrey Manning, a charismatic zoology professor at Edinburgh University. He once said that he felt he had been robbed by the almost certain extinction of the thylacine. How right he was. The tiger's final foothold was the wildernesses of Tasmania - and we will almost certainly never have the chance to see the animal in the flesh.

Juliet Vickery, Former lecturer in animal ecology and conservation at the University of Edinburgh. She now heads the terrestrial ecology unit at the British Trust for Ornithology and travelled to Tasmania to film a Channel 4 documentary about the Tasmanian tiger.

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