Friday, 8 November 2013

The Great North Queensland Tiger Hunt of 1923

     You don't hear much about the legendary marsupial tiger of north Queensland, but it was all the rage in the first half of last century, and even had a semi-official status. It all began with letters to the Zoological Society of London in 1871, after which anecdotes accumulated, until they were collected in 1926 by Albert S. Le Souef and Harry Burrell in The Wild Animals of Australasia. The former came from a prominent zoological family, and was one of the founders of Taronga Park Zoo, while the latter was a naturalist most famous for his work with the platypus. Their material was subsequently republished by Ellis LeG Troughton, Curator of Mammals at the Australian Museum in Furred Animals of Australia, which continued in print until at least the early 1970s. Both books recorded the yet undescribed species as a large cat-like animal, presumed to be a marsupial, of a fawn colour, with black stripes which, unlike the thylacine's, do not meet on the back, and a short face similar to a cat's. Its height was estimated at 18 inches at the shoulder, with a length of five feet, including a long tail. For reference, this is the bottom of the size range for female leopards.
     As these two publications were the major reference material for Australian mammals for nearly fifty years, they carried a lot of weight. Unfortunately, being popular works, they bore no citations, so one is left to wonder where the anecdotes came from. Did they appear in earlier, independent publications, or were the authors informed by private correspondence received in their professional capacity? I do not claim to have reached the original sources. However, with the help of Trove, I think I have got partway there.
     In 1923 ie three years before Le Souef and Burrell's book, an expedition was announced to find and capture the mythical beast. It appears to have ended with a whimper, its lack of success hardly recorded. However, it went off with a fanfare, the subject of a long article printed in three separate newspapers. The first was on the front page of The Mail of Adelaide, Saturday 31 March 1923, followed by The Queenslander (Brisbane) and the Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), both on the following Saturday 7 April, and then in several later newspapers.
     It is firmly believed by zoologists that in Australia there is a bloodthirsty animal which would have proved more than a match for Nero's hungriest lions! Except for a handful of men, no-one in the world has seen the man-eating beast that patrols the mysterious fastnesses of the Parmerville Ranges in Queensland! It is stealthy and has terrorised the blacks! It is a Marsupial Tiger - not a bunyip! and eager hunters are setting out to capture it with traps and a movie camera!
     In the extreme of wildest northern Queensland the tiger has left its footprints to convince sceptics of its existence. Not only that, the animal has been seen by the blacks of the mountain scrub - and the white dwellers as well.
     The beast is bigger than the Tasmanian wolf, and its coat is darkly but distinctly striped. Where it has made a surreptitious enough departure its description on each occasion has been corroborated. It is sometimes a little romantic in its depredations, but this does not imply that the animal is mythical. The marsupial tiger likes the moonlight - a weakness that will aid its hunters a great deal.
     Recently Mr. Reg. Kendall, journalist and critic, and a movie camera-man, embarked on their important journey from Sydney to Cooktown, where pack-horses and two guides will be enlisted. The little expedition, with a large supply of provisions and elaborate traps, will march into the wilderness through the dreary miles of monotonous scrub to the gloomy Palmerville Ranges - where Australia's tiger, shyly, has made its retreat.
     The hunters will establish their camp at Annie Creek. Later, when the advance party will be on the trail of the tiger, Mr. le Souef, Director of the Zoo, will follow, with other experts.
     It is an adventurous mission, and nobody could be more keen or confident than Mr. Kendall. He is quite a young man, and has made similar journeys through the Northern Territory, New Guinea, and South America.
     At this point, the anecdotes begin.
     Even Mr. Robert Grant, late of the Australian Museum, is positive that the marsupial tiger is no myth. He fossicked about for years in Queensland after fauna, and although he did not actually see the beast, he secured very convincing evidence that it haunted the mountains, and was extraordinarily rare.
     First emphasising the proved reliability of the blacks, Mr. Grant related a most interesting and strange narrative of his experiences, as far as the tiger was concerned, in the wilds of the north.
     Sergeant Whalon, of the native police, introduced Mr. Grant to the subject of the marsupial tiger on the banks of the Mulgrave River. He said that it was carnivorous, and well known to the natives. Many of their dogs hunting among the scrub and boulders of the mountain tops never returned.
     The natives were on the verge of hysteria. All their dogs were being slain and devoured, and superstitiously the natives regarded the tiger with frantic terror. Not even the most extravagant inducements could persuade them to accompany Mr. Grant to the vicinity of the animal's lair. They refused to venture within miles of the mountain peaks. Sometimes, the jabbering natives said, one or two of these tigers would slink down from the mountains. The men would say no more than this. So Mr. Grant had to assume that these alarming visits flung the blacks' camps into pandemonium.
     Once when Mr. Grant was in the scrub with a companion he came across the tracks of an animal that he knew nobody in the world - except blacks and a few white men - had ever seen before. The imprints were fresh and as big as Mr. Grant's hand.
     This is new information. I have never ever seen it mentioned in any later article. The wording of the story suggests that it was obtained by the journalist interviewing Mr. Grant personally, but this cannot be assumed. He may have published it elsewhere. I did find a newspaper article dated 1884 by a taxidermist called Robert Grant, but it was on another subject. Anyhow, it is a pity no further information  was provided on the shape of the footprints in this case. But to continue...
     Mr. George Sharpe, who was also in Queensland for many months, similarly failed to induce blacks - who would have followed him into a blazing inferno - to guide him into the domain of the marsupial tiger. Not long afterwards Mr. Sharpe was slightly rewarded for his patience. He was searching at early evening for the eggs of the golden bower bird. Hearing a rustle he turned, and plainly saw a large animal scowling at him. It was vividly striped, but before Mr. Sharpe could raise his gun the beast slunk into the shadows.
      One night a goat, bleating for its dead and devoured mate, was followed into the scrub of the Atherton district by an angry settler. Suddenly, in a brilliant flood of moonlight, he saw the author of the crime - a marsupial tiger. He was a bit scared, but instantly shot the leering animal. Next morning he skinned it, and Mr. Sharpe saw the skin, which he said was about 5 ft. from nose to tip of tail. Wild pigs, unfortunately, had eaten the head and body, and when Mr. Sharpe saw it the skin was practically decayed.
     This story was also told by Le Souef and Burrell, and I always wondered where they originally obtained it. However, I don't think this was the original source - for the simple reason that they reported Sharpe as providing a more detailed description: "larger and darker than the Tasmanian Tiger, with the stripes showing very distinctly." It appears both their version, and this one, are based on an earlier published account, but I haven't been able to find it. For all I know, it might have been in a personal letter to Mr Le Souef in his official capacity.
     Indeed, I strongly suspect that the material for this article was provided by Le Souef because (a) he was slated to eventually join the expedition, and (b) it is unlikely that the unnamed journalist would have all this background information at hand.
     Near a Queensland beach a youth had a thrilling and realistic enough experience. That was as long ago as 1871, but the details have been preserved  in a letter from Mr. B. G. Sheridan, a police magistrate at Cardwell, and father of the boy, to a member of the London Zoological Society. The letter tells an exciting and curious story:-
     "One evening a fox terrier, accompanying my boy along a path near Rockingham Bay, followed a scent from scrub near the beach to the west coast range. About a mile away the dog, barking furiously, discovered a strange animal lying in the grass. My son described it. The beast was as big as a native dog. Its face was round and like a cat's; it had a long tail, and its body was striped yellow and black. The dog chased the animal to a leaning tree, which the beast ran up. When the dog barked the animal leaped down an attacked it. The boy was afraid and went home.
     "Tracks of a sort of tiger have been seen in Dalrymple's Gap, and a most reliable man saw the animal that my son described."
     Another letter, dated 1871, to the London Zoological Society, stated that a surveyor and his party were lying in their tents asleep one night when they were awakened by a terrible roar. Outside they found the strangest tracks. They were suddenly startled in this manner three nights in succession.
     This is a fairly accurate summary of the original letters published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, which started the whole legend.  The surveyor referred to was Albert Hull, and the footprint is not referable to any know species. As I mentioned in the first issue of the Journal of Cryptozoology last year, it measured 4 by 4½ inches (10 x 11 cm), or the size of a man's palm. This corresponds to the one cited by Mr Grant, as big as his hand.
     The next story is rather interesting.
     Mr. J. L. Idriess of Coen, Queensland, has written of a wild battle he witnessed on York Peninsula between a marsupial tiger and a kangaroo. He miscalled the beast a tiger cat. He said that it was as high as a hefty, medium-sized dog. Its body was slight, sleek, and beautifully striped. Armed with lance-like claws, the beast possessed tremendous tearing strength. Its ears were sharp and pricked, and its head resembled that of a tiger. It was fighting a full-grown male kangaroo, which had its back against a tree. The flesh of one of its legs was torn to the bone. Suddenly a streak shot towards its throat and the kangaroo slid to the ground dead. The victor, a marsupial tiger, stood defiantly bestride its victim. The tiger saw the spectator. Its eyes gleamed, and the skin wrinkled back from its horrible fangs in a scowl. Mr. Idriess bolted.
     He was armed after that, and later found a dead tiger. It had been killed by a powerful staghound. But the staghound was twisted on the ground, also dead.
     One or two other men in Queensland also were acquainted with the animal.
     The descriptions of the animal all coincide.
     Mr. Kendall and his advance party will have some exciting adventures. They are after the largest rock-pythons and tree-climbing kangaroos as well. Literally, they are armed to the teeth.
     If the animal is captured alive it will find a home in the zoo, or dead it will be placed in the museum.
     In any case Australia will be proud of its tiger - a really wild animal at last!
     Another newspaper, the Morning Bulletin of Rockhampton, added that Kendall's dispatches would be sent to The Sun in Sydney, whence the Bulletin, and presumably other papers, would be licensed to print them. It is a pity nothing came of it all.
     The author of the last anecdote will be recognizable to any Australian, at least of my generation. Ion L. Idriess, known to his friends as Jack, was later to become a best-selling author and chronicler of the outback. He lived the kind of life that most of us can only dream of, but back in 1923 he was yet to produce his first book. The account is a pretty accurate summary of Idriess' own words, which were later printed by Le Souef and Burrell. However, there has always been a shadow over them, because the exact same story, with only minor changes in wording, was put into the mouth of one of the characters in D. H. Lawrence's novel, Kangaroo.
     One of these popular authors was guilty of plagiarism. The question has always been: who? This latest information should put the issue to rest. Kangaroo was published in 1923, and researched the previous year. If the story was already known, with Idriess' name attached, as early as March 1923, then the original source must have been something he wrote at an earlier date. But where and when? Lawrence had his character say, "They published that yarn in The Bulletin." Regrettably, Trove has not yet digitalised The Bulletin, but some years ago I made an unsuccessful search through the bush yarns sections of the magazine from 1919 to 1921. In any case, as Idriess was recorded as living in Coen, one presumes he wrote it while he was present there, and he is known to have moved around Cape York Peninsula for a couple of years before as well as after the First World War.
Addendum: It has now been ascertained that the original was written by Idriess under the pen name of "Gouger", and was published in The Bulletin on 8 June 1922, on page 20.
     There is another thing: Le Souef and Burrell also mentioned the capture of one of these "tigers" by a Mr. Endres of Mundubbera, but I haven't been able to find the source of this information either.


  1. Being a zoological park named Taronga, the correct term is of course Taronga Zoo Park, not Taronga Park Zoo. Or more simply, Taronga Park, Taronga Zoo or simply Taronga.

  2. What do you think of this video ?

    IMO I think this it is the same kind of unknown animal and environment that you report in the first volume of journal of cryptozoology.

    1. My gut feeling is also that it is some sort of big cat, but the images are not good enough for any definite decision. I wish he had spend more time filming the prints from a point directly above, but they are not obviously canine.

    2. To me the print at 0:30 is too asymmetrical to belong to a cat either, but my point of view could be biased by the camera's angle like you rightly said , who knows...