Thursday 3 October 2013

Thylacines in Indonesian New Guinea - Further Evidence

     My post two years ago on the possible existence of the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger in the Indonesian half of New Guinea appears to have been extremely popular, and is still attracting comments. So I think it is about time I updated it with evidence from a correspondent called Franz. He has asked me not to publish his last name, but he lives in Vienna, Austria, and has visited the country often for reasons unconnected with his career as a graphic designer. He usually travels with a doctor friend.
     At this stage, I should point out that the information on the previous post was not available when I originally wrote Bunyips and Bigfoots. All I was then able to report was an account by a Tasmanina thylacine-chaser, Ned Terry about how the natives in an unidentified part of Irian Jaya (as Indonesian New Guinea was then named) recognized pictures of the thylacine as a local animal they called a dobsegna. It was this which inspired Franz to write to me in May 2000.
I've been travelling to Irian Jaya nearly every year since 1976. My main interest is the tribal cultures, but I'm also interested in the flora and fauna. I've heard also that in some areas of Irian Jaya, the highland people know the thylacine. I have been three times in this region, but I heard it at the end of the last journey. That's why I could not go deeper into the story. I know the local hunters know the animals in the area very well. I always had painted pictures of the animals with me, because I was asking around if they knew this or that animal. But I never had a picture of a thylacine with me.

     Here is the map he provided with the letter. Note the dark shading close to the PNG border, which indicates the area of thylacine reports.

     In the book, I had queried how Mr Terry had visited the area, since most regions are off limits to outsiders. However, Franz claimed there would be little difficulty because, although you officially require a permit, no-one checks it once you are in the interior. (My own experiences in the Third World is that officials are either exasperatingly officious, or completely slack - and often both.) He then continues:
     There are two language groups living in the area, mostly in small highland settlements at around 1500 - 2000 metres [4,900 - 6,500 ft]. There are vast areas of land higher up, where the locals only go sometimes to hunt. The area where the people live is mostly dense highland rainforest. I think only very few animals live on the ground in this forest. Higher up, the landscape is better, with ferns, small bushes, and many caves. That would fit the thylacine, but I have problems saying what animals could hunt up there. Highland wallabies are outhunted (so it is said). To the south from around 1000 - 1500 metres [3,300 - 4,900 ft] there is a corridor of no man's land, because the various lowland groups have a very different culture. They live as semi-nomads, and there are still many uncontacted tree houses in the area. Only in the last few years have the highlanders had more contact with the lowlands. Beforehand, and sometimes even now, they were afraid to go down. I have had this experience many times, when we've tried to reach uncontacted tree houses from the highland areas. The forest in this area is a bit more open, but as far as I know, wallabies live only north of the mountains and much further south. So in all these areas there are tree kangaroos, possums, cassowaries, and reptiles, but would this be the right food for a thylacine?
     It would be easy to find out more. The tradition of these people (highland and lowland) is to collect bones and teeth of hunted animals. They are hanging on the walls in the hundreds in any house. So when they ever hunted the thylacine, it must be possible to find remains. They don't collect the fur. Is it possible to say from only the teeth that this could only be a thylacine?
     Well, the answer to that is YES. A mammalogist familiar with the local fauna and the teeth of the thylacine should be able to tell them apart. He also continued:
There was a report from Oksibil, which is more to the east (about two weeks on foot). Oksibil is a bigger missionary and police post. There the authorities report that they have problems with a thylacine killing the chickens of the locals. But until now, I could not find any further information. (I don't know why.) ... There are only two missions with an airstrip in the area where I heard the reports, and at this time (between 1990 and 1994) there were only two white missionaries in the area.
     (Ned Terry had said that his initial information from a missionary, and had flown to the area by helicopter.)
     In a follow up e-mail he explained:
My experience is that we often showed the locals pictures of animals from other countries, and they never said they knew the animal. Also, nobody was asking about the thylacine; they just recognized it on the stamp on the letter from the mining worker.
     Now, in my earlier post, I recorded how the Regent of Jayawijawa had claimed reports of thylacines in the areas of the Kurima Tableland, Oksibil, and Okbibab, and you will note that this is pretty much covered by the shading on Franz' map. Also, an anonymous commentator to my post indicated that he had also seen a thylacine in Jayawijawa. I have always suspected that Ned Terry's site was close to the Baliem Valley because (a) it is open to tourists, and (b) there had been a flurry of less-than-coherent newspaper paragraphs around that time mentioning Baliem and thylacines in the same context. We can now see from Franz' map that the shaded area is within striking distance of Wamena, the chief town of the Baliem Valley. Also, Karl Shuker has since reported sightings in the Baliem Valley.
     So, in 2013 it seemed time to get in touch with Franz again. As it turned out, he was quite helpful, and provided an update in an e-mail last month. Before I quote it, however, I should clarify one point. The Indonesian half of New Guinea has undergone multiple name changes. First it was West Irian, then Irian Jaya. Members of the independence movement tend to call it West Papua. However, Indonesia has since divided the province into two sections. The western section is now West Papua, and the eastern section, adjacent to the PNG border is simply Papua. In his latest e-mail, Franz uses that convention.
     I did not stop my journeys to Papua after the year 2000. After I had heard the thylacine story, I always had a collection of photographs of different animals with me on my later journeys. One these pictures shows a realistic thylacine painting, on which you can see the black stripes very clearly, and you can hardly mix it up with a feral or wild dog. ...Those pictures are bonded at the end of my diary. It's always a lot of fun for the local people in the villages to see these photographs.
     This is a copy of the picture he uses. Although it makes no difference, it happens to be back to front. If you hold a mirror to it, you will be able to read the artist's name: "F. KNIGHT. 77". Anyhow, to continue:
     In it there are also photographs of other tribes around the world, and animals living in New Guinea. Interestingly, the locals are never much interested in seeing pictures of other tribes in Africa or somewhere else, but they are very interested and amused to see pictures of other New Guinea tribes. Without asking, they discuss the different ornaments. Also, they start naming the New Guinea animals by local name, as far as they know it. The pictures in my book show tree kangaroos, parrots, snakes, lizards and, of course, animals I myself have really wanted to see for years, such as the echidna.
     Interestingly, since 1976 I have tried to see a live echidna in Papua, but I have never had the luck to see one. They are highly prized as bush meat and are not easy to find, even in less populated regions. That means that known animals are also difficult to come by.
     In between the New Guinea animals are photographs of a few African or South American animals. It's just to test if they just want to impress me by knowing every animal, instead of telling the truth. Never did someone say that he knew one of the foreign animals. Once again, they will be going through the pictures and say to themselves or other locals, to the effect, I know this one and that one, followed by the name. They do not stop one second to look closer over a picture of a pangolin, for example. They just say, "I don't know," and pass to the next picture. I did not try to push or to show any special interest in this or that animal. That means that there is absolutely no reason for them to say, "Oh, I know that animal", because they don't know what sensation it would be for us to find a thylacine in New Guinea.
     After 2000 I made my journeys mostly to the southern Papua lowland and foothill areas. My intention to visit Papua was, and is, to document the various tribal groups before they are touched too much by the western world. Nobody knew the thylacine in that region.
     Only in one newly built village in the southern lowlands was there one man - and he came originally from the highland area where I heard my first thylacine story - who did know the thylacine instantly, and pointed out that it is very shy and rarely seen. It lives only very high up in the mountains. (The village of the informant is at around 1900 metres [6,200 ft] above sea level, so "high up" means anything higher than the location of his village.) The region higher up there is mostly open marsh/grassland with tree ferns and small shrubs.
     In the following years I heard about small valleys with uninfluenced tribes north of the central range. That's why I focused my next journey on the north. Nobody knew the thylacine on the way through the northern lowlands, but as soon as I reached the first highland village in one of the untouched valleys one of the men did  identify the thylacine right at the spot.
     Before that, some younger boys went through the pictures, but they did not identify the thylacine. I can't speak the local language of that village. That means it is very hard to have a conversation in Indonesian, using a foreign language (foreign for them and for me). It seems that they did not see the animal very often, because a small discussion started over the local name. I give a very free interpretation of what I understood. Pointing to it, they called it a dog. But the adult(s) corrected them with another name, and described the difference to them between a dog and the thylacine. They even described the animal's behaviour to the youngsters. They said that the animal lived higher up. That could be lower in this region, because this particular village was only about 950 metres [3,100 ft] above sea level. One man showed how the animal jumps up (balancing) on its hind legs to get an overview around the high grass while watching him.
     Franz has visited PNG only once, but he knows West Papua well. He points out that the natives do have traditions of other more or less mythical and frightening beasts, but they do not regard the thylacine in the same way. He also reiterates the possibility of a specialist being able to recognize thylacine teeth, bones, and fur among the native collections. In conclusion:
     If we do believe that the 1997 report is true, the region where I heard my first story of the thylacine around 1992 is only around 70 km [43 miles] as the crow flies to the west. That sounds near, but by New Guinea standards, that's far away. But the area is connected via the same unpopulated terrain across the central mountains. My last report, at the northern side of the mountains, is already around 350 km [220 miles] by air. But it is still connected by the central mountain backbone. If all three descriptions are based on real thylacines, its known range would stretch across the central highlands from the border of Papua New Guinea, with its western end running out in the lowlands and swamps of Cendrawasih Bay. The two areas where I heard about the thylacine are very sparsely populated, and are flanked by high, unpopulated peaks. Oksibil is different, because it is nowadays a westernised small town connected by regular flights. Like the Baliem Valley around Wamena, the Oksibil region is probably overhunted by locals and immigrant Indonesian hunters. But maybe hunting out of the thylacine prey around the town could bring some of them down from the high area and closer to small hamlets on the outskirts of the town, where people have chickens or other livestock which a thylacine could prey on.
     Around 2000 I also told Tim Flannery about the first story I heard about the thylacine. But he thought it hardly possible that the thylacine is still alive there. All the large game animals, such as ground kangaroos, are hunted out, and there is no living base for a thylacine. Of course, he is a specialist in New Guinea mammals, but I would not be inclined to bet that there is no chance for a living thylacine there. There is enough food for wild dogs, and so probably also for a thylacine population.
     So there you have it. There definitely appear to be restricted areas where the natives know the thylacine, even though they fail to recognize other non-native animals. And let us not forget that the okapi was originally revealed by following up native traditions.
     In the meantime, Franz is obviously an extremely energetic amateur ethnologist, and if he ever publishes a book on the native cultures he has researched, I hope it gets translated into English.

Post Script 27.8.19: An e-mail came from Robbie Fatt, a documentary filmmaker based on Sydney. He advised me that he made enquiries at Turnobil village in PNG, close to the border, and two hunters were able to identify the animal.

And while I have your attention, may I introduce you a new blog, Strange but True, which is my version of Ripley's "Believe It or Not!"  You might like to check it out. As the readership increases, I shall be adding ever more unusual stories.


  1. I would love to think these animals still exist somewhere. I don't think they do though this article is so convincing. The only thing I question is that I have read that they were a grizzly grey colour and yet sightings as well as the picture in this article show then as orangey brown.

    1. Contemprary descriptions, as well as skins preserved in museums, indicate that the fur was (?is) a grizzled, greyish brown, tinged with tawny. The above painting is probably a bit too much on the brown side.

  2. It's only a matter of time before Bigfoot is discovered 100% real and will finally shut all the skeptics up! :) The above article is indeed fascinating and it wouldn't surprise me if it's true that Thylacines exist.

  3. I personally doubt they exist, it would be awesome if they do though. Its a shame that this species was literally butchered to extinction by man, and evenmore so that it was done in such a short time and purely for greed/selfish reasons. I think people who know the history of this species and the way it was destroyed, hope that some remain to make up for the injustice that was done to it...While I doubt it, hopefully it does have some cousins in western new guinea, it would be poetic justice.

    Besides that, the thylacine should become a poster child of Bounty hunting [imo it is atrocious]

  4. Every year hundreds of new species are discovered around the world. Some of them are big size animals. Furthermore, some of them were thought to be extinct much time ago. Remember the coelacanth for instance. There are hundreds, even thousands square kilometres of unexplored land, which includes dense rainforest, deserts, the sea depths... In my opinion we don´t know as much as we think. It could be totally plausible that the thylacine still exists.

  5. Hundreds of new species are descovered every year but very few are large, only 4 or 5 large land animals in the past 80 years. It is possible that the thylacine still exists, the evidence is heavily on the side of extinction, but there is a small chance and png is probably the best bet

  6. if remote tribesmen in papua recognise a thylacine picture in a book full of animals from around the world!! it must mean that they have seen a dead or alive specimen before??