Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Thylacines in Indonesian New Guinea?

     The thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) officially became extinct in 1936. In historical times it was recorded only on the island of Tasmania,  but fossils and Aboriginal paintings have been discovered all over the Australian mainland. Its extinction a few thousand years ago was apparently the result of competitive exclusion by the introduced dingo. Fossil evidence has also been found on the island of New Guinea, which its extinction presumably had a similar cause. However, in the early 1990s, an amateur researcher called Ned Terry told of visiting an unidentified mission station in West Iran and hearing reports of an animal strikingly similar to the thylacine. (See Bunyips and Bigfoots pages 112 - 113.) Then, in 1997, small, contradictory paragraphs started appearing in the world press about its presence in the Indonesian half of the island. About this time, I managed to renew my acquaintance with an old friend, Gerry van Klinken and was surprised to discover that he was now the editor of Inside Indonesia.
     Gerry was kind enough to go an internet search for me, and was able to discover what appears to have been the original article which started the ball rolling. It was from Suara Pembaruan ("Voice of Renewal"), a Protestant newspaper with good connections in Irian Jaya. The information itself appears to have originated from the local Indonesian governor. Here then is the translation. I might add that, although Gerry helped me with the vocabulary, the responsibility for the translation is mine, and I have aimed for verbal accuracy rather than elegance.

 Suara Pembaruan Tues. 25 March 1997

Predator resembling "Tasmanian Tiger" Found in Interior of Jayawijawa

 Jakarta 25 March A wild predatory animal resembling the former Tasmanian tiger has been found by a community in the interior of the Jayawijawa Regency. The animal, which normally lives in groups in fairly large numbers, [and] previously thought to be extinct in Australia and New Zealand, its countries of origin, has been discovered alive and roaming the Jayawijaya Range. Regent Head of District Level II, Jayawijaya, Jos Buce Wenas has revealed the discovery of a species of tiger to Pembaruan by telephone at Jayapura, Tuesday (25/3). He said that a species of tiger strongly suspected to be a rare animal of the Tasmanian tiger family, has been proved to have been discovered in the Jayawiyawa district.
 "AN ANIMAL, A SPECIES OF TIGER HAVING A BODY HEIGHT OF AROUND ONE METRE AND ALWAYS LIVING IN GROUPS, HAS BEEN FOUND [by the] COMMUNITY AROUND THE KURIMA TABLELAND, OKSIBIL, AND OKBIBAB WHICH FORM A DISTRICT BORDERING PNG," HE SAID. PACKS OF THIS PREDATOR USUALLY ROAM AND BREED IN CAVES, YET IN THE EVENINGS GO OUT TO SEARCH FOR FOOD, ATTACKING LIVESTOCK BELONGING TO THE COMMUNITY, SUCH AS PIGS, DOGS, CHICKENS ETC. WE HAVE ONLY JUST HEARD ABOUT THE WILD ANIMAL FROM REPORTS BY MISSIONARIES ON DUTY IN ISOLATED DISTRICTS," SAID WENAS.
Because of this, the regent asks for equipment to check [for it] in the field. It is evident that this animal exists and is real, but the inhabitants are not brave enough to capture the said animal. A wild animal which lives in groups and always attacks the inhabitants' livestock cannot be killed by the inhabitants of the place because they consider it will cause disasters," said Wenas. Extraordinary Sumatran and world tiger expert, as well as an expert on rare animals, Jansen Manasang, said that based on data which has been known long before this that there have never been tigers in the Irian district. Pembaruan proposes to answer the question mid-Tuesday in regard to the groups of tigers found in Irian Jaya. If it is true that a tiger has been discovered in Irian Jaya, this would appear to be an extraordinary miracle, he said.

Suara Pembaruan Wed. 26 March 1997

Wild animal found in Jayawijaya suspected to be a marsupial predator.

Yogyarkarta, 26 March The wild animal very similar to a Tasmanian tiger found in the interior of Jayawijaya Regency, Irian Jaya (Pembaruan 25/3) is suspected of being, not a tiger, or even a Tasmanian tiger, but rather a species of carnivore belonging to the family of marsupial predators. That opinion was expressed by a wildlife expert of the Faculty of Forestry, Gadjah Mata University (GMU), Dr Ir Djuwantoko to Pembaruan in Yogyakarta Tuesday evening (26/3), when asked for his comments on the discovery of an animal previously thought to be extinct. He could be certain that the said animal was not a tiger, because the said Javanese animal is a big cat, possessing a solitary character or nature i.e. it prefers to live by itself. Tigers only come together briefly during the mating season, after which they go back to living alone, except for the female suckling her young. In contrast, the predator found in the interior of Jayawijaya, as reported by Regent Jos Buce Wenas, has a body around a metre high and it always lives in groups. Another characteristic, among others, is that it has tusks, four legs and like a kangaroo it carries its young in a pouch found under its belly. In Tasmania it is shaped like a wild dog with a pouch. "Such features really belong to a marsupial predator which once lived in Australia or New Zealand," he said. He confirms that the said wild marsupial, based on data possessed by the mammalogists at LIPI, once lived in Tasmania, but was clearly not a Tasmanian tiger. However, there now remain only rumours because it is extinct. This is a matter for Australia and New Zealand. To discover a marsupial predator in the Jayawijaya Range, especially around the Kurima tableland, Oksibil and Okbibab, continued Dr Djuwantoko, is not extraordinary, because the continent of Tasmania, New Zealand, Australia and the island of New Guinea could once have formed one large archipelago, indeed [they] still are a single ecological zone. Similarly, in the case of Java, Sumatra, Borneo and Malaysia up to Kinabalu many species of flora and fauna are the same. 
Fortunate. Furthermore, he said, if it true that the wild animal is still found living in groups in Jayawijaya, then it is fortunate for Indonesia because in other areas it is already long extinct. If it is indeed true, it means that the habitat in Jayawijaya is still able to support it; however, the authorities must immediately take action before it is threatened with extinction as in the other areas. After having established that the animal exists, it would be best that the authorities immediately form a expeditionary team to perform a detailed investigation into where the said animal might exist, its population, source of food, shelter, the range of movements attained, its various habits, and so forth.

My Comments: Jayawijawa is the name given to the part of the central mountain range of West Irian (now Papua province) next to the PNG border. Oksibil is located at 5°06'S, 140°40'E. Fossils of the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, have been found in mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea - but not New Zealand, which is outside the Australasian biotic zone. At present the only known land predator in New Guinea is the local version of the dingo.
    On mainland Australia, there exists a certain amount of "thylacine fever", with a tendency for uncritical witnesses to report mangy dogs and brindled dingos as "thylacines". This problem, fortunately, doesn't exist in Indonesia. Indeed, much of the confusion in the newspaper account, which Dr Djuwantoko tried to rectify, was due to the assumption by the journalists that a "harimau Tasmania" would be a real (feline) tiger. It is not certain if Dr Djuwantoko's description i.e. tusks, pouch etc, is based on another source of information, or whether he was simply assuming it was a thylacine. The thylacine label appears to have originated with the missionaries - and with good reason. The mammals of New Guinea, like those of Australia, are marsupials, rather than placentals.
     Just the same, it is important to point out another possible source of error. You cannot just walk into a Melanesian village and get the inhabitants to talk freely to you - especially not if you are their colonial master. (And Indonesian rule in western New Guinea is the sort of thing which gives colonialism a bad name.) Only someone who has gained their confidence can achieve that. It is likely, but not certain, that the missionaries could claim that sort of rapport, but the information has been passed through the intermediary of the regent.
    This is important because, it is obvious that the story has gained a lot in the telling - or else the animals could not be thylacines. Thylacines were not known to live in groups, and were never a metre high. That would be comparable to a real tiger.
    One final point to note: the geography of New Guinea makes it a vast complex of ecological islands, with every mountain and valley forming an isolated ecosystem. Every zoological expedition to the island produces new species, though admittedly usually small to medium-sized ones. To discover a remnant population of thylacines in New Guinea would not be as extraordinary as it would be in Australia.
Addendum: Dr Shuker has provided an up-date here.
I myself have just provided an up-date here.

The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.

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