Roy and the Tasmanian Tigers
(Tasmanian Tigers became extinct in Tasmania and Australia in the twentieth century due to bounty hunting to protect sheep. Unsupported sightings continue to be reported and scientists are presently trying to reactivate Tiger DNA, and bring this unique predator back to reality. In this story Roy makes an unlikely discovery in the Tasmanian wilderness.)
Roy tried to move his arms and legs but they would not respond. He tried to yell out to Ian, but felt paralyzed. He felt his heart pounding in his chest and he gasped for breath… and then he suddenly woke up with a start and sat straight up in his bunk. In the darkness Roy saw an upside down face peering at him from above. It took a few seconds for his sleeping mind to recognize that it was the face of his best friend, Ian, looking down at him over the edge of the upper bunk. Ian rubbed his half-open eyes and mumbled, “What’s going on down there? You having a nightmare?” Roy took a deep breath, looked around the dark bunkhouse and grinned. “Wait till I tell you what I dreamed about.”
The two boys were alone in a small bunkhouse situated in the native grasslands of western Tasmania. The cabin was actually a sheepherder’s station sitting in a stand of beach trees near the long fence that separated the grazing lands from the forested slopes to the south. Ian’s dad owned the largest sheep ranch and wool processing company in Tasmania, and the hundred thousand sheep that grazed it. Roy and Ian, on summer break from high school, were living in the sheepherder’s station. Their job was to check and repair fence and, of course, care for the large flocks of sheep assigned to them. The nearest humans were about a hundred miles away at the Shearing and Processing Facility of the Tasmanian Wool Producers, which everyone called TWP for short.
Every morning for the past two weeks Roy woke up and marveled that he was actually on the other side of the world from his home in the Bronx, NYC. Instead of subways, traffic, and pollution Roy enjoyed the clean air and silence, interrupted only by the calls of birds and the bleats of sheep. Another thing that intrigued Roy was the reversal of seasons in Tasmania, New Zealand, Australia and other countries in the Southern Hemisphere. Summer in the USA was winter in Tasmania! June, July and August were the coldest months of the year in the “down under” countries. Although there was snow in the mountains, the lowlands and coastal areas usually enjoyed mild winters and a pleasant climate. Except in the mountains, the winter temperature seldom dipped below forty degrees and often stayed in the sixties with bright sunshine days.
When the boys first arrived in Tasmania Ian’s dad took them on a tour of the island. The Island State of Tasmania is about the size of West Virginia and is located off the Southeast coast of Australia surrounded by the Southern Ocean and separated from the mainland by the Bass Strait. Roy was impressed with the dramatic coastlines, rugged snow capped mountains, majestic forests and pure, sparkling highland lakes. The cool, temperate rain forest had gigantic Eucalyptus trees and other ancient trees found no other place in the world. And, of course, the island’s marsupial wildlife was unique and spectacular. The thirteen-year-old kid from the Bronx was convinced that Tasmania was the most beautiful land he had ever seen.
Roy felt pretty lucky that Ian was his best friend. The boys met during their freshman year at Mc Burney Preparatory School for Boys, in Manhattan, NYC. The school attracted many foreign students, sons of diplomats and businessmen temporally assigned to the Big Apple. Ian’s family was living in the city while his dad managed his NYC office so McBurney Prep was a good choice for him. Roy attended Mc Burney rather than his local high school in the Bronx because he was lucky enough to have received a scholarship to help with the tuition. The boys played on the school’s Freshman Soccer Team and soon became close friends.
One day at school Ian asked Roy if he wanted to spend the summer with him in Tasmania, Roy was overjoyed although he knew very little about Tasmania. That evening, Ian’s dad called me, and made the arrangements. I wished that I could have afforded to take the whole family to Tasmania but it was too expensive and I couldn’t leave my job for that long. I was happy for Roy and helped prepare him for a three-month visit to Tasmania. We went to the library and checked out every book on Tasmania, its topography, its weather, its people and, of course, its unusual wildlife. Roy promised to write home at least once a week and take lots of pictures.
“So, what was your dream about? Was it a nightmare?” Ian asked.
“No, it wasn’t a nightmare but it was exciting. I dreamt that we saw a Tasmanian tiger while we were out riding along the fence line.”
Ian laughed. “Fat chance! Hasn’t been a tiger around here for ages. My grandpa told me stories about them. Sheepmen believed they killed sheep so the government put a bounty on them. Grandpa used to trap and poison them. He said he killed more than a hundred tigers when he was in his twenties.
The boys were silent for a while. Ian’s face disappeared from the edge of the bunk and both boys settled back in their beds.
Roy asked, “Do you think that there are some surviving tigers hiding back in the mountains or are they extinct like everyone thinks?”
Ian replied, “I don’t know but wouldn’t it be fantastic if we really found some tigers? We’d be world famous!”
Roy pondered his friend’s words. It would be fantastic, but what about the tigers? Roy wasn’t sure it would be fantastic for them. Soon the boys were fast asleep and both of them dreamed of marsupial tigers.
In the early morning, just when the star-studded sky began to show a faint orange glow in the East, Roy awoke to the barking of the border collies. He padded over to the window and looked out. Everything seemed normal. Before he dozed off back to sleep his thoughts returned to Tasmanian tigers. He wondered, “Had the dogs picked up the scent of a tiger?”
That morning after breakfast, Ian and Roy saddled up the horses and packed up a lunch. They rode eastward along the sheep fence that zigzagged along the indistinct separation between grazing lands and the lightly forested slopes that eventually rose to Alpine highlands. While they rode they talked about Tasmanian wildlife. There were no large predators in Tasmania any more since the tigers were eliminated and the TWP didn’t have to worry about dingoes attacking sheep. The wild dogs of Australia never were introduced into Tasmania. Currently, only feral dogs prey upon sheep. The largest native predators remaining were Tasmanian devils, and quolls but they were too small and slow to endanger sheep. They could, however, kill a newborn lamb or sick sheep if given an opportunity. Devils usually preyed upon small animals like mice, frogs, and lizards. Wallabies were the largest animals they preyed upon, if they could catch them. Devils were not particular where they got their food so carrion suited them just fine. They had an unusually keen sense of smell that could pick up the odor of decaying flesh from miles away. Consequently it was not uncommon to find several devils feeding at one sheep or wallaby carcass. The most dominant devil fed first while the rest waited to feed according to their dominance. Roy read that a devil was a ferocious animal, about the size and shape of a woodchuck or small bear cub and almost pure black. It had an extra large head and a fearsome set of teeth.
Roy was hopeful that he would see a devil soon, or the cat-like spotted-tail quoll. All the unusual Tasmanian marsupials fascinated Roy. They had strange names that he had never heard of until he came to Tasmania, such as pademelon, bettong and potoroo.
Two border collies accompanied the boys as they rode out to check on the several flocks of sheep in their assigned area and the guardian alpacas. The alpacas were white and shaggy like the sheep but they stood twice as tall, and looked like giant sheep from a distance. Since they were young they had lived with the flock and considered it their family. Marauding dogs or devils stayed away from flocks with guardian alpacas. Roy laughed when he imagined the surprise of devils or stray dogs intent on killing a lamb, bumping into a “large sheep” that did not run away but actually attacked them with barred teeth and slashing legs.
Roy loved the rolling native grasslands of Tasmania. They were uniquely beautiful and they were excellent for grazing for sheep. They were home for a myriad of native plants and animals, such as badicoots, wallabies, wombats, orchids, lilies, daisies, and sundews. All the wild life was new and fascinating to Roy. He was in heaven, and wrote home often to tell his family about his experiences and the strange beauty around him.
The boys rode for about an hour until they found the large flock of grazing sheep and their guardian alpacas. All seemed well with the flock. The alpacas enjoyed their company and recognized the friendly border collies. Shortly after leaving the large flock, as they casually rode along the fence line, the border collies began to bark up ahead out of sight over a little rise. Border collies seldom bark unless they are excited so the boys galloped up to them to see what excited them. Before them lay the remains of a dead sheep. Wool, blood, intestines and bones were scattered all around in the grass. Two small black animals at the carcass were making a terrible racket. Their growls almost sounded like human screams. While one held the dogs at bay the other gobbled up intestines or entered the sheep’s body to tear out more organs. Their jaws were so strong that they were able to tear the carcass to shreds before the boy’s eyes. Roy realized why these ferocious marsupials were called devils. The border collies kept their distance because they had met devils before and knew how formidable they were.
Roy and Ian had no way of knowing how the sheep died. They could tell it was an adult ewe, so the devils could not have killed it themselves unless the sheep was sickly or old. It probably died a natural death and the smell of its decaying flesh attracted the devils to the feast. Devils had a keen sense of smell so often a sheep carcass would attract a half dozen or more of them.
The boys dismounted and Roy cautiously approached the devils, which continued to scream even as the gorged themselves. The devils made mock charges at him as well as the dogs. Roy shooed away the dogs and squatted down about three yards from the feeding animals to take a few pictures. They reminded Roy a little bit of the wolverines he had seen at the Zoo. Wolverines and devils were fearless in spite of their small size. When the devils finally finished their meal they were so stuffed they could hardly walk. Their bloated tummies made their short legs look even shorter. Ian and Roy laughed out loud as they waddled around protecting their carcass.
Roy remained still, held out the back of one hand in their direction and talked softly to them. “Hello little devils, you sure have big appetites. Are you afraid of me? Don’t be, I won’t hurt you. I just want to be a friend.”
Roy’s voice and body language was calm and nonthreatning to the devils, which appeared curious but still very wary. Finally one found the courage to approach this strange crouching figure that made soothing sounds so it could get a better smell. Its little black nose tentatively touched the back of Roy’s hand while its scream rose an octave and increased its decibels. The other devil also found the courage and did the same. Soon, to Ian’s great surprise, both devils circled Roy sniffing at his feet and clothes. Roy sniffed back at them and could easily tell they had been feeding on carrion. Ian was amazed that the devils approached Roy but at the same time he was afraid that one of them might give Roy a nasty bite. Although Roy had told him about his strange and exciting encounters with wild animals in the past, he was concerned for his friend.
Roy was cautious and thought it best not to press his luck so he didn’t try to touch the curious animals. Finally, their hunger and curiosity satisfied, the devils retreated into the tall grass screaming as loud as they could. Ian and Roy laughed again. These vocal and ferocious little creatures were somehow comical. If their size matched their screams they would be as large as bears.
The boys remounted their horses and continued along the fence line for several more miles before they stopped briefly for the lunch packed in their saddlebags. While they ate they talked about Tasmanian marsupials, each boy trading information with the other. Both had the same interest and read everything they could find about animals and their environments. Roy hoped to find and study more of Tasmania’s interesting marsupials before he had to return home to the Bronx.
Roy’s encounter with the devils was strange and fascinating. That evening back at the shepherd’s station, Roy wrote a letter to his family and told them about his exciting day and encounter with the devils. But Roy had no way of knowing that he would soon have an even stranger encounter with a ghost from the past, an animal that had been dead since the year1934.
Three days later as the boys rode along a line of fence that cut through a stand of trees, they noticed a dead tree had fallen on the fence and flattened it. Ian found sheep tracks on the other side of the fence. Apparently some sheep had wandered through the downed fence and were feeding somewhere up the slope in the scattered trees. The boys worked together and pulled the dead tree off the fence. They patched the fence temporarily so no more sheep could escape and then began tracking the wandering flock.
Hours later, just as the sun disappeared behind the blue-gray mountains in the West, the dogs found the sheep and herded them back to the boys. Because it was so late, Ian and Roy decided to spend the night in a little meadow clearing on the mountain slope with the sheep. The next morning it would be easy enough to herd the flock back to the fence line. The boys pitched camp, and carefully built a campfire surrounded by stones so it could not spread and start a devastating forest fire. They cooked a meal of canned stew, and fed the leftovers to the dogs.
In June the night time temperature usually dropped to the mid fifties so the boys decided to kept the their campfire going all night. They always carried camping gear and food with them for such occasions. Ian and Roy sat next to the fire, enjoying its smell and crackling sound long after the sky turned black. They lay on their backs looking up at expansive sky full of twinkling stars. The border collies were pleased to curl up at their sides but always kept an ear turned in the direction of the sheep settled down nearby. The dogs instinctively knew that the sheep were their responsibility. Roy wished that his dad could have been there. He thought of all the times that his family and he sat around a similar campfire. His dad would tell stories of his youth on the great western plains of Canada and a variety of animal and Indian stories. Those times with his family were his happiest, but this night around the campfire with his friend, the dogs and sheep ran a close second. Neither the boys or the dogs and sheep realized that they were not alone. Several miles away up the forested slope in the darkness, a dramatic chase was going on. Killers were tracking their prey and coming in the direction of the little campfire and the boys. Ian and Roy finally dozed off to sleep with the dogs at their sides and the sheep settled down nearby. The once blazing campfire soon became a pile of glowing embers.
The dogs were the first to wake. Even while they slept, their sense of hearing and smell remained wide-awake. The stirring dogs woke Ian. He immediately reached over to wake his friend. “The dogs heard something up the slope”. The boys listened while they held the dogs close. The sheep were not disturbed and apparently had not yet detected the fast approaching visitors.
“What’s do you think is out there?” Roy asked his friend.
“Don’t know, I can’t hear or see a thing yet.” replied Ian.
It was not more than two or three minutes latter when they heard what sounded like rapid steps approaching. In the dim light of a half moon they saw a dark shape bound across the clearing and quickly disappear into the trees. “What was that?” whispered Roy.
The sheep were alert now and standing ready to bolt so the boys let the collies go to them just in case they ran. “It looked like a wallaby in full flight.” Ian replied. “Something is chasing it. But I don’t know what it could be.”
The boys threw some more wood on the fire and the flames sprang to life, illuminating the little clearing. They looked up the slope in the direction from where the wallaby came but could detect nothing. The sheep soon settled down and the collies snuggled up to the boys again. It was then that a most startling thing occurred, an event that both boys would remember and cherish the rest of their lives. The dogs were the first to hear something coming in their direction. The boys held the dogs close and tried to muffle their anxious whines. Out of the darkness into the flickering firelight a stripped ghost, an animal long dead, an animal not seen by human eyes for a generation, unhurriedly loped into the clearing. It appeared to be the size of a large dog with a very large head. Its rear legs were larger than a dog’s and it moved somewhat like a horse at a slow cantor. Its nose was to the ground, as it followed in the trail of the wallaby. Its massive head briefly swung in their direction and its large dark eyes glowed red in the firelight. The beast did not break stride and returned to the scent of the wallaby. The sheep stirred once again but apparently did not see the strange creature. The ghost disappeared into the darkness with hardly a noise.
Wide eyed, the boys looked at each other in disbelief. “Was that what I think it was?” Asked Roy.
“I can’t believe it!” responded Ian. “It was either a striped dog or a…” Ian paused, “a tiger!”
The animal had come and gone in not more than three seconds. The light of the flickering campfire made it appear like an apparition in an old time black and white movie. Before the boys could say another word the dogs stiffened once again and turned their attention to the place from where the ghost had appeared. The boys held the dogs close and searched the darkness. To their great surprise, two miniature versions of the mysterious creature appeared out of the darkness in full stride, crossed the clearing and quickly disappeared into the blackness. The nervous sheep milled about and were about to panic so the boys released the border collies to calm them. The small flock seemed comforted as the border collies circled them. They were familiar with the collies but the sight and smell of these new creatures was more than enough to alarm the skittish sheep.
The boys tried to calm the sheep down. If they scattered into the night it would take hours to find them the next morning. Roy spoke to them in his special way. “Settle down woolies. There’s nothing to worry about. We’ll take good care of you.” Fortunately, the sheep finally settled down and the boys could once again relax by the fire with the dogs.
“It looked like two tiger cubs following their mother, probably learning how to track prey” Roy ventured.
“Yes, you’re right. We saw three tigers! That means there are more out there someplace. Do you think anyone will believe us back at TWP?” Ian replied.
“Maybe we shouldn’t tell anyone. Maybe we should leave them in peace. What good would it do to tell anyone?” Roy said.
Ian thought for a while and shook his head. “You may be right Roy but I think we should tell my dad. He’ll know what to do.”
“OK by me.” Roy replied “But only your Dad, no one else!”
The boys did not sleep the rest of the night. Maybe the tigers would visit their camp again. Maybe the tigers were prowling around them now in the dark, watching their every move. Roy and Ian had never heard of a tiger attacking a human and could not imagine that such a thing ever happened. It was the humans who did all the attacking and needlessly killed off all the tigers, that is, almost all the tigers.
The next morning the boys and dogs herded the sheep back to the grasslands without incident. The sheep were returned to the main flock; the boys fixed the damaged fence and rode back to the shepherd’s station. Although they were hungry and tired, they were, nevertheless, exhilarated by their adventure. They decided not to call Ian’s dad on their short wave radio to tell him about the tigers in case someone else might overhear their conversation. They would wait till the weekend when Ian’s dad was due to drive out to the station with supplies. The boys would tell him in person, in the strictest confidence. He would know whether or not the news about the tigers should be made public.
The weekend was long coming because the boys were so anxious to tell their story. Finally, on Friday evening just after the sun had disappeared behind the western mountains and the color faded from forest and grasslands, headlights appeared down the road leading to TWP. The boys ran out to greet Ian’s dad. They took him inside and as they shared a hot meal he brought with him, the boys excitedly told their story about seeing the tigers. Strangely, Ian’s father did not react the way the boys thought he would. He did not get excited, nor did he question their story. He sat quietly as they told him every little detail. There was a faint smile on his face and a twinkle in his eyes.
Ian was puzzled. “You do believe us don’t you Dad?”
Ian’s dad grinned and nodded his head. ” I sure do son. You boys had the right idea about the tigers, about keeping your discovery secrete. I’ve known about the tigers since I was your age. Our family has kept their existence a secret for many years. The fewer people who know about them the better it will be for them. The Minister of Parklands and a select few of his trusted rangers know about the devils and have created a restricted park area just south of TWP, off limits to everyone except, of course, our family. The restricted park area has been fenced off and the northern boundary fence is the fence you have been watching the past two weeks. Park rangers often use this shepherd’s station as abase camp to monitor tiger movements.”
Ian and Roy were fascinated with unexpected news about the tigers and begged to hear more. Ian’s dad continued, “Unfortunately there are barely enough of the tigers left to maintain a breeding population. We estimate that there are five breeding pairs left. The two cubs you saw will be welcome news to the park rangers which will be sharing these quarters with you next week, they will want to hear about you encounter with the tigers. The new cubs give us more hope that tigers will survive, at least a little longer. If the press got wind of the tigers, it would be hard to keep photographers, reporters, and curious hikers out of the tiger’s habitat. The tigers would surely become extinct.”
Will we ever be able to share this secrete with anyone else?” Roy asked.
“Perhaps in the future”, Ian’s dad told them, “ if the tiger population increases and stabilizes, the authorities may decide to tell the world about the living ghosts. When and if that time comes, the announcement will most likely be the biggest zoological news of the century, greater than the discovery of the ancient coelacanth. Scientists and animal lovers will rejoice all over the world. It would almost be as exciting as finding a live dinosaur.”
Ian’s dad stayed the night with the boys and they all talked in front of the fireplace until the early morning hours. Roy said Ian’s dad reminded him of me. Roy asked if he could write home and tell me about their adventure and the existence of the tigers. Ian’s dad thought it would be best if he called Ambrose himself, and explained the importance of the secrecy concerning the tigers.
Roy knew I would agree and the secret would be safe. However, Roy wasn’t sure his little sister Millie or his mom could keep the secret. He felt that his I probably would not tell them, and would forego recording the news of the tigers and the strange adventure in my journal, at least for a while until the tiger question was resolved. He was correct, I kept it a secret for many years. Even today few people believe the Tasmanian tiger still exists.
Roy’s adventure with the tigers was one of the most exciting animal adventures he ever had. Someday the official news of the tigers may be made public, that is, if they managed to survive.
More about Tasmanian wildlife:
Devils, as the largest surviving marsupial carnivore in Tasmania, can be a problem to lambs, sick sheep and penned in animals such as chickens. Quolls, on the other hand, are about the size of a cat and prey upon birds, mice and chickens when they get the chance. Cars often strike devils and quolls as they feed on road kill. Tragically, whole families are wiped out at one time. Wallabies are easier to spot and are common all over the island. Roy and Ian saw many each day grazing on the lush native grass. There is even a species of wallaby that lives in trees. They all look like miniature kangaroos, often with bulging pouches or near-by joeys.
Bandicoots are small, stripped burrowing marsupials that feed on grubs and beetle larva. Every so often the boys would notice a bandicoot scurrying for cover as they approached. They ate grubs, which were a major problem for the native grasslands. Grubs feed on grass roots and threaten the health of the grazing areas. Roy read somewhere that that there is a greater biomass of grubs under the soil than sheep above it. It was no wonder that ranchers welcomed Bandicoots. Unfortunately, bandicoots are in decline due to the increase of feral cats, which prey upon them.
Every so often Ian and Roy would surprise a Wombat. They reminded Roy of large fat woodchucks. These vegetarians graze on the native grass but unfortunately make burrows that can be hazardous to horses and sheep if they step into them. Bettongs were more rare and Roy had not seen one since his arrival to the island. They live in the open woodlands with a grassy understory. They have prehensile tails like monkeys that help them climb, collect and carry grass to their nesting sites.
Besides marsupials, which give birth to tiny embryo-like babies that are protected and nourished in a pouch, Tasmania is also the home to an even stranger kind of animal. The platypus and echidna are mammals that actually lay eggs! After the young hatch out they feed on their mother’s milk that oozes out of special glands on her belly. The young lap and suck up the milk from mom’s belly fur. Before the summer was over, Roy hoped to see these egg laying wonders in the local wildlife park, if not in the wild. Few zoos in the USA had the strange variety of wildlife that is native to Tasmania.