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.
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:
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?
In a follow up e-mail he explained:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Esther Ingram has also led an interesting life - not least of all being sent to Australia to start school at the age of five, and being totally unable to speak English, or anything except the local Papuan language. And one of her most remarkable experiences was the one she described to me on 4 October 2003, in the presence of her father, the Rev Ronald Teale, also a witness.
The event took place in December 1999 or January 2000 ie nearly four years before the date of the interview, on one of their periodic returns to the Pitanka Mission Station in the Eastern Highlands province of PNG. On the night in question, they were returning from Goroka. Esther and her father were in the front seat of an old Landcruiser, being driven by Esther's native foster brother, Moses Teale. The sighting occurred about 11 or 12 miles from Kainantu, on the Kainantu-Okapa Road, about midnight (Esther checked her watch). Because of the roughness of the terrain, their speed was no more than what would have been expected in a built-up area at home. Their lights were full on. The road was a very rough bush track, 10 or 12 feet wide, the surrounding countryside dense jungle. On the right, the land descended to a very wooded gully with a stream at the bottom. On the left stood an almost perpendicular embankment 12 or 15 feet high.
Suddenly, about 20 yards in front of them, what looked like a huge cat came out of the jungle on the right, and "trotted" leisurely across the road. "What on earth is that?" cried Esther to her father. "Slow down, Moses, so we can see!" As they approached within about six feet of it, it sprang straight up the embankment and disappeared. The sighting must have lasted only a few seconds.
It was very solidly built, and the head-body length was about five feet. Both Esther and her father were amazed at how huge it was. So, too, was I, when she stated that it was as high as the table around which we were gathered: about 2½ feet. The head-body length was about five feet. Yes, Esther agreed, it was probably twice as long as high.
Esther, in particular, made an attempt to study as many details as possible. (Remember, it was very close.) The basic colour was white, with ginger "trimmings" on the tail and ears. Pale gingery, vertical stripes, not terribly well delineated, appeared on the sides, but they did not extend to the back, or dorsal surface, which was completely pale. She specifically noted that the forepaws were cat-like, rather than (say) hoofed like a goat's. She didn't get a glance at the rear paws. The tail was ginger and very long, hanging to the ground. I enquired about bushiness etc, to establish a comparison with a dog's. She said it was a bit coarser or fluffier than the body, but not much. On the body itself, the fur was smooth.
The head was broad, short, flattish, and definitely cat-like. It did not protrude like a dog's. The ears were ginger, mottled with white, and hung down. They were not as long as a spaniel's, but they were definitely long and rounded, and gave every indication of being naturally floppy. It was this feature which amazed both of them (and me as well, as it doesn't sound anything like a cat's). Esther also thought she saw whiskers.
Explanation? Needless to say, such a creature is not supposed to exist on the island of New Guinea - or anywhere else that I'm aware of. New Guinea belongs to the Australasian faunal zone, which is the domain of marsupials. Cats - especially big ones - are no more supposed to be present than in Australia itself. Nevertheless, as many cryptozoologists will already be aware, alien big cats (ABCs) are being reported in Australia in ever increasing numbers, but this is the first time I have heard a report from New Guinea.
At Esther's insistence, I wrote to Dr Tim Flannery, because he had recently published a book on his mammal collecting expeditions to New Guinea. His reply was as follows:
Sightings like the one you made of the 'cat' are always a challenge to identify. Being at night and a fleeting glimpse make it difficult, 'though I am impressed with the detail you have provided.
So there you have it.
Second hand reports. Then Esther recalled an event which took place at Pitanka a week or so before her sighting. The watchman told her he had approached the tea tree plantation when he heard dogs barking, and he saw a big white cat jump from one tree to another. Some of the people at the Pitanka school reported a white animal streaking into the bush. Some of the ex-pupils also spoke of black cats.
Back in Australia, still in 2000, Esther went to the airport to pick up a missionary's widow, Ruth B-, who lived at Famu, just across the mountain from Pitanka. "We have white ones, and we have black ones," said Ruth. She had seen a photo of a black panther in a magazine, and claimed they existed at Famu.
So, what is going on? Do alien big cats now exist in Papua New Guinea, and if so, where do they come from? If not, what did Esther, her father, and her foster brother see? The watchman had no doubts about the identity of his white animal. It was a masalai (muss-a-lye): a hobgoblin or evil spirit.
I am not in a position to refute it.