Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Thylacine Biome in Indonesian New Guinea

This report is a pleasant surprise and reminds us that the entire biome of the Suhul has largely survived into the present on Papua - New Guinea from its demise a mere ten thousand or so years ago.  This is not so obviously true in northern Australia were desiccation is a wrecker.

Now at least we understand their preferred locale and lifeway and it will become plausible to either capture one or at least photograph one.  I suspect we have a substantial breeding population somewhat akin to the cougar with its ample hunting range.

It also shows us that we have no end of natural refugia that nicely preserve populations that are quite outside human experience.

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. Ignore the vague horizontal and vertical shading; that represents just the folds in the paper when I scanned it. The important area is 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 food). 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.

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.

Alien Big Cats in New Guinea?
    My wife, Esther has had a much more interesting life than mine, and one day I hope to get it written down. As she explained to me the day we met, she was born in New Guinea of missionary parents, and was carried home from hospital in a native string bag called a bilum. (She might also have added that she was protected from the monsoon by a cape of pandanus leaves, and was carried home over 30 miles of narrow, rugged jungle trails, and by horse and raft across flooded tropical rivers.) Not long after we were married, a lady came to the front door collecting for charity. Noticing that she was carrying a bilum, Esther immediately said, "You come from New Guinea, don't you?" And that was how we discovered that another missionary offspring, also called Esther, was living just a few doors away.

    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:

Regarding the cat-like animal that Ms Ingram observed, the information provided seems to point to a tree kangaroo. The size would be about right for one of the larger species (well over 1 metre long) and the ginger-coloured fur on some parts of the dorsum (described as completely pale) may not have been true to life if the headlights were shining on the animal. The tail of a tree kangaroo could be mistaken for that of a cat in that it is long and reasonably bushy. Tree kangaroos have short faces and the head is often held low when moving quickly over the ground. I cannot explain the shape of the ears being long and floppy. The short-footed tree kangaroos use a quadrupedal gait and rarely hop. Some species spend much time on the ground.
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.

    If this is this case, obviously there must have been a serious discrepancy between what was seen and what was perceived. In response, Esther said that this was impossible. Both she and her father were quite familiar with tree kangaroos. The animal was much larger than a metre - more like five feet, or a metre and a half. (Note that this did not refer to the total length, but merely the head-body length, which is always less than a metre in tree kangaroos.) The tail was quite unlike a tree kangaroo's, although it did reach the ground. It was thin like a cat's, with a bit of a tuft at the end. The hindquarters were not raised, as a tree kangaroo's would have been (because, although a tree kangaroo's hind legs are proportionally shorter than a regular kangaroo's, they are still longer than the fore legs). The forepaws resembled a cat's, not a tree kangaroo's.

    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.

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