A few years ago we began visiting a stuffed and mounted animal skin with something akin to amorous fervour. We didn't tell our friends about this secret relationship. We feared they would think it was unhealthy to be infatuated with a dead animal.
The object of our obsession resided at the American Museum of Natural History in New York inside a rectangular glass case. This was no ordinary beast. By western standards, it was a chimera: its body was shaped like a wolf or wild dog. Its ginger-coloured coat was streaked with dark, tiger-like stripes. But most intriguing of all, it had a pouch like a kangaroo. It was a carnivorous marsupial - the largest in the world - commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine. And it was considered to be extinct.
Just 200 years ago, Tasmania was an island ark, floating serenely in southern seas, 240km off the Australian mainland. It was a haven for wildlife - Tasmanian devils, fairy penguins, wombats, platypuses, wallabies. And the Tasmanian tiger was the king of the beasts. Then in the early 19th century, colonists and convicts arrived - and with thousands of tasty, delicious sheep. The Tasmanian tiger became public enemy number one and a bounty was put on its head. By the start of the 20th century, thylacines were noticeably rare, and in 1936 the last known thylacine died in a Tasmanian zoo. Since then no tangible evidence of another living tiger has been discovered.
The fact that our beloved tiger had a tragic past only served to increase our interest. And we weren't the only ones. The declaration of the thylacine's extinction was never fully accepted in Tasmania. Multiple eyewitness sightings are still reported each year. The tiger is observed chasing a wallaby, crossing a road, running along the island's shore. These reports raise a subatomic-sized glimmer of hope that the species survives.
We had recently written a book about New York's wildlife. Coyotes in the Bronx. Starlings flying over Central Park. Cockroaches in the kitchen sink. It was time, we decided, to explore something more exotic. Our friend Alexis Rockman, an artist with a similar fixation on nature, thought so. "Enough with the rats and pigeons," he said. "Let's blow this town." So, we decided to launch our own search for the lost predator.
In the heat and white light of the day, there wasn't an animal in sight. Not a bird. Not a skink. The scrawny eucalyptus trees around us looked drained of life, and their blue-green leaves exuded a tangy, unfamiliar scent. We were in a remote section of Tasmania's north-west - at a crossroads where three logging roads meet - following up on what was arguably the most reliable Tasmanian tiger sighting in the past 50 years.
A wildlife biologist named Hans Naarding had been conducting a snipe survey here in 1982. He had camped at the crossroads for the night. Around 2am he woke up and, out of habit, swept the area with a small spotlight. Through heavy rain, he saw a quadruped standing about 20 feet away. It was a Tasmanian tiger, and its eyes flashed yellow in his spotlight. He counted 12 stripes on its back and saw it open its jaws to expose its meat-shearing teeth. But when Naarding reached for his camera, the elusive beast disappeared into the forest.
Naarding's sighting led to an extensive two-year-search. Hundreds of sand traps were laid to capture the tiger's footprint. Camera traps were installed in the hopes of snapping the tiger's picture. And wildlife officers drove around in the night, waiting to see a pair of yellow eyes flashing in their headlights. But of the tiger, no traces were discovered.
Now that we'd arrived - on a 32C day at the intersection of what looked like a dusty truck stop, after travelling thousands of miles by plane, ferry and car - we wondered if we had embarked on a monumental shaggy dog story.
Alexis took a bottle of water and poured a thin line of liquid in the dust. He drew a Tasmanian tiger. Its watery stripes quickly evaporated in the flaming summer heat. "Now you see it, now you don't," he said.
We examined the spot where Naarding had said his tiger had vanished more than 20 years before. The hint of an animal trail dipped down from the road, and it was flanked by two large tree stumps that looked like jagged, rotting teeth.
What, we wondered, had Naarding seen? It was easy to imagine a tiger emerging from the trees and being blinded by a beam of light. But then what happened? Did he breed? Did he die alone in the bush? The dusty roads leading off in three directions suggested the tiger's possible fates: extinct, surviving, or wavering in between the two. As we contemplated, ferocious-looking black ants called inchmen swarmed out of the stumps, waving jagged pincers splotched with red. "Give up, Yanks," they seemed to be saying.
Not long after, we walked into a pub in a town called Mole Creek. The walls were decorated from floor to ceiling with Tasmanian tiger artwork. A life-sized tiger hovered over the green felt of a pool table, its mouth open in a toothy, papier-mâché snarl. A cuddly tiger toy sat inside a diorama next to a bottle of rum on tap.
"This is a Louvre for tiger freaks," said Alexis.
Walking slowly from image to image, he muttered approvingly as if he were at an opening at White Cube. "Faaaahb-ulous," he intoned. He took out his camera and began carefully documenting each work. It didn't take him long to locate the erotic art. One piece painted directly on the wall above the bar was of a slinky motorcycle chick. She was naked except for a black leather jacket and thigh-high boots, and there was a paw print tattooed on her left bottom cheek. We consulted our animal tracks book and discovered that the print was of a Tasmanian tiger's front paw - and anatomically accurate.
In our search for the tiger, we encountered an array of intriguing wildlife. A crayfish that was so big it could break your arm with its pincers. The nocturnal Tasmanian devil, which scavenged for dead animals and made hideous screeching sounds while feeding. An assortment of wallabies boing-boinging across grassy plains. But the ghostly thylacine continued to elude us.
Our last hope of tracking down a tiger was Col Bailey, a man who had been searching for the lost beast for 40 years. He offered to guide us into the rough wilderness where the last wild thylacines were captured.
Col often risked his life venturing alone into the bush. "I get out into areas that nobody else does. I'm getting old. If I fall down, I'm devil meat." The bone-crunching Tasmanian devils were notorious for "cleaning up" hikers that got lost and died in the back country.
As we headed up into the mountains, the sun was startlingly bright, shimmering off the eucalyptus leaves and revealing range after range. "In some of these valleys there are phenomenal amounts of wildlife," Col said. He pointed at a rocky cliff. "I've been up there and I can tell you... they could live up there."
After turning on to a rubble-strewn track, Col located an abandoned mining town that he believed was still a hotspot for tigers. "This was Main Street," he said, pointing to a narrow track between drooping tree ferns and stringy-barked eucalyptus saplings. The town's remains were being swallowed by the rainforest.
Through the brush, Col pointed out a sunken plain surrounded by low wooded hills. It looked like a vast natural amphitheatre. "It's never been cleared," Col said in a low voice. "We're 30 miles from the nearest town."
On the horizon, mountains of bare rock gleamed white in the sunshine. "There's the tiger range," said Col. "They hide up there during the day and come down to hunt at night. They'll creep along through these grasses and pounce on a wallaby."
We had become so used to the pattern of the animals in Tasmania, invisible by day and abundant at night, that the thought of a thylacine emerging from the wooded hills seemed entirely plausible. The wild landscape, the ghost town, and the hot breath of the leatherwood blossoms were working their magic.
We closed our eyes and mouthed, "We do believe in thylacines." When we opened them, we half expected to see a Tasmanian tiger standing in front of us. But the natural amphitheatre remained empty.
Later, we stood with Col at the confluence of two rivers that cascaded down a rocky hillside. The air was filled with hundreds of bees collecting nectar from the white flowers of leatherwood trees. "It's the Adam and Eve rivers going down to the Garden River," Col said.
This reminded us of an ambitious project launched by the Australian Museum. Scientists on the mainland were attempting to resurrect the thylacine species. They hoped to clone tigers using DNA extracted from a tiger pup that had been floating in alcohol since 1866. If they had their way, new Tasmanian tigers would be coming off the assembly line sometime in the future.
Col scowled at the idea. "It's going to be a clinical tiger. It will be sickly and diseased, not one you can stick in the bush. It will be an imposter without natural instincts." People should be looking for tigers not making them, Col said. He had a message for the cloning scientists and other meddlers: "When I find a tiger, I'll let you know." s
'Carnivorous Nights, on the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger' is published by Canongate on 19 January, priced £10.99, to order a copy for £9.99 including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897Reuse content