• ‘Searching for the Tassie Tiger’. (Distributor)Source: Distributor
We talk to Neil Waters about his hope-filled quest, captured in director Naomi Ball's fascinating short documentary.
Stephen A. Russell

1 Mar 2022 - 11:24 AM  UPDATED 8 Mar 2022 - 10:04 AM

Neil Waters, founder of the Thylacine Awareness Group of Australia (TAGOA) and subject of fascinating documentary Searching for the Tassie Tiger, remembers the first time he caught sight of the supposedly extinct ‘Tasmanian Tiger’. It was in a textbook in his third grade class in 1976.

“I had a really horrible teacher that used to beat the crap out of me with a stick,” he recalls, remarkably cheery despite the traumatic memory from very different times. “Eventually I got moved into another class, where the teacher was a really gentle man, and we were allowed to grab a book from the shelf and read whatever we wanted.”

Picking up a book about rare Australian fauna, he discovered the tragic tale of the striped, dog-like creature with its cough-like bark. “I was only seven or eight years old, and a little spark was lit in my mind right there,” Waters says when SBS talks to him. “But it didn’t become a passion for a lot longer later.”

According to official records, the thylacine was hunted to extinction on the mainland some 2,000 years ago, but persisted on the Apple Isle until the 1930s, hence the nickname. The last wild one was shot in 1930, arguably a better fate than that befell poor Benjamin. The ‘last’ of his kind, Benjamin was held in captivity at Hobart Zoo, where he perished alone on 7 September 1936.

Waters thinks differently, pointing to several ‘Lazarus species’ rediscovered after being wrongly assumed extinct, including Leadbeater’s Possum and Gilbert’s Potoroo, plus one of the world’s rarest birds, the elusive night parrot. “The model they use to class something as extinct is chronically underfunded and flawed, because they get proven wrong regularly,” he adds.

But Waters’ belief that the Tassie Tiger is still out there, not only on the island state but on the mainland too, isn’t just a hopeful dream to him. It’s not even built on the thousands of anecdotal reports he has helped draw together through the 10,000-strong TAGOA membership. He believes he has seen one, not once, but twice. The first time was in 2010.

“I was walking the dog near a lake not far from my house in Tasmania and she took off chasing a wallaby,” he recalls. As he searched for her, Waters became aware of an animal stalking him in the undergrowth. “Every time I stopped, it stopped. It was stalking me and it kind of gave me the creeps. I was making lots of noise yelling out for my dog and this thing was still following me. The hair on the back of my neck stood up.”

As he came to a clearing near the top of a hill, Waters says a smallish Tassie Tiger showed itself, then took off as soon as he tried to get closer. Then, three years later, he says another walked past his bedroom window on a moonlit night. “A couple of days later, I found a heap of five-toed footprints that I was convinced were thylacine not too far from there.”

Waters returned to his hometown of Adelaide not long afterwards for health reasons. While bedridden for three weeks, he started researching the animal and its reported sightings. “That was when the passion really kicked into gear.”

He was working as a gardener on a public estate at the time, but soon afterwards he chucked it all in and moved back to Tasmania to pursue the hunt for the Tassie Tiger full time. Something of a lone wolf these days, the tragic death of Waters’ eldest daughter in a car accident was a big part of his decision to throw himself into this crusade.

“I used to sing in bands for 24 years. I’m quite gregarious and outgoing, not afraid of a crowd or public speaking, but I reassessed my entire life in regards to what’s important. I got to a point where standing there singing in a pub to a bunch of half-inebriated people wasn’t really feeding my soul anymore.”

Living frugally to make ends meet, he gets frustrated by the disdain he and fellow Tiger-hunters receive from the scientific community. “The scientific community is very methodical in its approach, and I’m a little bit of a rebel, I suppose.”

It’s not just the reappearance of Lazarus species that makes Waters wish they paid more attention. Many hunters like him help with scientific research too. “When they have the koala counts, there might be two or three paid people doing it, and then there’s 10,000 volunteers running around looking for them.”

He wishes it were a two-way street. Rather than Jurassic Park-like discussions about cloning thylacines from remains held in museums, Waters thinks we should focus on rediscovering the species we assume lost. “If it’s there, the only way we can really help it is to try and protect its habitat and its food source properly, and not put it at risk by throwing 1080 poison baits around willy nilly.”

He has some support in the scientific community too. Professor Philip Weinstein at the University of Adelaide points out that protecting traditional thylacine habitat is worth doing in case a community survives in wilderness pockets. If they don’t exist, then you’re still preserving biodiversity. He also encourages the collaboration that can occur, e.g. between scientists and First Nations peoples.

“It’s about making all of these things come together and opening up the book, rather than closing it,” Waters says. “I’ve always said it doesn’t matter who proves it, as long as somebody does. I see myself as a bit of a conduit to get the information out there, gathering as much evidence as I can, and sharing it far and wide. Whoever pulls these pieces together and takes it to the next level of recognition, great. I’ve done my bit. I can go back to my garden and watch my potatoes grow.”

As far as he’s concerned, a photograph taken by one of his cameras installed in the Tasmanian wilderness shows an infant thylacine in the wild. “We called that baby Hope, because that’s what that baby represents. It’s hope for the future, for the species. And it’s hope that mankind can get its shit together and actually look after the environment better.”

Searching for the Tassie Tiger aired Wednesday 2 March on SBS VICELAND and is now streaming at SBS On Demand:

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