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Androo Kelly holds a juvenile wombat, a burrowing marsupial that looks like a small bear.

cREATURES of Tasmania

The Tasmanian tiger lives only
in legend, but devils, koalas
and 'roos flourish

Text and photos By ROBERT W. BONE
 

HOBART, Tasmania, Australia -- Tasmanians love their tigers. You find them all over the island -- on canvas or painted directly on the walls of pubs, in ubiquitous cartoons or in old framed drawings or photographs, on postcards and even on beer bottles.

This benevolent-looking marsupial -- with the pouch like a kangaroo's, of course -- and which looks more like a dingo or a dog with stripes painted on its back, seems to be everywhere -- everywhere, that is, except in the flesh.

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The Tiger Bar pub at Mole Creek is a favorite
watering hole for those in search of the 
Tasmanian tiger. "Devil man" Androo Kelly
 can be found at the nearby wildlife park.

 Officially, the last known Tasmanian tiger died in captivity back in 1937, leaving only a few fading photos plus some stuffed hides around, including one sad-looking fellow here in Hobart, behind glass in the local museum. Museums in Washington and Milwaukee reportedly have a stuffed Tassie tiger, too, which was not really a tiger at all, related neither to a cat nor a dog.

Tasmania looks small when compared with the massive island continent of Australia. Nevertheless, this island state measures some 24,000 square miles, about the size of West Virginia (or six times the size of the Big Island of Hawaii). Tasmanians point out that there are still thousands of acres of rugged, nearly impenetrable forests and other genuine unexplored territory on the island -- nearly a third of the island. And so ... well ... who can say if there are still a few shy and elusive Tasmanian tigers around?

Reported sightings of the animal have continued frequently over the past 65 years. The Tasmanian Museum in Hobart says it gets such a report about once a month. Despite this and several fruitless expeditions into the hinterland, no one has yet been able to come up with a live specimen or even a new photo.

Meanwhile, wildlife devotees who visit Tasmania are generally satisfied with scores of other curious creatures, including significant populations of kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, pademelons and other marsupials, a list led off by a very much alive though dark and furtive creature saddled with an unfortunate name, the Tasmanian devil.

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Mom gives a young 'roo a drink. Kangaroos have short forelegs and big hind legs. Females have pouches for their young.

Farmers who have seen their chicken flocks come out second-best with night-adventuring Tasmanian devils are no more in sympathy with these black-velvet marauders than were their grandfathers who contributed to the apparent extinction of the Tasmanian tiger.

Today, however, the tigers (whether dead or alive), along with other warm-and-fuzzies that hop and lope around Tasmania, are recognized as valuable tourist attractions. Like those supposedly fierce little devils, many are genuinely Tasmanian and are not endemic to the Australian mainland.

Travelers can meet a genuine devils' advocate at the Trowunna Wildlife Park outside the tiny village of Mole Creek. Here, Androo Kelly (who changed the spelling of his first name) loves anything that hops, flies or crawls through life, and he has often served as a consultant to zoos in Australia and the United States. He swears he's known internationally as "the devil man."

Some years ago, Androo's park in Tasmania was the headquarters for a last, determined attempt to track down and capture at least one more live Tassie tiger, and you may get the impression that Androo, for one, has not really admitted ultimate defeat.

There are a half-dozen wildlife parks around Tasmania, but Androo's is dedicated principally to raising orphaned or injured creatures. One area is a sort of "retirement home" for old devils, and here, Androo enters and pets two docile senior residents, Moriarty and Eumarrah. Both can look fearsome, especially when the sun shines behind their ears, turning them bright red.

"Treated nicely, these are not fierce creatures," he said. "The trouble is that many farmers keep chicken wire around their birds. Chicken wire is fine for keeping chickens in, but not for keeping the devils out. Properly fenced, however, their chickens can be safe from these blokes."

He does admit, however, that devils make an ear-splitting and rather frightening ruckus when they meet each other on the road.

"That's just their way of saying 'Hi! How are ya!'" growled Androo loudly, almost in imitation of the devilish sound.

Although wildlife parks are convenient for getting to know creatures of the bush, it is not the only way. Almost any place in Tasmania, one may come face to face with animals once thought by 18th-century Europe to be figments of the imagination of early explorers in Australia.

Early morning or late evening walkers in the open countryside or perhaps among the trees and bushes in massive reserves like Cradle Mountain National Park are often blessed with guest appearances of various marsupials.

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The night-venturing Tasmanian devil, with its black body and bright red ears, keeps chicken farmers on their toes.

Birds unknown in North America are seen and heard at any time of day. Morning often brings some special music in Tasmania, as elsewhere in the Australian bush. The common Australian magpie seems to trill with a thousand different grace notes. And the kookaburra, known throughout Australia as the "laughing jackass," has a loud and unmistakable vocal solo that seems to go on forever.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the bird life in Tasmania, though, are the diminutive fairy penguins, probably seen best on Bruny Island, not far from Hobart. After a day of fishing, these little fellows return home just after dark to feed their offspring patiently waiting in tiny burrows.

Those who make a concerted effort, and who stand still and quiet enough to watch the process, can witness this "penguin parade." Bright lights, including camera flashes, disorient the birds. But travelers who bring flashlights with red filters taped over the lens can easily and safely spot these devoted feathered family members as they waddle home from the sea.

Unfortunately, fairy penguins are often threatened by oil dumped from ships at sea. When this seems about to threaten the feathered population, however, wildlife experts are ready to jump into action when needed, quickly dressing them up in little sweaters (called "jumpers"), which have been knitted for this purpose by senior citizens throughout the world who have heard of the project.

The jumpers soak up the oil, keep the birds warm and prevent them from preening themselves and being poisoned by the oil.

Reportedly, the birds don't particularly like their knitted outfits, but they have saved the lives of thousands of the little creatures in Australia.

Within Australia, Tasmania has a reputation more for good food than for its wildlife. The state's cooler, more southern latitudes result in high-quality fruits and veggies, and promoters point out that many of the country's best chefs are attracted to the island to work their magic. Award-winning wines have begun to be produced here, too.

The population, which sometimes calls itself Taswegian, feels itself a very separate entity from Australia as a whole: "You mean the north island?" they may joke good-naturedly. Actually, Hobart and Launceston are the second- and third-oldest cities in the country, after Sydney, and some of the most interesting and luxurious Victorian architecture reflects the gold discovery periods. Gold is still mined in Tasmania, and one mine has also become a tourist attraction.

But for many travelers, tigers (real or imagined), devils and their various pouched cousins will probably remain indefinitely to distinguish the island state of Tasmania.

IF YOU GO

Most international travelers to Tasmania fly via Qantas' domestic service from Melbourne, either to the city of Launceston (one hour) or to the capital, Hobart (1 1/2 hours). Qantas' telephone in North America is 800-227-4500, Web site: www.qantas.com/us.

Additional information on Tasmania can be obtained from the Australian Tourist Commission in the United States, toll-free telephone 800-333-0262. Ask for the free Australian Vacation Planner. For a referral to an Australian specialist travel agent, call 800-333-4305. The ATC's Web site is at www.australia.com. Tourism Tasmania maintains a detailed Web site at www.tas.gov.au.

Package tours to Tasmania and other Australian areas are also available from Qantas Vacations, 800-268-7525, Web site: www.qantasvacations.com.

This travel piece appeared in several publications: Information

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