Six years ago, just after Neil Waters had moved to Tasmania, he had a “brief encounter” with a thylacine, better known as the Tasmanian tiger.
In January 2014 he was working on his house when a smaller animal walked up a dirt track leading out of a tin mine and past his bedroom window.
He did not take any photographs. And the problem is, the last thylacine died in 1936 at the Hobart zoo – officially.
Now living in Adelaide, where he works as a gardener, Waters is founder of the Thylacine Awareness Group, “dedicated to the research, recognition and conservation of Australia’s most elusive apex predator”.
The group has just over 3000 members on Facebook, some in Canada and the UK. Some share sightings; some stories are decades-old but other people, Waters says, had never spoken of their sightings before the group gave them an opportunity to do so.
“A lot of people, when they describe a sighting to me, they say, ‘I couldn’t believe what I was looking at … They’re not meant to exist, but I’ve seen them’.”
Not only are Waters and his supporters convinced the last thylacine did not die in 1936, they say it is even more prominent in mainland Australia, where it is believed to have become extinct at least 2000 years ago.
He says there have been more than 5000 reported sightings of thylacines in the past 80 years. It’s a tough sell, he admits. He has been criticised by scientists.
“The sad part is, we haven’t found a dead one lying on the side of the road,” he says. “Then we’d have some proof. The sightings people convey to me, they’re sincere.”
Almost 100 people attended the group’s first event, held in Adelaide last weekend, among them a woman who told Waters of seeing a thylacine 50 years ago.
“She’d never told anyone in her life … people don’t have any reason to make these things up, they’re not looking for attention, they’re just looking for someone not to laugh at them.”
A drawcard was new footage shot in Western Australia by a woman who says she has seen thylacines “several times” on her property. It was uploaded to YouTube late on Monday.
Since then, debate has raged as to whether the video shows a thylacine, or a fox with mange.
Waters admits the video, like much of the footage shared by the Facebook group, is ambiguous, proving nothing more than that there are animals in Australia that resist ready classification.
That, he says, should be enough to invigorate interest in the possibility that thylacines – or, alternatively, animals “that have not yet been described by science” – exist on the mainland.
The scientific community remains resistant.
“But no one wants to actually get off their bum and come for a walk through the bush and have a look with me,” he says. “I don’t really mind being the butt of all their jokes but I guarantee that if we find one they’ll all want to be my best friend then.”
Waters has trail cameras installed, potential den sites he keeps an eye on, and a huge network of people all over Australia “contributing information on a daily basis”.
His motivation is not financial, “just for the vindication of people who’ve been told they’re bonkers. I represent 3000 people who have been told they’re nuts, basically.”
Scientists are so convinced that the thylacine is extinct that discussion in recent years has centred on whether it could be resurrected by cloning. In 2008 a gene was successfully inserted into a mouse embryo from fragments taken from 100-year-old specimens preserved in ethanol.
Andrew Pask, the project’s team leader and a developmental biologist at the University of Melbourne, says technology is not yet at the point where it is possible to clone a thylacine, but the animal’s entire DNA has been sequenced.
For science to accept that the Tasmanian tiger lives on today, says Pask, it needs irrefutable evidence. “I would love, love, love to believe they’re still out there, but unfortunately I think all of the evidence points to the contrary on that front.”