Australia’s secret big cat?

As reported in Stuff – 19 October 2012. 

A doctor, dentist, solicitor, clergyman and Qantas pilot have all seen it, as have numerous Rural Fire Service volunteers and an officer from the

Australia's secret big cat?

Department of Agriculture. A NSW detective spoke of how he watched the beast, from barely 50 metres away, for more than a minute. And like most others, he is “convinced” it was a black panther.

Rumours have circulated for decades about a colony of “Big cats” roaming Sydney’s western fringes and beyond. But today, a report commissioned by the State Government has concluded that the many hundreds who have seen the panther are wrong.

In a review of “large free-ranging felines in New South Wales”, a New Zealand-based invasive species expert, John Parkes, said the accounts were “at best prima facie evidence”.

“The sightings are mostly of black animals but the occasional reports of brown or tan cats suggest either more than one species is present or people are mistaking other animals for cats. Large dogs, large feral cats or swamp wallabies have been suggested as candidates by some.”

He added: “There is no conclusive evidence that large cats exist in the wild in NSW.”

The NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, said: “The NSW Government will not commit further expenditure to this issue and, as far as I am concerned, the matter is closed.”

Mr Parkes’ findings are set to infuriate an army of eye witnesses across the Blue Mountains community – not least because two previous NSW Government reports concluded that panthers were most likely present.

Questions have also been raised about the timing of the review’s release. Fairfax Media has obtained a leaked email which shows the Government received the final report from Mr Parkes in “early September”. However, it chose to release the findings on a day when many within the local community were either sitting in evacuation centres or trying to save their homes because of raging bushfires.

State member for Hawkesbury, Ray Williams, who himself saw the creature at Cono Heights in 2009, said: “Certainly, these latest findings will anger many locally. When you have 620 people all describing the same creature, with the same poignant similarities, you have to accept something’s there.”

Fairfax Media can reveal that on March 19, Blue Mountains resident Chris Coffey made the rare journey into Sydney for a special summit in Parliament with Ms Hodgkinson. The meeting was called to address the sudden spike in panther sightings and fears, among locals, that someone, particularly a child, could be attacked. Ms Coffey has seen the creature on several occasions, the first in 1998. Since then, she has launched The Grose Vale Group and compiled a database of sightings. Almost 15 years on, the file contains 497 credible first-hand reports that span from Lithgow to Mudgee and from the Hawkesbury to Hunter Valley. But as Ms Coffey pointed out in Parliament that day, this was hardly a revelation. In May 2001, a freedom-of-information request revealed that the NSW Government had grown so alarmed about the reports of a “large panther size cat”, it commissioned a big-cat expert Johannes Bauer to provide a professional opinion. In his report, he concluded: “Difficult as it seems to accept, the most likely explanation of the evidence … is the presence of a large feline predator.”

He went on to describe the region as “optimal leopard habitat”, adding: “In this area, [it is] most likely a leopard, less likely a jaguar.”

After Dr Bauer’s shock-horror findings in 2001, the Government ordered the Department of Agriculture to send “a suitably skilled person to enable this animal to be tracked, located and identified”.

However, due to a lack of funding, they instead dispatched an officer from the department and a German shepherd dog. The “hunt” ended in failure, 72 hours later.

One of the main problems faced by Ms Coffey and fellow witnesses is that for all the alleged sightings, nobody has ever landed the prized photo or video to warrant David Attenborough packing his bags and boarding the first flight to Sydney.

In 2005, the local community’s hopes were raised once more when a Discovery Channel documentary team arrived on its doorstep, wanting to finally put “the myth to bed”. Armed with the best high-tech gadgetry money can buy, the crew strategically scattered eight infra-red motion sensor camera traps throughout the Blue Mountains National Park where the beast had been commonly spotted.

But as Ms Coffey recalled with a sigh: “They camped here for over a week and then they produced a sensationalised program that caused us locals to be ridiculed even further.”

While that episode tested the community’s resolve, it was nothing compared to what would follow in 2008 after the NSW Government commissioned a second study. Fuelling cover-up claims, an FOI request later unearthed two separate versions of the report, the latter heavily edited for public consumption – and stripped of its conclusion which stated: “It seems more likely than not on available evidence that such animals do exist in NSW.”

Fast forward to the present day and in his report, Mr Parkes questions the reliability of eyewitnesses. “People rarely describe with precision an event, simply because they do not see all the details, but more importantly they also subconsciously process their observations to fill in ‘gaps’…” he commented.”

Ms Coffey said of the report: “We continue to be treated like fringe-dwelling idiots. This is an insult to everyone who has seen the creature.”

Careful not to upset his own party meanwhile, Mr Williams, had this to say: “It’s interesting that the previous studies went through quite an exhaustive process and came to a different conclusion. This won’t change the views of the many hundreds who have seen it. And it certainly won’t change mine.”

‘I just told Mitchell to run’

When Taylor Pearce came face to face with a giant predator on her family’s property at Bilpin, the terrified teenager turned to the internet to help identify the creature. The picture she showed her mother was of a black jaguar.

On May 14, Taylor, 14, and her younger brother Mitchell, 9, were playing on a ride-on mower when an enormous feline suddenly sprung a fence and bounded into their back paddock. “I was on the mower and Mitchell was on the back. As I turned around, I saw it leap over. It walked over to a tree. Then it stopped behind us about 20 metres away. It was a big, jet black cat with a very long tail,” she recalled. “We were petrified. I did not want to yell so … I just told Mitchell to run.”

The pair bolted through two gates and up a path, approximately 100 metres to their house. “I was so scared, I couldn’t even speak when I got back,” she said.

The family’s property backs directly onto a dam and the seemingly never-ending Devil’s Wilderness which is where the cats live, according to Taylor’s mum, Amanda.

“It’s such a vast area of national park, reaching over to Springwood. Nobody ever gets down into that part of it.”

She said it was “insulting” that after so many sightings, locals were still ridiculed for believing the creature to be a genuine big cat’. “It might be a myth to others but if you live out here, you accept they are here.”

“People need to be warned because I fear one day soon, one of these confrontations is going to end in tragedy.”

– Sydney Morning Herald


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