Tails high: why does the myth of the exotic big cats roaming the Australian bush persist? | Wildlife

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Scott Lansbury had his first meeting 25 years ago. It was in the Victorian town of Upper Beaconsfield around midnight where he and his brother saw the animal coming up the trail in front of where they lived.

“He was bigger than any dog ​​I have ever seen,” he recalls. “Bigger than a Labrador, bigger than a [German] shepherd.”

Lansbury is convinced that the mysterious animal, which he said was black and walked with a prowling feline, was a big cat. He says he has seen similar animals several times in the meantime.

“I kept hearing other stories,” Lansbury says. So ten years ago, he created a Facebook group, Black Panther Sightings in Victoria, “a bit like a joke”. The group has since grown to 36,000 people.

Members post a mix of blurry images and footage, cat videos clearly taken in other countries, and avowed accounts of personal encounters.

“I watch every video that has been posted about the band,” Lansbury says.

Sightings of mysterious cats in the wild – and the accompanying reports of strange cattle deaths – are not a new phenomenon. Big cats are rumored to have roamed the Australian bush for nearly 200 years, says David Waldron, folklorist and historian at Federation University.

The first ghost cat sighting reported by Waldron was near Adelaide in 1836. A sailor said he found “a cat-like animal with orange fur, black stripes on its back, and white bushy ears , chasing marsupial rats near a body of water “.

In the 1890s, panic erupted in the town of Tantanoola in South Australia, when stories emerged of a predator stalking properties, terrifying herding dogs and slaughtering sheep.

The exotic animal trade was rampant by the end of the 19th century, says Waldron. The classifieds of the day featured leopard and panther cubs for sale.

The Tantanoola tiger, as it became known, was eventually captured. The beast turned out not to be a felid, but a Eurasian wolf. Also lost in the Australian bush, the wolf was said to have been a stowaway who survived a shipwreck off the coast. He was drunk and remains on display at the Tantanoola hotel.

In the last century, rumors of wild big cats have also been fueled by stories of escaped circus animals such as lions and tigers, and of American soldiers bringing exotic animals to the country as military mascots.

In Victoria, sightings have been reported in Gippsland and the Grampians National Park, while in New South Wales, hundreds of sightings of big cats have been reported in the Blue Mountains, known as the Panther of the Blue Mountains or Lithgow lion.

Last year a video of a black cat was captured on Sydney’s North Shore by a college student, who described it as over three feet long, “with a body on the ‘roids’. .

‘If you see a [feral] domestic cat… your first impression might be: well, he’s a big animal. ‘ Photograph: Russotwins / Alamy

For the untrained eye, accurately estimating an animal’s size after a fleeting sighting is a difficult task, says Peter Menkhorst, an ecologist at the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research in Melbourne.

Domestic wild cats – Felis catus – can sometimes grow to impressive sizes and have been the source of at least some reported big cat sightings.

“If you see a [feral] domestic cat that weighs maybe something like 10kg which is about double the weight of most pet cats …

In 2005, a deer hunter, Kurt Engel, shot dead what he believed to be a black panther near Sale, in eastern Gippsland. He estimated the cat to be around 1.5m in length. Engel kept the animal’s tail as a trophy, which was two feet long – about twice the length of the tail of an ordinary domestic cat. However, DNA tests later revealed that the animal was in fact Felis catus, a big wild cat.

Insufficient evidence

In 2012, a report commissioned by the Victorian government concluded that the available evidence was “insufficient to establish that a wild population of ‘big cats’ exists in Victoria.”

Menkhorst, who co-wrote the report, says the chances of there being any unknown big cats in the Victorian wilderness are “tiny.”

“No one has ever actually brought a carcass or even a part of one of these mythical beasts.”

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One piece of unexplained evidence was excrement found at Winchelsea in 1991. Barbara Triggs, an animal excrement expert, identified the fecal sample as most likely belonging to a leopard and isolated several hairs from the feces she believed to be the animal could inadvertently have. ingested while grooming.

Mitochondrial DNA in the hair was tested in 2000, and the sequence was confirmed to belong to a leopard, although the scientist who tested them said he could not rule out contamination.

“There is a lot of uncertainty as to the origin of this droppings,” says Menkhorst. “It’s very inconclusive.”

Menkhorst’s skepticism is also based on years of monitoring wildlife. “We’ve done literally hundreds of thousands of what we call trap nights,” he says, where camera traps that detect heat and motion are set up in the bush to continuously monitor for weeks at a time.

“We’ve taken literally millions of photos and we have nothing we couldn’t explain, everything from dunnarts to dingoes. Lots of feral cats, no other cat species, ”he says. “Considering the intensity of the wildlife surveys we’ve done in Victoria over the past 50 years, it’s an almost inconceivable thing we would not have found. [a big cat] if it existed.

“He re-enchants the bush”

Waldron agrees. “I’m skeptical that there just isn’t enough evidence at the moment,” he says. “There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea, you just have to find positive evidence.”

Despite the lack of evidence, big cats in the wild have continued to have some appeal.

“It re-enchants the bush, makes it mysterious, magical,” says Waldron. He joined feline hunters on nighttime escapades, listening to animal sounds using directional microphones. “It’s a pretty exciting and evocative thing to do. “

Unexplained cattle deaths may have a simple rather than a bizarre explanation, says Waldron. “At the heart of these panics are usually the killed animals which look different from the way they are normally performed by wild dogs. When people get started forensic – like in the animal mutilation panic in the United States – what they find is multiple predation on the same carcass by different predators.

A Twitch streamer by the name of Rainey Jay, who lives on the north coast of NSW, has been fascinated for years by stories of fat cats and the online groups dedicated to them.

Although she is skeptical of their existence, she says there is something “romantic about the whole notion that there may still be great mysteries to be solved.”

“There are people looking for Bigfoot or aliens, but for giant cats living in the wild, there is something plausible about it. “

The enchantment with the idea of ​​big cats in the Australian wilderness “overshadows the problem we have with feral cats,” Jay says. Domestic feral cats, which cover all but about 0.2% of Australia, are both environmentally and economically damaging. It has been estimated that they kill 1 million birds per day.

“It’s something that I think we should look at further,” she said.

Lansbury has no doubts he was right that night 25 years ago, and wants others to keep an open mind. “You can definitely see why people don’t believe in them,” he says. ” You have to see it to believe it. “


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