Big Cats In The Bush?

                                                             Big Cats In The Bush?

(Australian Shooter Magazine, May 2005)
Mike Williams has had a lifelong fascination with big game, but he says Australian hunters don't have to travel to the veldts of Africa to see the kings of cats in action. Williams, along with a growing number of zoologists and naturalists, believes big cats, most likely pumas and leopards, are roaming the Australian bush.
"Reports of Australian big cats have been received from as far afield as Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria," he said. "In many instances, the sightings have been made by people who are experienced bushmen, farm­ers and naturalists. These are people who know the animals of the Australian bush."

Williams has been researching big cat activity around Australia for the past five years.

"Strange stock losses, attacks and unusual predation have been reported in many of the areas that frequently yield big cat sighting reports," he said. "Unusually large tracks have also been found around farm dams and other waterways, indicating the cat[s] are making themselves quite at home."

Williams has been collecting scats, spoor and hair samples from locations where the cats have been sighted for expert analysis and DNA testing. He has also been pho­tographing deep scratches on tree trunks consistent with a large animal climbing and clawing. The beasts themselves, however, have remained frustratingly elusive.

Despite several pieces of footage being shot, at a distance, of overly large black leopard-like cats in recent years - all quickly

bought by major television stations and dis­appearing from public circulation - nothing concrete has yet come to light.

"It's incredibly rare to see an animal such as a large cat," Williams points out. "For instance, there area puma hunters in the United States with something like 18 to 20 years' experience [who] have never seen their prey until their dogs have treed the cats."

In the 1980s, the Cordering region in Western Australia was a hotspot of big cat sightings, but unlike many other areas in Australia where jet-black cats are reported, these cats sported sandy-colored coats.

Seasoned 'roo hunters failed to bag any of the tawny-colored cats despite countless all­-night vigils using spotlights, star scopes and I high-powered .308 rifles. I

The sightings and stock losses continued for several years and inspired the writing of a book, Savage Shadow, by journalist David O'Reilly. His sleuthing also uncovered the earliest known sighting in WA, near Latham, 270km from Perth, dating back to 1950.

In Victoria, the Grampians mountain range has also been a popular spot for big cat sightings. So many reports were being logged in the 1970s that a Deakin University academic, Dr John Henry, conducted a study into the sightings and concluded that there were, in fact, big cats at large in the area.

Sheep carcasses were found on a narrow rock ledge 300m above the valley floor in the Geranium Springs Valley, in the Grampi­ans. US experts who analysed the evidence found that scat and spoor collected at the site matched that of a puma.

The reports, however, have not been con­fined to the mountain ranges. Last year a prize bull, a horse and several sheep were all savagely slain by a mystery predator as they grazed on various farms in Victoria's Packenham district.

The bull had most of its face torn off, the sheep were decapitated and the horse had its throat ripped out and was dragged for six metres across the paddock to the spot where its owner discovered it.

Most recently, in NSW on Sydney's fringe, sightings have been made in the Hawkes­bury, Kenthurst and Lithgow areas, keep­ing the Department of Agriculture and the National Parks and Wildlife Service on their toes.

So many reports have poured in from these areas that the Department of Agricul­ture has been forced to put up a page on its website to deal with sightings.

In one well-publicised case, a secured deer carcass three metres above the ground, left out as a bait for the mystery animal, was predated on by "an unknown animal capable of climbing a tree and holding on with claws, there were significant claw marks".

Dr Johannes Bauer, a respected academic who has years of experience in large cat sur­veys overseas, concluded in the same NSW government report that "difficult as it seems to accept, the most likely explanation of the the presence of a large feline predator".

A domestic cat killed in the Grose Vale area by something that crushed its thorax and then leapt about three metres onto the roof of the house left more than 50 prints that were "cat-like in form and leopard­ sized ... no evidence of nail marks associated I

with the prints. This excludes the possibility' that these prints were made by a dog."

Some of the more compelling local wit­nesses include a couple who once lived in South Africa and were familiar with large cats, and several individuals who had worked as large cat handlers in zoos - people who know their big cats.

"It's clear from the evidence collected above, by local people and government. employees, that there is a big cat operating in the lower Blue Mountains area," Williams said.

"Big cats are serious predators that repre­sent a real danger to the human populace ­just look at cases in the United States where cougars often attack hikers, or in Asia where people often fall prey to tigers and other large cats.

"If I didn't know better, I would think we'd stumbled into an episode of The X-Files, where a very real phenomena is being pur­posely discredited and trivialised so we, the general public, won't be any the wiser.

"It's only a matter of time before sheep, goats and horses drop off the menu and something larger takes the fancy of our newest feral anima!."

Theories abound as to how these kings of the cat world may have ended up in Aus­tralia. Some believe the cat in question is a relative of Thylacoleo carnifex, the native marsupial lion of the pleistocene era (about 1,600,000 years ago), which was believed to measure 1.5m in length and weigh about 120kg. The problem with that idea, how­ever, is that Aborigines have no record of such a creature, nor do our colonial fore­bears.

Others say that the cats are descen­dants of pumas, which were kept as pets by American gold miners, let loose and allowed to establish a breeding population in the Australian bush - an idea perpetu­ated by the many sightings around central Victoria's goldfields.

Feral cats have also been touted as a pos­sible source of the big cat sightings, but those who try to promote the idea that the pumas are in reality mutant felines forget that, genetically, it is impossible for a tabby­sized cat to turn into a leopard-sized beast ­even though feral cats can grow up to twice the size of their domestic counterparts. It should also be remembered that small ani­mals seem larger than they really are from a distance, however many of the sightings have been at close range.

Another popular story attributes the presence of the large, top-of-the-food-chain carnivores to careless US airmen who allegedly kept pumas as mascots, releasing them into the bush at the end of the war.

Crashed circus vehicles are another favoured source of the mysterious cats, but these stories, while seemingly more plau­sible, are invariably just as difficult to prove as any of the others.

A more realistic proposition, however, is that the animals were released by either private zoo owners who went bust, of which there have been many in recent years, or by individuals whose exotic 'pets' finally outgrew their enclosures and their feed­ing budgets. A male puma can reach up to 204m in length and weighs around 100kg. The average big cat requires at least 1.4kg of meat a day.

"If trained observers such as big cat handlers, naturalists, government wild­life employees, professional shooters and farmers cannot tell the difference between an unusual large exotic cat, a fox or a dog, there's something seriously wrong with human perception," Williams said.

To date, the government response to the big cat enigma has been unsatisfactory to many who live in areas of frequent activity. Bureaucratic channels have moved slowly in response to reports and government employees are now loath to put their names to comments in support of the evidence yielded so far, for fear of their jobs.

If the existence of big cats were to be acknowledged by government, Williams says, the ramifications would be staggering.

"I don't think anyone in a position of authority will believe a word of it until a corpse is brought forth," he said.

"In the meantime, don't think for a moment that the scariest thing you'll ever encounter in the bush is a 1O5kg pig. And if you do have a brush with a big cat, hope it's from a distance because you'll never hear it coming."

Williams is keen to hear from fellow shoot­ers and hunters who may have had a sight­ing, witnessed strange livestock predation or collected or photographed any unusual tracks, tree scratches or kills.