January 28, 2004

Bulletin Magazine

WILDLIFE BERNARD LAGAN: Sightings of large predator cats in the Australian bush have been dismissed as phantoms for more than 50 years. Now, for the first time, an investigation by the NSW government has concluded that it is likely there are, indeed, big cats out there.

"Night falls. In a lonely valley called the Sink, four people prepare for a quiet evening. Then in his orchard, Murray Jacob sees a moving shadow. Across the swamp, his neighbour Ronnie watches her lover leave and feels her baby roll inside her. And on the veranda of the Stubbses' house, a small dog is torn screaming from its leash by something unseen. Nothing will be the same again."

In the Winter Dark, by Tim Winton

At night, Paul Coffee stamps his feet when he walks the 50-odd metres from his office, past the trees with deep, mysterious gouges to his isolated house in woodlands on the eastern fringes of the Blue Mountains. When his pet dog is jumpy and Coffee - witty and solidly built - has the more certain feeling that something unexplained is back, the environmental consultant will drive his Land Rover the few minutes home.

In Kenthurst, on Sydney's far north-western boundaries, Luke Walker, 18, is wary of night checks on the mailbox at the end of the long driveway to the family's bush-set home. The home-theatre installer still has the jagged gouges on his arm and torso that he suffered on a Monday night in March when he told his mother he was going to get the mail.

He came back to the house covered in blood after a big animal leapt two metres and attacked him. It was no dog and far too big to be a feral cat, he believes.

Dr Robert Saltmaris, a dentist in Windsor - on the Hawkesbury River, north-west of Sydney - was stunned on a June night last year when the headlights of his Nissan Patrol picked up a big cat as he drove to his 15-hectare rural property. "It was just there by the side of the road. It was no pussycat. It was a panther and it was huge. I turned around and shone the lights back up. It was crouching, looking at us. I could see it quite clearly. There is no doubt what it was. It was definitely a panther," he says.

Dr Rex Stubbs has been a general practitioner in Windsor for 25 years and mayor for eight. He's softly spoken and not given to wild talk. He believes it more likely than not that a big cat is out there - maybe several big cats. "The people who have seen it are very serious people. A number of them are professionals, long-term residents and people that I'd had long-term contact with. They are not the type of people who would be setting up a prank," Stubbs says.

Tim Winton's chilling 1998 novel, In the Winter Dark, drew on the mythology of big predators in the Australian bush.

Sightings of panthers or pumas have been reported since the gold rush years and mostly dismissed by authorities as hoaxes. Now, an investigation by the NSW government has concluded for the first time that it is likely that the big cats are indeed out there.

The results of the recent investigation, conducted by the NSW Department of Agriculture in the latter part of last year, were given only limited public release after the investigator, Bill Atkinson, the department's rural NSW-based Agricultural Protection Officer, concluded in his report: "Nothing found in this review conclusively proves the presence of free-ranging exotic large cats in NSW, but this cannot be discounted and seems more likely than not on the available evidence."

Additionally, The Bulletin has uncovered a far more comprehensive study, led by Victorian scientific academics, that concluded 25 years ago that pumas ranged Victoria's Grampian Mountains. Their full report has never been released - until now.

The NSW finding has vindicated a small group of people, mostly in and around the hamlet of Grose Vale in the Blue Mountains, who have for a long time insisted that a large black panther or similar creature roams the streams and creeks in the more populated low country during winter when food is scarce in the higher, wilderness parts of the mountains.

Locals Christine Coffee and Ken Pullen have both seen the animal and keep a database of sightings and a log of mutilated local stock - such as the mauling of goats and horses and the discovery of sheep and goat remains in trees. Christine and Paul Coffee can point to long, deep gashes high on the trunks of trees on their property and they have seen prints similar to those of a big cat.

Christine first saw the animal nearly a decade ago. It bounded away when it spied her then stopped. "I will never forget the way it turned around and looked at me," she says. She has no doubt she saw a very large black big cat she believes was a panther. Early last year her pet dog suddenly became very agitated as Christine passed by large trees. She later discovered the deep scratch marks.

Ken Pullen has seen the animal once - in 1996. "I couldn't have mistaken it for anything other than a big cat," he says.

Two years later three local children found the remains of a sheep in a tree, a sighting verified by Pullen.

Local police and others now refer sightings to him and, he says, there have been times when sightings at similar times and locations have been reported by people unknown to each other.

The database records some 270 events involving the animal - or animals - including animal mutilations and sightings. The most recent sighting was two weeks ago when a retired couple in the area were shaken by the sight of a panther-like cat that appeared about 8am.

Even some who've never seen the animal are convinced of its existence, such as the chief engineer of the Hawkesbury Shire Council, Chris Daley. "There have been just too many sightings for there not to be something out there." So seriously does the council take the matter that it now maintains its own database of sightings.

While many in the scientific community are sceptical, those who have inspected the Grose Vale area believe the claims to be true. Dr Johannes Bauer, experienced in big cat surveys in China and Nepal and a lecturer in environmental management at the University of Sydney, was asked by the NSW government in 1999 to report on big cat sightings in the area.

Bauer examined evidence including photos of mauled livestock, analysis of droppings, casts of paw prints and scratches on trees. His findings were kept secret until they surfaced late last year in the Department of Agriculture report.

Bauer had not minced his words in a letter setting out his findings: "Difficult as it seems to accept the most likely explanation of the evidence is the presence of a large feline predator in this area, most likely a leopard, less likely a jaguar (unless this is an elaborate hoax by someone in the community).

I consider the habitat the animal occurs in as optimal leopard habitat, with probably abundant prey including macropods, possums, cats, stray dogs etc. I would also think that within the densely forested area dissected by many gorges and rock formations, the few sightings of this animal are not surprising. Despite the hundreds of jungle surveys I have been on, I've only ever seen glimpses of leopards. The long time-frame would suggest the animal present in the area is now rather old. The increase in livestock attacks or kills during the past years could have some connection with the age of the animal."

He has been supported by at least two vets who have investigated the Grose Vale sightings. Both have set down their conviction in writing that a big cat is roaming.

Their evidence includes livestock obviously mauled by a large carnivore.

One of the vets, Dr Keith Hart, of the Moss Vale Rural Lands Protection Board, which covers much of mid NSW including Grose Vale, has also raised concerns that scientific analysis of animal droppings in 2000 strongly pointed to the presence of a carnivore that was not a feral cat, dog or fox. He told The Bulletin: "I am convinced there is a big cat in the Grose Vale area."

How would such an animal come to be living in the Australian wilderness?

Theories include escapes or releases of illegally held animals, descendants of pets kept by goldminers or the offspring of pumas kept as mascots by American airmen during the war years. The latter theory is considered the most plausible in the most exhaustive study yet conducted into the possibility that big cats roam parts of Australia.

Commenced in 1976, it was conducted by Deakin University lecturers and students in Victoria's Grampian Mountains - an area long rumoured to harbour big cats. The Deakin researchers acquired three eyewitness accounts of American airmen with pumas in 1942.

Two were in the Mount Gambier area of South Australia and one at Nhill, far-western Victoria, where the Americans had a wartime base. The Deakin researchers found two former Australian guards at the base who remembered a USAF bomber
landing at Nhill in 1942, probably from the Philippines. A puma cub on board was taken by road to the edge of the Grampians and set free.

The study was headed by Dr John Henry, an associate professor of education at Deakin University. In the mid 1970s, he was a lecturer in the science faculty and began the university's puma study. His final report, buried away in the university library, is fascinating reading.

Its revelations - all well documented and sourced - include:

l In the rugged Geranium Springs Valley in the Grampians, sheep carcasses were found on a narrow ledge, 300 metres above the valley floor.

Mutilated animal carcasses were also found on the valley floor.

Droppings recovered from the valley were identified by a leading US big cat expert as matching puma faeces.

Within a hidden rock shelter on Mount Bepcha in the Grampians, many animal remains - ranging from large cattle bones to those of freshwater tortoises - were found. Researchers also took casts of two large carnivore prints, later judged by US experts as matching those of a puma.

Henry has never resiled from the study's conclusion that it is beyond reasonable doubt that a big cat population lived in the Grampians.

Last year, the NSW government asked a seven-member panel of big cat experts to view a video shot near Lithgow, west of Grose Vale, of what appeared to be a large black cat - possibly a panther - in close proximity to a large feral cat.

They concluded that the larger of the two was a huge feral cat, two to three times normal size. Their reasoning was only that they did not think a feral cat would be so close to a panther.

While the panel could not explain very large paw prints on a concrete driveway at Grose Vale, its leading members remain sceptical that a big cat - such as a panther or leopard - is on the loose.

Says panellist Dr Sandy Ingleby, the Australian Museum's collections manager: "I am fairly sceptical, yes."

Another, David Pepper-Edwards, of Sydney's Taronga Zoo, says he's never seen evidence in the wild that such an animal exists nor has he seen a clear photograph.

However, the NSW government is drawing up an advisory document to help concerned people to identify the footprints and droppings of large animals.

The Minister for Agriculture Ian MacDonald told The Bulletin his department stands by the conclusion that it is more likely a big cat is roaming than not.

People such as Stubbs, the mayor of Hawkesbury, believe it is a time for a concerted effort involving the NSW government to trap the animal or animals.

He says: "There is a real potential - sooner or later - for one of these animals to come into close contact with children. If the animals perceive themselves to be under threat, they are more likely to attack, as I understand it."

Luke Walker, the Kenthurst teenager attacked in March, said his arm bled for four days after the attack and he suffered fevers.

A typically laconic Australian youth, he doesn't want to over-dramatise what happened to him. But, he says: "It gave me some nice war injuries. I know it was big and black. I know it was feline."