Exotic feline or enduring phantom? Something big, something strange has been stalking the Blue Mountains for decades and it's back in the spotlight, Eamonn Duff reports.
PAUL CAUCHI and his girlfriend Naomi were in a celebratory mood.
The couple had just signed the paperwork for their new home near Mudgee but that's not why they will remember May 28, 2010.
''We were driving through Yarrawonga and Naomi saw it first,'' explained Mr Cauchi.
'''Look,' she said, 'Can you see that? … It's … it's a panther!'
''And the moment I saw it, I swore out loud in disbelief - because that's exactly what it was.''
The couple had ''a perfect seven- or eight-second view'' of the creature standing in front of them, outside a goat farm.
''I'd heard the stories but never believed a word of it,'' said Mr Cauchi. ''I've seen how big feral bush cats grow, but this was no feral cat. There is no mistaking, this was a panther. Now I'm thinking, how has this remained in doubt for so long?''
NSW Minister for Primary Industries Steve Whan said he had been made aware of four other possible sighting of the ''panther'' this year.
"The state government takes all reports of alleged black cat sightings seriously,'' Mr Whan said.
Rumours have circulated for decades about a colony of panther-like cats roaming Sydney's western fringes and beyond: from Lithgow to Mudgee and the Hawkesbury to the Hunter Valley. While witnesses are routinely ridiculed, a new book published today presents a compelling argument that the creatures are more than simply folklore.
Mike Williams, co-author of Australian Big Cats - An Unnatural History of Panthers, said: ''I cannot tell you with any certainty what species of cat this is but there is no doubting it is out there. It's an extremely large feline that does not appear to be native to Australia.''
Chris Coffey, of Grose Vale, a hamlet at the foot of the Blue Mountains, saw it twice in the late 1980s. Since then, proving its existence has become an obsession. She has collected more than 450 statements from tourists, bushwalkers and locals including a NSW police officer, a Qantas pilot and a retired magistrate.
Mrs Coffey said: ''National Parks and Wildlife know it exists, because their own staff have seen it. The NSW government is aware it's here because their own reports conclude that. [But] due to negative media coverage, the current public perception is that we're all a bunch of idiots.''
The case took a twist in 2001 when a freedom-of-information request unearthed a series of confidential government documents that proved wildlife authorities were so concerned about the big cat and the danger to humans, they commissioned an ''expert'' to catch it.
The three-day hunt later failed, but ecologist Johannes J. Bauer warned: ''Difficult as it seems to accept, the most likely explanation is the presence of a large, feline predator. In this area, [it is] most likely a leopard, less likely a jaguar.''
In the years that followed, sightings continued to pour in. In 2003, Hawkesbury Council released a detailed map of sightings and livestock attacks, pinpointing Grose Vale, Grose Wold, Londonderry, Yarramundi, Bowen Mountain, Kurrajong, East Kurrajong, Colo, Agnes Banks, Windsor Downs, Ebenezer, and the Macdonald Valley.
The state government commissioned a second study in 2008. Fuelling cover-up claims, an FOI request later revealed two versions of the report, the latter heavily edited for public consumption - and stripped of its final conclusion which stated: ''It seems more likely than not on available evidence that such animals do exist in NSW.''
But sceptics continue to dismiss the creature as an urban myth. To date, there remains no solid proof, not a single photo that demonstrates that the exotic big cat is real.
Mrs Coffey remains convinced that evidence will emerge sooner rather than later - based on witness accounts, the creature is increasingly being spotted out in the open, and closer to humans.
Mr Williams, meanwhile, looks to the day when an opportunity arises to pinpoint the creature's origin. ''If these things were just leopards, we'd be losing bushwalkers left, right and centre - so that leaves us with something else. It has taken large livestock over the years and the fear is that one day a child could end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.''
According to Mrs Coffey's database, there have been several close calls. In August 2008, Brianna Lloyd, 11, and Burgundie Cartan, 12, were holidaying at Wisemans Ferry. Disobeying family instructions, the girls set off exploring a remote section of the park, then came face to face with a large black cat that sprang down from a tree in front of them.
"We heard all this crunching and then a big black thing dropped out of the tree with something [a dead duck] in its mouth, so we ran … it was hunched down like it was going to jump at us," Brianna said of the incident.
"It made a horrible growling noise. It was bigger than a labrador - it was a really big cat."
BLUE MOUNTAINS residents have long been accused of seeing things but they can draw some comfort in knowing they are not alone.
A search online reveals ''alien big cats'', as they are known in cryptozoology circles, have been reported running wild everywhere from Britain to Denmark, Finland to Luxembourg and Hawaii to New Zealand.
Photographs of phantom felines are usually grainy and scientists largely scoff, citing the lack of furry evidence and the improbability of there being enough large cats for them to keep breeding.
Pumas have been spotted roaming the Grampians in Victoria for years.
American servicemen are blamed for releasing cougars into the bush after bringing them to Australia as mascots during World War II.
A Deakin University study found that a big-cat population in the area was ''beyond reasonable doubt'' but sceptics maintain they are just feral moggies turned monstrous. In New Zealand, panther sightings have been on the increase since the late 1990s around Canterbury, near Ashburton, and in the nearby foothills of the Southern Alps.
If you believe the British, big cats have been prowling their countryside for decades. There's the Surrey Puma and the Fen Tiger. Devon and Somerset share the elusive Beast of Exmoor. Every year, Gloucestershire police are inundated with dozens of sightings in the Forest of Dean.
A black panther has been savaging livestock in Leicestershire and England's smallest county, Rutland, for decades. But perhaps the most famous British big cat of all is the elusive Beast of Bodmin Moor.
Like the elusive exotic example from the Blue Mountains - from which the NRL's Penrith Panthers takes its name - one long-held theory about British big cats is they were imported by private collectors or zoos, only to later escape.