Sunday, July 18, 2010

Big cat question: Cairns Weekend Post, July 17, 2010

Could there be a secret species of cats hiding in remote corners of Australian bush? DENISE CARTER speaks to an author who's spent eight years investigating the question

IF you go down to the woods today, be careful because there are possibly very strange creatures lurking in the Australian bush.
So Michael Williams and Rebecca Lang would have us believe with their book Australian Big Cats: Unnatural History of Panthers launched three weeks ago.
The pair, Michael, a writer and photographer, and Rebecca, a journalist and editor, embarked on an discovery adventure nine years ago, having heard a lecture by Peter Chappell, who had compelling arguments for the notion of wild cats living in the bush of Australia.
The pair travelled, Michael says, from the south of Australia to the Atherton Tableland and beyond up to the Cape to record over 1000 stories of sightings, paw prints, second-hand tales, photographs, and video footage of animals that should, for the most part, never have existed in this land.
The couple stayed as guests of farmers along the way.
The stories they compiled vary from tales of black, panther-type creatures, to big, cat-looking marsupials, to striped creatures, to almost supernatural creatures with extraordinary strengths and abilities.
Michael admits his hotline, posted on his website for people to report their sightings, has been a bit of a kooky line, and it has been difficult to sort the proverbial wheat from the chaff.
Nevertheless, at the end of his travels and having sorted through all the stories, he came to three conclusions.
"The conclusions are there appears to be several species of big cat or one with multiple colours that are undiscovered in Australia," he says.
"They are non-native."
"And there appears to be from five-to 10 per cent of reports of big cats that look like marsupials."
Michael is aware of the scepticism of the general public that there could be such creatures and says most people won't believe it unless there is "a body on the table".
But the book, he says, cites very plausible references and sightings, from police officers, to national park rangers, to hunters, and farmers shocked at losing their livestock to such ferocious beasts.
Police made a statement about a wild lioness in NSW in 1985.
Michael says there were also investigations that were hushed up over the years in the state.
One investigator said there was a breeding population of jaguars; another, in 2001, agreed there were more than likely big cats; and a 2008 report, which Michael says he had to get under freedom of information, concluded there were wild cats, too.
In 2009, he says there was a revised report that said said they didn't exist.
Michael actually saw a big cat on his travels, at a farm in Maryborough, Victoria, where he was taking down the story of a farmer, who saw one such creature jump over his fence, grab a sheep, and jump back.
"What are the chances, but I saw it with a night scope at the crack of dawn drinking at a waterhole," Michael says. "It had a head like a bowling ball and it was about the size of a large German Shepherd.
"Suddenly, there was an explosion of movement from right to left.
"I was gobsmacked because I was seeing a living legend.
"Then it was looking at me but by the time I passed the night scope on it was gone."
In the book, Michael postures a few possible reasons for wild cats in Australia.
They could be the extinct marsupial lion that lived up to 30,000 years ago on the continent.
"They had the best biting mechanism of any animal ever known," Michael says.
The second theory is that the wild cats could be escaped circus or zoo animals.
"There are stories of circuses crashing every 500m," Michael says.
"Everyone has a second-hand story of a town where a circus crashed on a certain corner in the rain and an animal escaped."
The third theory is that they are released mascots from American army troops that were once stationed in Australia.
And the final hypothesis is that they are some kind of mutant domestic cat that has grown to gigantic proportions in the wild.
In Queensland, the dominant big cats sighted have been striped cats.
And in the Far North, large black cats were seen on the Atherton Tablelands and at Sherga near Weipa.
"We had a good report at Sherga from dog handlers, who were RAAF personnel," Michael says.
So now you know.
Don't say you haven't been warned.

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