PANTHER TALES

Is the truth out
there somewhere?

 A black shadow dropped down into the circle. It was Bagheera the black panther, inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk. Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path, for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down.

Rudyard Kipling; The Jungle Book.

 

The black panther is an incredibly reclusive animal.

You wouldn’t really expect to see one while walking around the Australian countryside.

They are not native to Australia, for a start.

But recorded sightings go back as far as 1880 from places such as Gippsland, the Blue Mountains, Lithgow, Mudgee, the Grampians, Frankston, Buderim, the Hawkesbury, the Hunter, Sydney’s North West, the NSW Great Dividing Range from Armidale to the Queensland border, the Gloucester Tops and many places in between.

There have been more than 1000 reported sightings of a “black panther” from pretty much every state of Australia.

Just how many panthers are around is unclear but there must have been many: black panthers have an average life span of about 12 years in the wild and 20 years in captivity. Female black panthers usually live longer.

Panthers live a solitary life. They meet only during mating season. After three months of pregnancy the female will give birth to two-four babies and will take care of them by herself.

The Australian “phantom panthers” have been blamed for the disappearance and death of many farm animals. Half eaten sheep carcasses have been found strung up high in tree branches (the panther is considered the strongest tree-climber in the world of big cats).

Legends vary but two common threads are that some – or many – escaped from a travelling circus or zoo or some – or many – were brought into the country by visiting American military people during R and R breaks and were either left here or escaped. There must have been at least two, of course, given the territory over which they have ranged.

A slightly more scientific possibility also has been raised; that they are a surviving relative – or relatives – of thylacoleo carnifex, once Australia’s largest marsupial carnivore. So maybe they could be native to Australia after all.

The website didyouknow-facts.com observed: Black panthers are really beautiful but rare. They are usually found in the thick forests of United States, UK and Australia.

Usually found?

That all may be hard to swallow because no one in Australia has ever captured one alive. Droppings and hairs thought to be from the elusive mysterious panthers have been anyalised and tested. None have returned positive results; the usual finding is that the material has come from wild dogs or feral cats.

And feral cats – overgrown ones – probably provide the most reasonable explanation, although it is a little odd that they all seem to be jet black.

By definition, a panther can be any of various big cats with black fur; most especially, the black-coated leopard of Asia and Africa; any big cat of the genus Panthera such as the black jaguar of the Americas; and a cougar that’s generally known as  the Florida panther.

So, they are big black cats. But do they roam the Australian countryside?

There are plenty of people who believe they do, yet tangible evidence is scarce.

Says Rex Gilroy writing for mysteriousaustralia.com: “In all my 30 years of investigations into the Australian panther mystery, I have not uncovered one authenticated case of a panther having escaped from an Australian circus or zoo and gone wild. Nor is there much substantiation to the other exaggerated story that cougars were liberated in various parts of Australia by American servicemen during World War 2. The Australian panther, like the still-living Thylacine, giant monitor lizard and Yowie, still evades capture and until one is available for scientific study, its actual identity will continue to remain unestablished. One thing, however, is certain. It cannot be a member of the feline family as no such animal is known from the Australian fossil record.”

The Northern Tablelands, Blue Mountains and Hunter and Hawkesbury Valleys of NSW seem to be popular haunts of the mysterious big black cat known as the panther.

There many are tales from the Great Dividing Range between Armidale and the Queensland border of the Emmaville Panther.

The Glen Innes Examiner newspaper reviewed the Emmaville Panther case that it had reported over the years. One of the earlier reports said: “It seems that this spate of panther sightings all began on June 20, 1958, with a 15-year-old boy, Donald Clifford who, while searching for lost horses spotted a large cat-like beast a mere ‘thirty paces ahead’ in rough country 18 miles from Emmaville. He ‘fled for his life’ and alerted a Mr McElroy who was mining in the vicinity. It just so happened that said miner had the previous day seen a carcass of a big kangaroo ‘ripped to shreds and its backbone torn out’. His jacket, which he’d left on the ground some distance away, has also been torn to pieces. On returning to the site, Mr McElroy and Donald’s father Mr Rex Clifford said the prints they found were the ‘size of a man’s hand, with claw marks prominent’.”

The article went on to say that earlier in the week, near Tenterfield, a little farther north, three different people had seen an animal they were sure was a black panther or puma crossing the Casino road. Those particular sightings were explained away by a Mr Gray who said it had been claimed a puma escaped from a circus in the Inverell area.

All this activity attracted interest from no lesser person than the chairman of the Taronga Zoo Trust, Sir Edward Hallstrom, who offered a reward for the capture, dead or alive of the animal; 1000 pounds if the animal proved to be an Australian marsupial cat or 500 pounds if it was an Indian panther.

That news was taken on board throughout the region. One farmer loaded up his shotgun and set off on his Ferguson tractor to look for the beast. He returned empty handed, as did all other would-be bounty hunters.

Needless to say, many locals dismissed reported sightings, attributing them to the possible “tired and emotional” state of the “witnesses”.

Some saw some levity in the situation.

Another Examiner report noted: “A member of the Emmaville golf club with an obvious wicked sense of humour decided enough was enough and posted the following in the Examiner with the weekend’s golf notes: “As a result of the recent ‘panther’ scare and the fact that our course is in the general direction of where it may have been seen, the following rule applies for weekend play – ‘A ball lying so close to a panther that the swing or stance is restricted, may be dropped two club lengths away (keeping the panther in the line of play to the hole). If the panther is accidently moved in so doing, it may be replaced without penalty’.”

Sightings of a panther in that area actually date back to 1902.

According to the Inverell Times , Harry Leader and his brother were camped on Horse Stealers Gully a few miles east of Keera in 1902. One night they heard a blood curdling roar and for a brief moment they saw an animal in the fire light. One of the brothers shot it. They then sent the slain animal to Sydney for tanning. The tanner informed them that it was a panther.

In Victoria, sightings were recorded as far back as 1907.

The Bendigo Advertiser reported on 21 January 1907: “On Thursday 17th inst when Misses Albeith and Irene Christensen were driving to Marooka through the Whipstick scrub, about 18 miles north of Bendigo, they had a novel experience. They saw an animal on top of a hill, but naturally thinking it was a fox did not at first take particular notice, but as the animal not heeding their approach came slowly down the hill opposite their vehicle and within a few yards, and then leisurely turned into the scrub, they could not fail to distinguish i9t as a fine specimen of a panther.” Another report of the same incident noted: “The young ladies lost no time in leaving the locality where such a dreaded animal roamed at large. They stated that it showed no sign of its savage nature. Its body was about 3ft in length and about 2ft or more in height.”

Such was panther fervour at one time, a non-sighting made headlines. One Victorian newspaper reported on 8 December 1937: “Panther not seen – Melbourne, Tuesday. A party of marchers last night were unable to locate the panther-like mystery animal at Mornington. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to lure the animal from its lair.”

Back up north, in 1958, politician Stan Wyatt saw a big black animal like a panther near Tenterfield. Others who sighted the animal around that time included reputable people such as the Rev Canon W. J. Pritchard of Guyra and Doctor R. S. Patterson of Glen Innes.

Mrs A. M. Potter and her son, Peter, saw one twice. The first time was near Bunzulla, a few miles outside Tenterfield in 1963 and in February 1968. Mrs Potter saw the panther walking quietly out of a creek 200 m from the house. She called her son, Peter and his wife, Cathy, and watched the cat through binoculars for some minutes. Peter described the animal as a large black cat about 5ft long and about 18 inches to 2ft high.

It was about this time it was reported that as many as 40 sheep were killed over one weekend and many other animals were reported to have been killed and claw marks were found on what remained of the carcases.

A little further south, another panther emerged.

In September 1964 two truck drivers carting gravel from Black Mountain, just south of Guyra, claimed to have seen a panther. A newspaper reported: “Mr Eric Douglas, from Armidale, said he and a friend got a good look at the animal. He said it was about 50 yards away, its body was about three feet long and its tail shaped like that of a wallaby – about 2 ft long.”

Two years later, there was another sighting near Guyra. In March 1966, a Caloundra (Qld) man said he saw a panther-like creature while he was driving north from Sydney. He told the local newspaper: “I was about 400 yards past a small bridge just north of Guyra – I think it was the Ryanda bridge. I looked up towards a hill beside the road and saw this thing that looked like a panther running towards some shrubs about 300 yards away. I am sure it was a big cat I saw. I rang the Guyra police and they told me people had been out hunting for the animal but had not been able to catch it.”

Back at Black Mountain again and in 2008 a Rotary District Governor was arriving at local couple’s house for an overnight stay. He said that as he drove into the house yard he saw a strange animal caught briefly by the car’s headlights before it sprinted away. He described the animal as jet black, around 500 mm high and 800 mm long with a tail about 400 mm long. It was noted that the Governor had not been drinking.

Blue Mountains (west of Sydney) panther sightings have been reported for more than a century.

Speculation about the Blue Mountains panther includes the oft repeated theory that it descended from either circus or zoo escapees, or is a descendant of a military mascot.

A doctor, dentist, solicitor, vicar and Qantas pilot all have claimed to have seen the Blue Mountains big cat. So have some Rural Fire Service volunteers and an officer from the Department of Agriculture. A NSW detective told a newspaper he watched the beast, from barely 50 metres away, for more than a minute. And he was convinced it was a black panther.

More recently, video footage showing a large black cat near Lithgow was examined by a group of zoo, museum, parks and agriculture staff, who concluded that it was a large domestic cat (2 to 3 times normal size).

There have been more than 460 sightings in the Hawkesbury since 2001, making that area the current big-cat-spotting champion of Australia.

Hawkesbury Council mayor Bart Bassett said: “There have been too many sightings by too many reputable people for it not to be true. We’re talking about a dentist, a retired magistrate and actual Department of Primary Industries staff.” he said.

Most of the Hawkesbury sightings centre on the Grose Valley, where there have been more than 64 sightings of a wild black cat. But is it a panther?

There have been plenty of sightings in the Hunter area, too, including at Minmi, Wallsend, Munmorah, Freemans Waterhole, Morisset, Swansea, Kurri Kurri, Cessnock, Singleton, the Watagan Mountains, Medowie and Stroud.

In 2002, a NSW government inquiry found it was ‘‘more likely than not’’ a colony of big cats was roaming Sydney’s outskirts and beyond.

But a 2009 Department of Primary Industries report concluded that “there is still nothing to conclusively say that a large black cat exists”.

An Australian “big cat” chaser in 2017 named Gympie as one of Queensland’s hotspots for big cat sightings.

Vaughan King, founder of the Australian Big Cat Research Group website pantherpeople.com said that while NSW and Victoria all recorded many sightings, “Gympie is up there Queensland-wide.”

Mr King, a former Australia Zoo big cat handler based at the Sunshine Coast, said a circus trainer admitted to him that some of his circus animals were lost in the Gympie region years ago during an accident.

“Asiatic leopards were brought into the country years ago for the zoo and circus industries,” Mr King said. “There’s been that many sightings over the last 100 years- it’s a phenomena. I’m trying to prove they do actually exist.”

There have been sightings in Tasmania, too.

Three mates exploring the Snowy Range west of Hobart in 1972 said that one Sunday morning they spotted a large, black furry cat-like animal near the edge of scrub not far from their camp. The animal quickly disappeared but the men said they later found large paw-prints embedded in soil.

Victoria has had its share of sightings, some quite recently.

Kalorama couple Tim Hurley, 25, and his girlfriend were driving on a bush track near the Maroondah Reservoir, heading to Mt Saint Leonard lookout in Melbourne’s outer east, when they saw two huge black cats one Sunday in 2016.

Mr Hurley said he saw the back of an animal with a long shiny black tail slip into the bush.

Sightings have been recorded over at least 60 years of cougars, panthers or pumas in a wide stretch of Victoria from Gippsland to the Otways, the Grampians, central Victoria and at Beechworth in the north-east.

In 2012 in Lancefield, Victoria, several sightings and photographs emerged of a big black cat roaming bush trails. One of the most credible sightings was by a zoo keeper who also took a photograph of the big cat, saying she wouldn’t have believed it either, but was convinced about what she saw.

Another panther appeared in Lancefield one night in 2015 – in the form of a statue. Cast in steel, the statue appeared mysteriously in the middle of the night. It was made by anonymous artist as a monument to all the rumoured local sightings of big black cats.

A Victorian Government report in 2012 said the existence of big cats in Victoria was unlikely, but some people still believed evidence of their presence would be found some day.

And that, too, is the hope of believers around the country.

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