Thoughts/Opinions # 1: Australian Big Cats

A topic of particular interest to me in Australia is the sighting of large cats in the Australian wilderness.  With no native feline species known to have inhabited the continent in past history, I regularly debate the possibilities of what animals may be responsible for these sightings. Thanks to the introduction of domestic cats into the wild, large populations of feral cats are known to exist, but this does not explain sightings of felines which have been described as similar in size and appearance to leopards or panthers.  Unlike other cryptid sightings in Australia, the Big Cat phenomenon is different in the fact that sightings are becoming so regular that even the NSW government had committed expenditure to investigating the issue, though eventually making the statement that accounts were “at best prima facie evidence” and now unfortunately consider the matter closed.  There are numerous theories as to what animals are responsible including released army mascots, zoo or circus escapees, feral mega cats, or even the possibility of remnant marsupial equivalents, but I’m yet to hear an all-encompassing theory to explain this phenomenon.

NSW Department of Primary Industries – Large Feline Sightings Response

When you look at details of many sightings it is obvious that there is considerable variability in this phenomenon, from size, physical attributes, colour, and location.    I think it is quite possible that many of these above explanations may have occurred at some point in time, but I really struggle to understand how any one of these theories can alone explain a nationwide phenomenon.  The best I’ve come up with so far is that all the mentioned theories have probably had a part to play in individual sightings over the years as many sightings could fit quite well. I still think that there must be an underlying explanation, such as a species that may have been here a long time, to explain why we have sightings ranging from the Cape York in Queensland to Victoria and beyond.

There are some facets of the phenomenon that have always intrigued me, and some other cat related facts that provoke thought with respect to these sightings. Firstly, the colour of these cats is extremely interesting.  The sightings of predominantly black cats in rainforest regions is interesting when you consider the selective advantage that this colour provides in these generally low light environments.  When you look at encounters in the drier savannah country, people are sighting brown/tan coloured cats, another advantageous colour when you consider the terrain.  In the dense rainforest region of the Malaysian peninsula, studies have shown that all leopards are melanistic, where in the African savannah, melanistic types are quite rare.  Are these adaptations a coincidence or one that has occurred to a species over a long time?

This question then makes me think of another:  Is this a modern phenomenon (possibly related to the introduction of alien cat species since colonisation) or a species that may have been here a long time before we came?  If they have been here for a long time (and in sustainable populations), where is the fossil evidence?  How far back do accounts of these cats go? Is there a long standing aboriginal tradition of these cats like there is for the “Hairy Man or Yowie” or other marsupials thought extinct long ago? If this is a modern phenomenon, why are we seeing adaptations suggestive of a species that may have been here a long time?  Maybe it is all just a coincidence?  Even though black is not an uncommon colour in feral cat populations, most are tabby coloured. Why aren’t we getting a majority of reports of giant cats the size of leopards that are tabby coloured?

“the two witnesses found no evidence of the strange animal, but located a sheep carcass that had been dragged approximately 8-10 ft into a tree”

Big CAT Sighting – western qld.

Another interesting fact is the variability in the size of these cats that are reported.

We are told by government departments/academics etc. that it would be unlikely that feral cats could grow abnormally large, yet we are seeing feral cats which are much larger than people would ever expect.  Many describe cats that are said to stand “as high as a bull bar” or larger that a big dog.  And then we have the physical evidence such as large stock kills with suspicious markings, large prints and animal kills found stashed in trees that would suggest an animal of considerable size and strength.  I think it’s essential to consider that most people would be a bad estimator of size, especially at night and after the “excitement” of the sighting.  How many encounters might actually be attributed to the misidentification of true large feral cats?

A friend of mine once sighted what was obviously a large feral in the Chillago caves region in North Queensland.  He had seen the cat leaving a small opening in the rocks the night before and returned the following night to try and shoot it.  Populations of feral cats have exploded in parts of Australia and are responsible for killing large numbers of native birds and mammals.  When the cat emerged he managed to hit it in the shoulder and it ran about 50 meters before dropping dead.  When examining the cat, he said that it was tabby coloured and it was extremely muscular, no fat, extremely large canines and measuring what he guessed to be approx 80 cms from the head to the start of the tail.  Not that large by big cat standards, but larger than most in the public would think a feral would grow to.  He also sighted a larger black cat run out of long grass and cross a track near the Royal Arch cave which he estimated to be at least a meter from head to the start of tail.

I have also received a second hand report of a large carnivore in the Basalt Wall area of North Queensland (referred to as Basalt Tiger by old timers). One sighting at the Basalt Wall involved a bow hunter, who having shot and wounded a dingo, followed it into the basalt only to discover it being attacked and killed by a large cat-like animal. He reported the story to the Queensland Parks Service who having believed the validity of the man’s story immediately dispatched a helicopter to survey the area.

Another sighting I got from a witness from South West QLD, where the witness and friend were pig hunting at night on a property in the region.  Their 3 dogs gave chase to something and the witnesses where following on foot when they heard noises coming from an animal in confrontation with the dogs.  They described the sound as strange, having never heard anything like it before, like a strange growl/snarl. Witness reported that both men were alarmed by the strange noise.  Upon locating the dogs the two men returned to the 4WD and decided to return to the site in the day to see if the dogs had injured or killed any animal.  After searching the area, the two witnesses found no evidence of the strange animal, but located a sheep carcass that had been dragged approximately 8-10 ft into a tree. 

The witnesses reported the find to the owner of the property who informed the men of an earlier encounter with a large black cat (size estimate not mentioned – described as large, panther-like).  The property owner and wife where shooting at night in the area and sighted the animal.  The owner was walking in grass trying to locate a kangaroo they had shot, with his wife spotlighting the area from the vehicle.   The owner described that his wife started yelling at him to return to the car as she could see a large black cat stalking up to him in the grass.  The owners were quite alarmed by the incident and were hesitant to return to the area.  Owner also previously observed that sheep were hesitant to walk near the ridge where the incident occurred.   

I also know of a case in North Queensland where individuals had phoned the police with incredible stories of a big cat sighting in the bush near Mareeba.  I found out from a friend who worked in the Cairns Fire Brigade that the sightings were taken seriously and that one witness saw the police searching an area of bush with some serious weaponry in hand.  After some inquiry my friend finds out the sighting was real and that a cheetah from of a nearby zoo in the area (now closed) managed to escape for a brief period before being recaptured by zoo staff.  This only happened in 2004 which makes me wonder what had happened in other zoos in the country throughout history.  I’d imagine zoo owners would be trying to keep news of escapes on the quiet side out of fear of being shut down.  I don’t think that this explanation alone can explain a nationwide phenomenon, but I think that there would be more zoo escapes than would ever make the news.  In an article from the Northern Territory where a pig hunter shot was he though was a pig and which turned out to be a pigmy hippo, thought escaped from an exotic wildlife sanctuary in the area which shut down in 2003 after the owner was said to have sold off all the animals.  No one would have believed the shooter if he didn’t kill the hippo would they?

The Daily Telegraph -Pygmy hippopotamus shot during Northern Territory hunting trip.

When it comes to theorising a candidate for the big cat sightings, I’ve often wondered about the possibility of larger Asian cats, perhaps brought over by early Asian traders or fishermen many hundreds of years ago.  With the introduction of the domestic cat into the wild and the massive population of these cats (some exhibiting large sizes), I also think that hybridization with larger exotic species might also be a factor worth considering.  Feline genetics is an interesting subject and there have been some strange crossbreeds developed (and theorised) over the years.  The Liger, a hybrid cross between a male lion and a tigress produced an offspring, much larger than both the parents.  There are some exotic cross breeds out there made from crossing the domestic cat and a jungle cat whose offspring are said to be “vigorous, large and fertile”.  The stone cougar is another x-breed from the domestic and jungle cat that has a “cougar like” appearance.  I also wonder if over time, perhaps the larger cat genetics are being diluted out by the feral populations producing smaller offspring over time? 

Please post your thoughts below.

One thought

  1. I’ve always been curious about the “big cat” sightings in australia. I know one of the theories is that they are “mascots” brought over by the US services during WW2 and were then released – but there would have had to have been a large enough population of them to have bred and continued to breed down to today. It doesn’t make sense to me. There are far too many sightings for them ALL to be just feral cats – particularly when you look at the sightings by people who are experienced in the bush and would know the difference between a feral cat and something that ….isn’t a feral cat.

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