Saturday, 26 June 2010

CFZ special: Book extract!



Big cats prowl the bush
by Rebecca Lang and Michael Williams
Helicopters hover noisily overhead, the occupants scanning the sheep-filled paddocks, undulating grassy terrain fringed with dark, forbidding bush.
On the ground, rangers comb the property, deep in the Victorian countryside. Their hand-held radios briefly crackle into life, sounding hard and scratchy amid the dull “thwock, thwock, thwock” of the helicopter blades above. State-of-the-art thermal imaging equipment throws up heat signatures of wildlife and livestock, transforming flesh and blood into blobby splashes of red with yellow-green haloes as the rangers scan the land for something large and out-of-place. Something alien and deadly. Something on a killing spree.
Hollywood couldn’t have done it better. But this isn’t an action sequence from some creature feature; these events actually took place in 1997 on a farm near Woodside, a small town in Victoria’s Gippsland, part of an effort by the state’s Department of Sustainability and the Environment (DSE) to deal with an unknown predator that had slaughtered more than 400 sheep in two years, each victim expertly dispatched (and devoured) with the efficiency of a butcher.
DSE officials were stumped, and they were pulling out all stops to try to solve the mystery that had so far cost a Victorian farmer thousands of dollars in lost stock – and threatened the credibility of the department. Trapping, snaring and fur traps had all failed to reveal the true nature of the beast, so thermal imaging equipment was employed in an eleventh-hour bid to halt the stock losses. There was talk of wild dogs at the time, but none of the corpses bore the hallmarks of dog attacks. There was no mess and little blood, and most of the corpses were devoid of flesh with only head, hide and hooves left behind. It was, for the most part, a clean, clinical kill every time.
Just as unusual – and even more disturbing – was the discovery early one morning of several sheep standing in a field, their faces mauled beyond recognition. They were still alive – just – but where a snout should have protruded from each woolly face there was now just a mass of red, shredded flesh and broken cartilage and bone.
The woman at the centre of the drama, sheep farmer Elizabeth Balderstone, was mystified as to what had attacked and killed hundreds of her sheep. “Over the two and a half years we’ve lost over 400 sheep,” Ms Balderstone told ABC Radio in July 1999. “We have them badly mauled around the tail and still alive but will die within a couple of days, or mauled around the face when whole jawbones have been removed. Other times the sheep are killed and partially or totally eaten out, when there’s just the fleece and bone skeleton left, and very little else.”
Overshadowing the gruesome discoveries were sightings of two enormous cats on the property – one brown, the other black – by a local dogger and the property’s manager. Could these monster-sized moggies have been responsible for the carnage?
Just over 40km away, Binginwarri dairy farmer Ron Jones was also starting to lose livestock to a mystery predator, as was his 82-year-old mother who lives on a nearby farm. Today the skulls of bovine victims dangle from a tree on his property, a grim reminder of a predator that attacks under cover of darkness. Jones has seen the cat(s) countless times, even shooting at it with his .22 calibre magnum rifle – a weapon he believes lacks the firepower to bring down an animal “the size of a golden retriever”.
“I’ve had cattle taken within a hundred metres of the house,” he said. “I’ve seen one at about 70 yards [64m] … It was a big, fawny-coloured cat, which was nearly as high as a strainer post which was three foot six [1m] high – it would have been about nine or 10 inches [23-25cm] wide across the chest.”
Jones has assembled a grisly photo album of dead livestock from properties around the area to build a case for the existence of the large cats, which he believes are responsible for the strange stock deaths. The scale of predation on his and neighbouring properties has raised eyebrows in government departments, and prompted some investigation. In nearby Yarram, DSE employees filmed other strangely wounded livestock around the same period – cattle with their flanks raked by claws, their hides scarred.
So who, or what, was responsible for the carnage? And why have the experiences of three Victorian farmers been echoed all over the country? For almost 150 years, sightings of strange, cat-like creatures have been reported and documented across Australia. While predominantly described as resembling jet-black panthers or sandy-coloured pumas and lions, spotted and striped large cats have also been reported since white settlement.
In their wake they have left a trail of destruction. Mutilated cattle, sheep and family pets are a testament to the ruthless efficiency of these mystery predators, which occasionally leave behind large, felid-like prints that further tantalise and torment their trackers. Where do they come from? And how did they get here?
Australia has never had an indigenous cat species – unless you count one prehistoric marsupial cousin. Tens of thousands of years ago a deadly animal stalked the wilds of the Australian bush. Thylacoleo carnifex, “the flesh-eating pouched lion”, was christened in 1859 by respected paleontologist Professor Richard Owen, who declared it a carnivorous marsupial cat, a judgment that set him at odds with the paleontology establishment.
Sporting blade-like teeth, Thylacoleo measured 1.5m in length and weighed about 120kg. Its incredibly strong jaws and presumably feline stealth would have made it a formidable hunter during the Pleistocene era (about 1.6 million years ago). The creature became extinct about 40,000 years ago, leaving the Australian bush – and the nomadic Aboriginal tribes who inhabited the country at about the same time – relatively predator-free. But many wonder: did it truly die out?
Another strong contender in the debate is an animal that once ranged from the wilds of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea right across the Australian mainland down to Tasmania – the Tasmanian Tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus). There are certainly some aspects of the witness descriptions that resonate with this species, now officially extinct. However, in the case of the so-called Queensland Tiger, the aboreal nature of this creature cited in many reports would appear to rule the Thylacinus out of contention – and if the sightings are to be given any credence at all, they may raise the spectre of an altogether new and hitherto unidentified marsupial species.

Call of the wild
There are a rash of other theories about what these big cats are, and how they might have got here. In 1788, the first British colonists set foot on Australian soil. These resourceful men, women and children quickly established themselves and introduced a range of animals once foreign to these shores, including rabbits, foxes and the first domestic – and soon-to-be-feral – cats. Could descendants of these small British cats (and perhaps those from Dutch shipwrecks) have morphed into the super-sized cats first spotted in the bush about 100 years later?
Fast-forward to 1876, and the mega circus of Cooper, Bailey & Co (precursor to the famous Barnum and Bailey’s Circus) comes to Australian shores. The dazzling spectacle toured NSW and Victoria and featured a swag of “alien” animals including jaguars, leopards, bears, tigers, hyenas, elephants, zebras, a hippopotamus, monkeys and camels. The presence of the large American circus with its extensive exotic menagerie no doubt inspired Australia’s St Leon circus to add big cats to its line-up in 1882 – the first travelling circus troupe in Australia to do so – enthralling audiences and becoming a major draw card. However, circuses were not without problems, including frequent crashes en route and careless handling, often resulting in escapes. Are the descendants of circus escapees living and breeding in the bush?
In the 1850s and 1860s, gold fever gripped the nation. Prospectors flocked from as far away as China and America to the Victorian and NSW goldfields in pursuit of instant wealth, some of them so intent on guarding their claims they often took extraordinary precautions – including, it is believed, chaining pumas to their diggings. Are relations of those gold-rush pumas on the loose in Australia’s wilderness?
The 1940s were a period of great disruption in Australia, with American servicemen thick on the ground. When they weren’t being dispatched to war zones or romancing Australian women in crowded dance halls, if folklore is to be believed it seems they were busy caring for exotic unit mascots – namely, “black panthers”. Did servicemen really keep wild cats as unit mascots? And if so, once they got their marching orders and realised they couldn’t take them into battle, did they release these same “panthers” into the wilderness rather than humanely put them down?
And, finally, we have the growing menace of feral cats in the Australian bush. Domestic cats quickly got their claws into this country, rapidly spreading and establishing themselves across the continent. But are they now changing, mutating and growing to sizes far larger than has previously been expected of Felis catus, the domestic house cat? Could an evolutionary quirk be responsible for the hundreds of big-cat sightings around Australia? Or might feral cats have crossed with Indonesian jungle cats from earlier Aboriginal-Indonesian interactions over thousands of years, creating genetically superior “monster cats” through hybrid vigour?
Whatever the origin, the sightings of large, cat-like animals appear to be on the rise in Australia’s western and eastern states. In Western Australia in the late 1970s the state government initiated an inquiry into spiralling reports of strange predation in the Cordering district; NSW has experienced a profusion of big-cat sightings in the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury areas, so much so that the state government initiated two inquiries into the matter in 1999-2001 and 2008.
The wilderness of the Blue Mountains stretches over 1 million hectares. It is a vast landscape of sheer cliffs, swamps, rugged tablelands and deep, impenetrable valleys that harbour many secrets – including, in the Wollemi National Park, the recently rediscovered “living fossil”, the Wollemi Pine. It is not unreasonable to suggest that something more than ancient trees might be lurking within that rugged landscape, some parts of which have yet to be explored by man.
On the western side of the Blue Mountains lies the small coal-mining town of Lithgow. On the morning of May 9, 2001, residents Gail and Wayne Pound were at home getting ready to go to work. It was about 7am; Gail was getting dressed while Wayne was in the shower. Looking up, she spied a large feral cat in the scrub outside her bedroom window. However, it was the cat’s much larger feline companion that caused her to do a double-take.
“We were quite mesmerised,” she told Channel Nine’s A Current Affair.
Added Wayne: “I got the binoculars and had a good look at it. And I was still looking at it and all of a sudden it got up and I said, ‘No, hang on … that’s a giant cat’ and Gail yelled out, ‘That’s a leopard!’ I said, ‘No, hang on, that’s a panther!’”
Luckily for the Pounds they had a video camera handy and managed to capture evidence of the cats’ visitation, with a naked Wayne filming the feline pair for 15 minutes before the cats moved on. The footage caused a sensation after it was sold to Channel Nine, which broadcast the images nationwide.
Upon viewing the video, the NSW Department of Agriculture’s exotic animal expert, Bill Atkinson, lent further weight to the footage: “That’s a very big cat – I would say, by the size of it, it could be a panther.” Strangely, nobody thought to reshoot footage in the same location, from the same distance with the same zoom to provide a proper comparison and give some idea of scale. Another thing forgotten in the frenzy was that the video actually showed two cats – a large cat described as a “panther” and a smaller, domestic-looking cat. In the wild, a true big cat would likely eat its much smaller domesticated cousin.
Perhaps fittingly, given its suspected big-cat status, what happened next was nothing short of a circus. Amateur researchers and government employees descended on Lithgow to hunt for further evidence of the animal. Atkinson was the only one to conduct a conventional investigation by laying hair traps and examining scratch marks on an acacia tree and large droppings left nearby. Unfortunately, he came up empty-handed.
“The scratchings and ripped bark were about 1.5m high on the tree,” Atkinson said at the time. “It is hard to believe a possum could have done that.” Perhaps aware of how his remarks might be interpreted, he later qualified them in a statement to The Sydney Morning Herald: “[They] are interesting, considering where they are, but they may have been made with a blunt penknife.”

Pile of bones
The government investigation yielded nothing, but media coverage of the events in Lithgow triggered a wave of anecdotal reports from the public. The Pounds’ sighting was by no means the first for the tiny township, and most likely not the last. For the past 20 years, big cat reports have been something of a fixture in The Lithgow Mercury, according to editor Len Ashworth, who has recorded many of the yarns himself. He’s been with the newspaper more than 50 years, starting as a cadet reporter in 1956.
“I remember back when I was a young graded journalist I was at the police station one morning when a person who was travelling through town came in in a state of distress and said he and his family had been frightened by a strange animal on a section of the highway near South Bowenfels,” Ashworth recalls. “He said he had turned off into a sidetrack off the highway below the Hassans Walls escarpment to answer a call of nature. When he got out of the car he heard a loud, growling noise and saw a large, cat-like animal … That was about 40 years ago. The police went down there with him and he pointed out the area. The track led up to the vicinity of a small mining operation. The police noted a strange smell there and found a pile of animal bones.”
Police have logged their own sightings, with two officers relating how they nearly ran over large black cats the size of dogs in the early hours of the morning on local roads. Senior constable Paul Semmut remembers his sighting in August 2004 vividly. “It was on Scenic Hill, on Chifley Road, on the eastern side of the War Memorial [about 2am]. I was driving by myself and I almost ran over the thing, it was pretty close. It was about a metre long and had black, silky fur… the way it ran off it looked like a cat. My first reaction was it was a damn big cat.
“We have had call-outs in the same area – I’ve heard of three myself, mostly shift-workers coming home from work. It’s nothing of a police nature so we don’t really worry about it, there’s just the interest factor. If we did go out we would probably get in touch with the council ranger of the National Parks and Wildlife Service and report it. I’ve always been a real sceptic about these reports, but now I’m a believer.”
Back in Gippsland, the mystery of the slaughtered livestock remains unsolved. Big black and brown cats are still seen slipping between the shadows near roads and across paddocks. And animals are still dying in savage and unusual circumstances.
From Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers, by Michael Williams and Rebecca Lang (Strange Nation Publishing, $35). Buy the book here: www.australianbigcats.com.au

*This extract first appeared in The Weekend Australian magazine on June 26, 2010

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