Thursday, 27 September 2012

'Throwback' catapults Yowie to the small screen

Seems everyone has Yowie fever!

Another group of film makers is shooting a movie right now in far north Queensland.

It's called Throwback and it's been a labour of love for all involved. They've been filming it for 2 years at various locations around Cairns.

The director, Travis Bain, is so confident it will take off, he's attracted a major name to the production. He arrives in the far north next week, so the Cairns based crew are busily rehearsing the scenes he'll shoot so all will be ready.

Check out the trailer!

'Mad Max' to abseil Pelverata Falls for devils

Tasmania‟s Max Moller is like a local combination of legendary animal lover Steve Irwin, action man Bear Grylls and wildlife photographer Steve Parish.

So those who know him are not fazed when he says he's going to launch himself off the top of the State's tallest waterfall to raise money for the Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal and capture every moment on camera.

Pelverata Falls in the Snug Tiers is virtually in the backyard of his Margate home and on Saturday 13 October, Max will abseil 114m to the bottom carrying a Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal banner that the whole world will see.

Cameras on Max's head, arm and positioned above and below the falls will record every move and live footage and comments on the plight of the State's iconic animal, which is battling Devil Facial Tumour Disease, will stream live over the internet.

Amazing images of the waterfall circulating widely could also be a bonus for local tourism.
The wildlife filmmaker and adventurer is a former special forces army officer who 15 years ago swapped weapons for a camera and moved to Tasmania.

Max spends his days hiking, rafting and climbing to remote areas collecting footage of endangered animals and interesting natural areas, with his work having appeared in National Geographic magazine and a David Attenborough documentary.

More recently he's been filming for British movie producer, actor and extreme fisherman Robson Green.

Max said that he is passionate about helping raise awareness of the plight of the Tasmania Devils.

“They run around my house and I dread thinking about a day when I could no longer hear their crazy growls of a night time,” he said.

“I'm calling on local businesses and individuals to sponsor me $100 per metre of the abseil and every cent will go directly to the appeal.”

Supporters are being asked to go to the appeal's official website, click on the Save The Tasmanian Devil Program Appeal icon at the top of the page and fill out the donation form choosing Max Moller Abseil in the 'inspiration' field.

Administered by the University of Tasmanian Foundation, The Save the Tasmanian Devil Appeal is the official fundraising entity for the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program, directing funds to Australia's national response to DFTD.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The big cat report that wasn't

Victorian Government Big Cat Study
Assessment of Evidence for the Presence in Victoria of a Wild Population of ‘Big Cats
by the CFZ's Mike Williams, 
author of Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers

The Victorian Government recently contracted some biologists to investigate reports of ‘panthers’ in that state in a ‘desktop study’.

The report fell down in a number of areas, not least because it set out to either prove or disprove the existence of big cats but made no attempt to collect fresh evidence, and from the outset was dealing with secondary evidence and sources.

It was a study commenced to find primary evidence of big cats in Victoria – despite the fact this office-based review was starting off with no primary evidence at all!

There are numerous statements contained within the report that do not stand up to scrutiny, quoted here in bold with clarifying statements underneath:

“Although feral Domestic Cats can attain a large size (weights of up to 16 kg have been claimed (Denny and Dickman 2010).”

This paper (Denny and Dickman 2010) is quoting Mahood (1980). The rest of the paper went on to say: "Because Mahood’s 1980 records appear so extreme and have not been approached in any subsequent studies, and the author is deceased, they are considered to have been erroneous and are not subject to further discussion."

The 16 kg  claim has not so far been substantiated.

“However, there are many thousands of reports of ‘big cats’ in the files of community cryptozoological groups and individuals.”

Let’s not try to marginalise these reports by confining them to ‘community cryptozoological groups and individuals”, the subtext of which one suspects is ‘kooks’. There are also numerous reports of big cat sightings in State Government databases collected by their own staff that have been flushed out by numerous FOI requests.

“However, some evidence cannot be dismissed entirely, including preliminary DNA evidence…”

Exactly which "case" are they talking about? If the authors are talking about the Winchelsea case, they managed to appear to try and dismiss it.

“The wide geographic spread and temporal span of claims of alien ‘big cats’ and other predators suggests that it may be a human sociological phenomenon, rather than a biological fact.”

Many standard animal reports come from a wide geographic spread and the majority of reports of any standard animal are temporal, so it’s puzzling why academics would use this language. What other predators are they talking about, and why bring it up?
Since sociology is the study of human social activity, why are they using the nonsensical term “human sociological”? No attempt is made to explain what sort of sociological phenomena the authors are trying to imply but there is the appearance of an attempt to try and pathologise the observers. Cognitive dissonance could explain the response of many academic observers to the phenomena and their attempt to play down reports due to 1/peer pressure, 2/social and academic status, 3/financial implications i.e. State Government sub-contracters and State Government staff members ... and good old ignorance.

“Consequently, claims of the presence of alien big cats, which are rarely, if ever, supported by convincing evidence, are seldom taken seriously by mainstream zoologists.”

1/The authors don't define the word "convincing". To whom, themselves?
1/The majority of mainstream Australian zoologists would know nothing about the phenomena.
2/The majority of mainstream zoologists in Australia know nothing about the behaviour of large felids.
3/The majority of mainstream zoologists would come under the same pressure mentioned above regarding cognitive dissonance.

“The Minister for Agriculture and Food Security requested, in May 2012, a science-based, preliminary assessment of the available evidence."

This is a preliminary assessment. Having scientists do a study does not mean automatically that it is "science-based".

"Further, these databases of evidence have not been subjected to independent and scientifically rigorous assessment. Without such assessment, these private databases have limited capacity to advance understanding of the issue. Where rigorous assessments have been conducted the conclusion has always been either inconclusive, or that the most parsimonious explanation involves a known species, notably Domestic Cat or Dog.”

No one appears to have edited this "scientific study". One minute the databases have not being assessed, the next minute they have been.
We must ask - who carried out the "rigorous assessments"? Or are the authors being coy when they are self-referencing ?
And let’s sort out "parsimonious" – an adjective characterised by or showing parsimony; frugal or stingy.
So it’s a stingy explanation?
We agree with this assessment, but not in the way the authors intended.

“A small number of the cases we reviewed either showed characteristics considered unusual in known species or showed characteristics known to occur in large felids, such as dragging and covering a carcass, or peeling back the skin from a limb of a carcass to access the flesh, a feat requiring considerable strength. Assessing this evidence either requires us to expand the pattern of behaviours attributable to known species of predator (for example, Dog), or deduce the presence of an unknown species. In the absence of convincing corroborating evidence for an unknown species, the former conclusion is considered the most appropriate at this stage.”

The pea and thimble in the above is, of course, "In the absence of convincing corroborating evidence for an unknown species".
Once again, convincing to whom? What cases were examined with more than a singular line of "evidence"?
Could not even one other case...corroborate a single case? Or the Winchelsea could corroborate cases near by. It’s just that the authors choose not too.
The authors even resort to deciding off their own bat to now "expand the pattern of behaviours" i.e. of dog, to try and maladroitly avoid an unknown predator conclusion. The basis of this decision(other than the obvious) is not explained of course. This is a logical fallacy called Argument from Ignorance and it is amazing that a "scientific study" used it.

“In other cases people have claimed that known predators, such as wild Dogs or Pigs, are not present in a district, and therefore predation must be caused by an unknown species (i.e. ‘big cat’). It seems more likely that our understanding of the distributions of known predators is inadequate.”

No, the authors are confused. People are pointing out the predation patterns they are seeing because they are not something they have seen associated with dogs or pigs. And pigs and wild dogs are frequently not present in their area when the livestock attacks and kills occur.
Interestingly, many of the "people" reporting these unusual patterns have also been DSE staff, who are more than aware of what dog and pig predation looks like.

In reference to "The Deakin Puma Study Group" the authors write:
“However, despite the stated aims of objectivity we have discerned some potential sources of bias in the approaches used. For example, the title given to the study ‘Deakin Puma Study’ is likely to have led to unconscious bias in the volunteer participants, predisposing them to read ‘Puma’ into inconclusive evidence.”

The authors imply that the title preceded the study, so that it could possibly influence the volunteers’ bias. Which means the authors must have researched this by contacting Deakin University, or the study’s author Dr John Henry, because how else would they know this ‘fact’? Surely a scientific report, would not present facts by guessing!
But it transpires Professor John Henry decided the title after the study was completed (pers comms).
The irony of mentioning unconscious bias is obviously lost on the authors of this “scientific study”.
No mention is made of the Deakin study actually tricking its participants by fakery, then telling them to be on their guard in future, in this report.
And there is no mention of the Deakin study’s conclusions.

“This scat became one of five pieces of evidence upon which Henry (2001) based his conclusion that there ‘is sufficient evidence from a number of intersecting sources to affirm beyond reasonable doubt the presence of a big-cat population in Western Victoria’. However, in an addendum to the report, Henry (2001) admits that the Geranium Springs scat 2 is most likely a regurgitated pellet from a Wedge-tailed Eagle."

Because Henry et al were wrong with some analysis (and admitted it!), the Deakin Study group was, by implication, wrong on all pieces of evidence, according to this report, and its findings should therefore be dismissed.
Following that exact same logic, this report’s findings should also be dismissed.

“We believe that this revised finding is indicative of the Deakin Puma Study Group falling into the understandable position of being captured by the legend it was seeking to prove.”

This patronising response is projecting its own motives on to other groups.
Why would a long and active, real scientific field study be “captured” by a “legend”? It is also normal scientific practise to admit a mistake, as the Deakin study did.

“Another case worthy of close consideration involves photographs of two clear footprints on a sandy track in Longford Pine Plantation taken in December 2005 and supplied by Richard Sealock, along with an analysis of their size and shape. We agree that these footprints are highly likely to have been made by a cat and that their reported dimensions are greater than could be explained by a Domestic Cat, however, that is as far as that line of evidence can be taken.”

Confusingly, however, there is no indication of the actual size of the prints.
Richard Sealock stated he believed the prints to be 87mm-88 mm (pers comms).
The authors had time to cut and paste leopard photos easily found on the Internet, which were not required, but had no time to cut and paste the Sealock prints or mention their size.?

“We find that none of the investigations that have focussed on secondary and tertiary evidence has succeeded in providing an unequivocal answer. We see little point in dedicating public resources to that line of inquiry.”

What “investigations” are the authors taking about? The Sealock prints, in my opinion, are giving an “unequivocal answer” – they’re large felid. Just as the Winchelsea case are odds-on Panthera pardus.

“No ‘big cat’ scats have been identified during studies involving the systematic collection and analysis of thousands of mammalian predator scats (feral Domestic Cat, wild Dog (includes Dingo), Red Fox) undertaken as part of studies of predator diet and as a mammal survey technique (for example, Brunner et al. 1976, Klare et al. 2011).”

Another pea and thimble trick.
The weakness of the systemic collection meme is below - and the above ‘argument’, as weak as it is, falls apart for identification outside the authors’ stated parameter.
We are forced to rely on the authors’ implied access to every scat report ever compiled in Victoria.
We are forced to believe that every field worker who did (by implication) find a possible outsized felid scat, would automatically know this and report it.
We are then forced to have to believe that this report would have made it into some form of study.
We are then forced to believe that scientists who supposedly are skilled in scat analysis and could identify large felid scats were always contacted and that the same scientists, who are sub-contractors, are highly skilled at identifying large felid scats.
And then we are forced to believe that this same unknown scat scientist would be unaware of what the implications were if they did report the scat was from an unknown large felid and were oblivious to the ramifications to their possible future contracts.
And, without a family identification (since species would be impossible without DNA) this hypothetical scat result would be dismissed with the wave of a hand since it did not “prove” what species of animal the scat came from.
And when the scat is identified by DNA down to species level...this is ignored anyway.
Now what about outside the “involving the systematic collection and analysis” parameters of this statement?
The Winchelsea case (discussed further down) fits the bill perfectly.

The Kurt Engel cat
“DSE arranged for the extraction and analysis of DNA from a small sample of skin taken with permission from this tail. The analysis was undertaken at the Department of Genetics, Monash University, and the result was that the sample exhibited between 97.7% and 100% sequence identity with the Domestic Cat, and only 87% sequence identity with the Leopard (Kate Charlton in lit. to Bernard Mace, 24 November 2005, copy on DSE file 85/3043-4). The length of this cat’s tail, at 65 cm, is twice that of a normal Cat (Appendix 1) but it may have been stretched during skinning, a common occurrence if care is not taken. Hence, the conclusion is that the animal was a particularly large individual of Felis catus, the Domestic Cat.”

In their haste to produce this "scientific report", did the authors not think it was odd, that if the DSE arranged the extraction and analysis, the only reference for this in all of its files is "Bernard Mace, 24 November 2005, copy on DSE file 85/3043-4)"? Why no reference to the actual DSE file?
Because Bernard Mace, who passed the sample to Charlton, was not working for the DSE. The DSE, as the authors would have known, had nothing to do with the “Engel case” what so ever. And it is worse than that…
The DSE was initially offered the tail and photos, but their staff were not the slightest bit interested.
The only plausible way the tail could have been altered in a way to have increased the length to any decent level, was not by stretching, which would have torn it. It would have required a "trick" cut further up the body, but fraud was dismissed by a Melbourne Museum biologist who examined the tail firsthand.

Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers (Strange Nation Publishing, 2010) tells the full story:

Melbourne Museum biologist Rory O’Brien was one of the few people to physically examine the tail soon after the animal was shot. He dismissed claims the length of the tail may have been hoaxed by skinning a part of the back hide.

“It was large, pretty long ...the tail was very thick overall and very furry and the last 3-4cm of the tail still had the remaining caudal vertebrae. It seemed pretty fresh to me,” he said. “It looked authentic…because the tail was the same colour (as the photographs). It was a uniform tail, all black. It was very bushy, but sleek and catlike in texture.”

An attempt to have the material further examined by DSE employees was rebuffed by the department.

The Engel tail was also examined by Bernard Mace, a long-time cat researcher with extensive field experience, who was also of the opinion the tail was genuine and had not been tampered with.

So we have two scientists who examined the fresh physical evidence, but two biologists looking at photographs have a more valid scientific opinion? Hmmmmm…

Earlier in this post I referred to the Winchelsea faecal sample, which is a highlight of the report since it basically is saying that secondary evidence led to a species ID using DNA.

Winchelsea faecal sample
This result seems not to have been formally conveyed to any Government Department and has not been publicised before this study, apart from a passing reference in Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers (Strange Nation Publishing, 2010). Scientist Stephen Frankenberg has personally conveyed that the decision not to publish this information was largely because the result could not be considered 100% reliable due to a small possibility of contamination (note that Triggs had leopard hairs in her workshop).

The contamination issue was a strawman argument.
If there was contamination, then both ‘control’ hair (zoo) and Winchelsea sample hair would have had the same DNA sequence exactly. They would have, too, since they would, by implication, be just from the same animal.
The two samples were not the same animal since they shared similar but not identical DNA sequences (to ID the animals as leopard), but they also had a slight difference.
They were two different leopards (pers comms, D. Cass)!

Carrie Magnik BSc Hons thesis
These three cases highlight the difficulties in extracting and identifying traces of DNA from secondary sources such as carcasses and scats. Even when successful at extracting and amplifying DNA, the results will be probabilistic rather than binary.

Confusing language structure. All DNA results are essentially probabilistic, so what?
They are the gold standard for species ID.
It’s almost like the authors are trying to lessen the importance of DNA results by using the term “probabilistic”.
The term “binary” is implied (possibly) to have some greater scientific importance than mere probabilistic.
Binary means composed of two pieces or two parts, yet paradoxically, in this specific sense, DNA results are always a binary result - the sample and the extraction - so its use is baffling.
Veracity of available evidence
No unequivocal evidence supporting the presence of ‘big cats’ in Victoria was found in this study.

We are guessing the authors mean “a body on the table”.

Perhaps even more compelling is the lack of evidence.

The authors appear to ignore their own conclusions.
see below

"Notwithstanding conclusions 1-3, some evidence cannot be dismissed entirely, including preliminary DNA evidence, footprints and some behaviours that seem to be outside the known behavioural repertoire of known predators in Victoria." 
If they cannot check what meagre facts they present here, and cannot even check their own report for inconsistencies like this, why are the general public supposed to give any credence to this report?
When the authors of this report have made mistakes, “chance” would dictate that unless they have some sort of bias, the mistakes would be random.
Some of the mistakes would inadvertently support the possible existence of big cats in Victoria, and some against this possibility.
But what is interesting is that all the major mistakes are towards supporting the government’s views, and none for the opposite view.
The probability of that sort of result, happening by chance, would be zero.
The report was not science-based but rather just a collection of anecdotes and opinions that seemingly, in spite of itself, made several interesting points such as the Winchelsea DNA result.
Conclusion number 4 and the six recommendations were excellent and ‘on the money’, but sadly, they will never be implemented.
This desktop study of old reports was overwhelmingly a textbook example of confirmation bias, and merely a tick of the box for a relatively new state government eager to deliver on an election promise.
It’s also the latest in a long line of ‘government investigations’ into a phenomena that has stalked the states of NSW and WA, delivering yet another substandard result on what is surely one of Australia’s most compelling wildlife mysteries.

Baby boom for Tasmanian Devils

The Tasmanian Devil population is dwindling in its native home of Tasmania, an island state located just off the coast of Australia. Experts say it is possible the species could become extinct within the next decade if action is not taken to preserve the existing healthy population. Programs to restore the population are working so well there have been a reported 40 births this year!

Forget big cats - search is on for tigers!

The State Government says it's likely big cats don't exist - but Tasmanian Tigers may be roaming the hills, according to the Free Press Leader.

A Monbulk group that investigates rare animals, believes Tasmanian Tigers - declared extinct last century - are alive and well and in the area.

The Australian Rare Fauna Research Association (ARFRA) is a voluntary organisation that records and investigates sightings of unusual animals.

ARFRA president Dorothy Williams said there have been sightings of Tasmanian Tigers (thylacine) in the area for many years, but with little publicity.

In modern times, the animals have been recorded as native to Tasmania, but scientists believe they were once widespread throughout mainland Australia and Papua New Guinea.

"People have reported sightings of 'strange foxes' to us that we believe are thylacines," Ms Williams said.

The 81-year-old has been involved with ARFRA since 1990 and is working on a book about the group's work, based on the research of its late founder, Peter Chapple, who died in 1992.

She said the group urged anyone who had seen something that resembled a Tasmanian Tiger to contact them confidentially.

She said the group even had reported sightings of a yowie - a mythical Australian version of the yeti.

Members are needed to continue investigations, including night-time expeditions, into the tigers.

Winchelsea DNA story finally comes out

Weekly Times journalist Chris McLennan investigates a little known incident in the history of Victorian big cat sightings.

Here, at the foot of the Otway Ranges, grass was still abundant from the spring and farmers well versed in their craft. Yet death was stalking at night.
Full grown sheep had been found killed in the most savage ways, necks bitten in half, rib-cages shredded.
Then calves also started to be found in paddocks - lying in a pool of their own entrails.
A local grazier, experienced with the insane maulings of dog packs, knew something much more lethal was ranging his paddocks when the sun went down.
He called for help.

In November 1991, records show the farmer phoned the closest government wildlife office, then the Department of Natural Resources and Environment, in nearby Geelong.
Their most experienced man, a land protection officer with fisheries and wildlife credentials, was 34-year-old David Cass based at Meredith.
After six years with the department, David had already seen many ugly incidents, but even today he still remembers the first time he saw one of the carcasses.

"It was just peeled open, the force that was applied just staggered me, it was bizarre."
David took photographs and then interviewed the farmer who finally offered information about big cat sightings in the area.
"I'd heard the myth about the big cats, but in my job I was trained to deal with facts," David said.
He considered marauding dogs the logical explanation for the deaths when he returned to the office to file a routine report.
"The landowner was no dummy and he was a good bushman, so I took what he said seriously."

The grazier had also kept a meticulous map of where the stock deaths had been occurring on the farm, complete with coloured pins denoting whether they were sheep, calves and even wallabies.
David had a busy workload, but after filing his report he checked around the Winchelsea area for any other cases of mysterious stock losses.
There were plenty.

"Local people were hesitant to talk, they thought it could be big cats ... but they were scared of being called a looney," David said.
The farmer later called David directly, saying he had found unusual animal faeces in one of the paddocks, close to where a sheep had been mauled.
It was to be the clue that solved the mystery.
David was intrigued and travelled down to the farm again.

"They were large faeces, it was distinctly different in size, colour and smell to anything in my experience."
He carefully bagged and tagged the specimen and hand delivered it to Barbara Triggs, Australia's leading authority in the analysis of scats (animal faeces).

A comparative sample was needed, so David then contacted the Melbourne Zoo and a veterinarian supplied faeces and some hairs from their own black leopard.
The smell was "very similar", according to Triggs. She managed to extract four hairs from the scat.
It was thought the animal had swallowed the hairs while grooming itself.

Triggs examined the hairs under a microscope and again said they were "very similar" to the hairs from the zoo leopard.
"There was a possibility that the Winchelsea faeces were from a big cat such as a black leopard."
There was not enough evidence to make a positive identification. A second expert, Hans Brunner, was asked for his opinion, but he was also uncertain although he eventually said "a large panther-like animal could not be excluded".
Both the farmer and a dogged David Cass wanted more.

DNA sampling back in 1991 was new and more costly than it is today and, according to David, the department refused to pick up the cost.
The remaining hairs went into a plastic bag stored with the department.
There they remained until August 2000 where a young research scientist agreed to look at the them.

Dr Stephen Frankenberg was working at La Trobe University's Department of Zoology.
The DNA testing was as conclusive as a cautious scientist would allow.
The source of the sample was Panthera pardus, he found.
A leopard.
Dr Frankenberg said there was slight risk of contamination of the sample before the hairs had reached him and he refused to be drawn into saying the result was 100 per cent accurate.
Still, his explosive finding gathered dust until it was published last week in the Victorian Government's big cats study.

Dr Frankenberg is today a research fellow in developmental biology with the University of Melbourne.
Dr Frankenberg told The Weekly Times it was impossible to give a percentage probability of the reliability of the result because there were too many unknowns.
"If I had done the test on a sample from Africa, I would have had no strong reason to doubt it and I would say 99 per cent.
"But there are so many subjective factors that argue against its reliability, such as no other hard evidence of wild black leopards in Australia."

Dr Frankenberg said he agreed with the State Government's decision not to invest heavily in further research on the existence of big cats.
"But I do think it would be worth keeping an official 'open mind' and establishing a system for properly analysing evidence that might arise opportunistically in the future."

After 17 years with the public service, rising to become the state's top fisheries enforcement officer, David Cass is now working part-time in northern Queensland."I started out as a sceptic and I was not absolutely convinced until the Frankenberg result," David said.
"It was the Eureka moment, he might be hesitant now, but at the time it was definite."
He said "my superiors buried the information" because they did not know what to do with it.
"I am happy the truth has come out now.
"We might not be so sure about there being lots of wild cats in Victoria, but we can be positive, in 1991, there was a leopard where it shouldn't have been at Wensleydale."

*This case was mentioned in Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers. The authors were asked at the time to refrain from naming the individuals involved, so made brief mention of the case in their Analysing the Evidence chapter and reproduced the Winchelsea paperwork in the appendix.

Pumas freed by American soldiers

Many Weekly Times readers believe American soldiers released two big cats into the Grampians wilds after their tour of duty ended in World War II.

A study by Deakin University in 2001 concluded "a big cat population in the Grampians mountain range is beyond reasonable doubt''.

A Wimmera reader, who did not wish to be identified, said his father was stationed with the US servicemen at the Grampians camp for several months in 1942.

"They were called to go home to America and were told they could not take their mascots with them, they were two pumas,'' the man said.

"The handlers took them out into the bush, and were supposed to destroy them, but let them go instead.''

The man also recounted another big cat story told by his now deceased father.

"In about 1950 my father was at a horse sale in Hamilton and he overheard two farmers talking about losing stock.

"One chap said he had shot a big cat savaging his stock.

"The other man asked what he had done with it?

"He said he had buried it as quick as he could so he wouldn't get into trouble.''

Other theories have it that the fabled big cats are descendants of puma brought to Australia by American goldminers during the gold rush in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Victorian Government last week end its "desk-top search'' for the big cats.

A government report said it was highly unlikely a living population of big cats existed.

Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh said the study, a pre-election commitment from the Coalition, found there was a lack of hard evidence to substantiate that a population of wild big cats exists in Victoria.

The study said the most obvious explanation for many of the reported sightings of big cats over the years is that they were large feral domestic cats.

Mr Walsh said there had been thousands of reports of big cats in Victoria over the last century but until now there had never been a comprehensive and co-ordinated attempt by any Victorian Government agency to collate the information in order to make a fully informed assessment.

The report did reveal scientific evidence of big cat which roamed the Winchelsea area in the 1990s.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Night Parrot makes Smithsonian's Top 5

The Smithsonian has included Australia's Night Parrot in its list of the top 5 most mysterious bird species. Find out who else made the cut here.

Between 1912 and 1979, birders spotted this elusive species, native to the interior of Australia, exactly zero times—leading most scientists to believe it had gone extinct.

Since then, a tiny handful of sightings of the nocturnal, yellow-green bird have occurred, and experts now estimate that the population is somewhere between 50 and 250 mature individuals.

After the last verified sighting in November 2006, when park rangers in the state of Queensland turned up a decapitated specimen that had died after flying into a barbed-wire fence, the Australian government chose to keep the find temporarily secret while they searched for more night parrots, so as to avoid an influx of birders flooding the remote park in hopes of spotting one of the world’s rarest birds.

Big cat study small on results

The existence of big cats in Victoria is "highly unlikely" a State Government report has found.

Now the Arthur Rylah Institute has called off the investigation it ran, citing a lack of hard evidence to verify wild big cats in the state.

And the official conclusion is that big cats sighted over the years are large feral domestic cats, according to Victorian Agriculture and Food Security Minister Peter Walsh.

He said his pre-election commitment to run a "desk" study into whether big cats existed was now met, and further investigation was not warranted.

The study did reveal that preliminary DNA evidence could not be dismissed, but it was not conclusive to prove beyond reasonable doubt the identity of the animal in question.

But Toolangi naturalist Bernie Mace described the study as "inconclusive" and said its results did not put him off.

He said sooner or later someone would get the perfect photo or the necessary DNA evidence to prove big cats exist.

Mr Mace, who has been researching big cats in the region for about 30 years, said the investigation had been too short and he believed the cats were out there.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Investigation concludes big cats 'highly unlikely'

A Victorian Government investigation has concluded it is "highly unlikely" there are wild big cats living in Victoria, the ABC reports.

The so-called desktop survey was conducted by two researchers from the Department of Primary Industries and the Department of Sustainability and Environment.

It found the most obvious explanation for reported sightings of big cats was that they were large feral domestic cats.

Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh has refused to say how much the survey cost, except to say it was conducted using existing departmental resources.

He says the study noted it was difficult to explain some reports from farmers and hunters of reports of animals that do not look like feral cats.

"Some preliminary DNA evidence also cannot be entirely dismissed but it is not sufficiently conclusive to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the identity of an animal," he said.

Mr Walsh says the investigation would only be reopened if there was primary evidence in the form of a carcass or skeleton.

"I'm sure there's people out there who will say they will swear black and blue there are still big cats out there," he said.

"If they do, let them bring forward some primary evidence that there is actually one there, because unless that primary evidence is found, from our point of view the case is closed."

The Opposition says the State Government decision to end the hunt for wild "big cats" in Victoria is long overdue.

John Lenders says the government already knew there were no big cats and the search was just a distraction from budget cuts.

"Last year I got a Freedom of Information document that shows that on four occasions the Department had told the Minister there was no big cat," he said.

"We also know that in 1982 there was a survey in Victoria which is on the record, and there were two in NSW in the last decade saying there were not big cats."

One man who does understand the Victorian Government's rationale in conducting the study is Tim The Yowie Man, who is based in Canberra.

Mr The Yowie Man changed his name to reflect his passion for crypto zoology, or, the study of hidden and strange animals.

He is the first to admit his discipline is open to ridicule but he says the stories of big cats and other exotic creatures come thick and fast from around the country and it is a serious business.

"They're from all over Australia, not just Victoria. There's stories of them in the south-west corner of Western Australia, and in many places up and down the Great Dividing Range, including the Blue Mountains near Sydney and the New England area of New South Wales," he said.

"So it's certainly entrenched I guess in our folklore."

Despite today's development he is hopeful Victoria and Australia has not seen the last of big cats.

"Big cats, or pumas, are out there, but as yet and as this scientific study seems to have indicated, there's no scientific evidence to suggest they're there," he said.

"But that doesn't mean it will stop people like myself looking for them because I hope that one day myself or someone else will actually find evidence of one of these big cats roaming out there in the bush."

Vic big cat study 'inconclusive'

The Victorian Government has ended a 'desktop study' into the existence of big cats in Victoria less than three months in, the ABC has reported.

The Victorian Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh says no more taxpayer funds will be spent on investigating the existence of "big black cats" in the state.

Two government researchers have completed a survey of alleged sightings of big cats over several decades.

It found it was "highly unlikely" the animals existed, and that instead, they were probably large feral domestic cats.

Mr Walsh says the completion of the survey fulfils an election promise, but he won't say how much it cost.

"The big cat study was done with existing resources of the DPI and the DSE, the majority of work was done by researchers at the Arthur Rylah Institute. There is not an exact figure."

When pressed further for the cost of the study the minister declined to provide detail.

"I'm not going to get into every different project that the DSE or the DPI does and allocate dollars per project."

The minister says as far as the government is concerned, the matter is now closed.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Researchers unhappy with report result

Big cat experts are unhappy with the Victorian Government's decision to abandon the hunt, the Weekly Times reports.

They say the two-month search was half-hearted and "not fair dinkum''.

The Government today released a report which said it was highly unlikely a living population of big cats existed.

Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh said the study found little evidence to substantiate that a population of wild big cats exists in Victoria.

The most logical explanation for the hundreds of sightings over the past century was that they were large feral domestic cats, the report said.

Despite the report recommending further investigations to conclusively disprove the myth once and for all, Mr Walsh said the official search was now ended.

Further work focusing on "obtaining primary evidence to conclusively rule out the existence of big cats'' is not warranted, Mr Walsh said.

Big cat hunter Simon Townsend said the Government has quickly and conveniently washed its hands of the big cat hunt.

Mr Townsend, who has been searching for big cats for more than 50 years, was mentioned in the report as a contributor to the investigation.

"It was the scenario I was expecting but it is still a kick in the guts when you get it,'' he said.

"They were never serious, it seems to have been a promise they made but it seems they wish they hadn't.

"They came to us for help and said they were serious but they never were.''

Mr Townsend said the Government had never done any actual research of its own.

"They just gone through the records and typed up a report as though it's an embarrassment.''

Researchers spent about two months collecting evidence, conducting interviews with people like Mr Townsend and trawling through a century of reported sightings as part of an official investigation launched by the Government.

The 30-page study found the "available evidence is inadequate to establish that a wild population of big cats exists in Victoria''.

It said the lack of any physical evidence suggested there was no wild population of big cats.

But the study's authors, Peter Monkhurst and L. Morison from the Department of Sustainability and Environment, were not able to positively say the big cats did not exist.

In their recommendations, they have suggested equipping government field staff "across southern and central Victoria with knowledge and equipment to collect, label, temporarily store and dispatch swab samples from carcasses which appear to have been killed by a big cat''.

They believe it will be scientific analysis which will solve the mystery once and for all.

"Some evidence cannot be dismissed entirely including preliminary DNA evidence, footprints, and some behaviours that seem outside the known behavioural repertoire of known predators in Victoria.

"Obtaining unequivocal evidence for the presence for big cats in Victoria would require an organised and structured program aimed at collecting DNA samples for faecal material or prey carcasses, or the opportunistic collection of a number of big cat carcasses of proven provenance.

"More than one specimen is required because one individual is not evidence of a self-sustaining population,'' the study found.

The report said previously unknown samples of faeces and hairs were taken from Winchelsea in 1991 which found proven evidence of a black leopard.

Experts compared the samples with leopards from the Melbourne Zoo and said they were likely identical.

The evidence was sealed and subjected to molecular analysis at La Trobe University in 2000 which confirmed the samples to have been a leopard.

"This result seems not to have been formally conveyed to any government department and has not been publicised before this study.''

The study also questioned why no big cat had ever been detected in a formal wildlife survey, shot by a hunter or farmer, hit and killed by a vehicle, or why no skeletal remains have been found.

"The clear conviction of some observers about what they saw does not materially increase the veracity of the observation.

The study said discoveries of mauled livestock and wildlife was "more likely to suggest understanding of the behavioural repertoire of known animals is inadequate''.

"Parsimonious explanation for many of the sightings is that they involve large feral cats,'' the study found.

The report found big cat sightings had been made since the late 19th century and span the entire state except for the arid north-west.

Similar sightings have been made from other Australian states and other countries, including Britain.

Curiosity kills big cat claims

A Victorian government report has found it is highly unlikely there are any pumas, leopards, jaguars or other types of big cat roaming the state, Ninemsn reports.

While the report's author says it's impossible to prove the fabled big cats are not domiciled in Victoria, he's concluded it's highly unlikely they are.

"We can't say 100 per cent there are no big cats in Victoria, but we can say it is highly unlikely," Department of Sustainability of Environment zoologist Peter Menkhorst said on Tuesday.

Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh set the cat among the pigeons when he announced last month government staff would sink their claws into more than a century's worth of anecdotal evidence that big cats were living in regional Victoria.

It said no big cat had ever been detected in a formal wildlife survey, shot by a hunter or farmer or killed by a vehicle and no skeletal remains had ever been found.

"The study concluded the most obvious explanation for many of the reported sightings of `big cats' over the years is that they were large feral domestic cats," Mr Walsh said.

While he conceded big cat conspiracy theorists were likely to keep caterwauling about the alleged feline predators, he said they needed to come up with hard evidence.

"Unless that primary evidence is found, from our point of view the case is closed," he said.

However, it seemed the cat had his tongue when asked how much the report had cost.

Despite being pressed by reporters, Mr Walsh pussyfooted around naming a figure, saying the report was done within the existing resources of the department.

He denied it cost $1 million, as had been suggested by the opposition.

Opposition agriculture spokesman John Lenders accused the government of wasting taxpayers' money.

He said the cat was out of the bag last year when documents obtained through freedom of information laws showed on four occasions the department had told the minister there was no big cat.

"In 1982 there was a survey in Victoria which is on the record ... saying there were no big cats in Victoria," Mr Lenders said.

Hunt goes on for big cats

Geelong region researcher Simon Townsend claims the Victorian Government has predictably whitewashed an independent report into existence of big cats in the state, the Advertiser has reported.

Mr Townsend yesterday vowed to continue his work in the field seeking conclusive evidence, despite Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh washing the state's hands of any ongoing research.

"It's as expected, sadly disappointing," Mr Townsend said.

"I'll look after things from here on he's not up to this."

Mr Walsh said a "desktop study" by Peter Menkhorst and Leigh Morison for the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research had found there was a lack of hard evidence that a population of wild big cats existed in Victoria.

"No big cat has ever been detected in a formal wildlife survey, shot by a hunter or farmer or killed by a vehicle, and no skeletal remains have ever been found," Mr Walsh said.

"Nor have big cats been identified in wildlife studies involving the analysis of thousands of mammalian faecal samples.

"The study concluded the most obvious explanation for many of the reported sightings of big cats over the years is that they were large feral domestic cats."

Mr Townsend, of Freshwater Creek, has devoted decades to big cat research and is founder of the Big Cats Victoria website.

He hailed the Menkhorst report and its recommendations as excellent, but believes a government pre-election promise to explore Victoria's big cat legend never held genuine intent. "I don't believe the Government even intended this to get off the ground," Mr Townsend said.

"The fact of the matter is there is some evidence, which is presented within the report, talking about existing DNA evidence indicating there may well be leopard present in the Otways.

"It's the only time DNA evidence has been done and the minister doesn't want to spend any money on doing any more."

He said technology was accessible. DNA analysis was already routinely used in instances including dog attacks on people.

Mr Walsh said the DNA evidence could not be entirely dismissed.

"But it is not sufficiently conclusive to prove beyond reasonable doubt the identity of an animal," he said.


Southern Right of Frankston
Posted at 09:20pm Wednesday 19th
Ive seen a giant hairy half human, half cat running around before the football at Simonds stadium. I can't beleive no one else has seen it! it's out there I'm telling ya!

Jack V Russell of Torquay
Posted at 07:25pm Wednesday 19th
Hmm, big cats, big scats! Our state governmenta can spend money better than on scat projects. Having said that, the Victorian government has obviously made a silly election promise, and tnen spent a few hundred dollars in secret to meet the promise. That is why they won't disclose how much they have spent when the relevant department's budget (and others) is cut. P.S. lok up the definition of scat before commenting.

of Barwon edge
Posted at 04:19pm Wednesday 19th
Reality I think it is too late I saw one at Full forward in the All Australian Team, He is huge, well over 6 foot and 100+ kgs.

Mick of Geelong
Posted at 02:42pm Wednesday 19th
Is that the same guy from Wonderworld?

Posted at 02:42pm Wednesday 19th
Go Simon, why not form a club - this could end up being a great tourism dollar earner when you find the truth.

Reality of Torquay
Posted at 12:03pm Wednesday 19th
Quick ! surround Kardina Park and dont let cats out !

Rob of Bellarine Posted at 10:43am Wednesday 19th
Typical on again off again funding attitude across all areas is what the current government is gaining a reputation for. In the overall scheme of things, a small amount of funding to help scientifically prove the presence of a big cat in the Otways, is a small sum indeed, but it would be of great interest to many people. Like so many other government ministers at the moment, as Mr. Townsend implies - they are just not up to it.

Rob S of Hampton
Posted at 08:20am Wednesday 19th
In a couple of weeks time I'll be bush walking and riding in the Otways, I'll keep an eye out for it, and the Loch Ness monster too!

Dreamer of Freshwater Creek
Posted at 07:49am Wednesday 19th
Good luck Mr Townsend, if you want to believe then you pay for you own research, not us tax payers.

lee of geelong
Posted at 07:08am Wednesday 19th
grow up and accept it mate ,there are no panthers in vic !

Monday, 17 September 2012

Recovery plan for Tassie Devils 'still a draft'

The Tasmanian Times has raised a valid point about efforts to save the Tasmanian Devil.

In May 2006 the Tasmanian devil was listed as a vulnerable species under the Commonwealth EPBC Act. One would expect that such a globally recognised endangered species would have an approved Recovery Plan considering the generous funding available and the dedicated Save the Tasmanan Devil Program staff.

However, the plan is still in its draft format after more than 3 years!

Govt: Big cats more likely to be big ferals

The existence of "big cats" in Victoria is "highly unlikely" a State Government report has found, the Herald Sun reports.

The Baillieu Government released the findings of a report into the possible evidence of a wild population of big cats in Victoria.

It found that sightings of animals thought to be pumas or similar large cats were more likely to be big feral cats.

Despite releasing the report, the Government could not say how much the study cost taxpayers or how many staff worked on the project.

Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh said the study, conducted in Melbourne offices on past evidence rather than in the field, said there was nothing to substantiate claims big cats existed in the state.

"No big cat has ever been detected in a formal wildlife survey, shot by a hunter or farmer or killed by a vehicle and no skeletal remains have ever been found,’’ she said.

"Nor have ‘big cats’ been identified in wildlife studies involving the analysis of thousands of mammalian faecal samples.’’

The study, a pre-election commitment from the Coalition, recommended further investigations to conclusively disprove the myth once and for all, however, Mr Walsh said the search was now ended.

Further work focusing on "obtaining primary evidence to conclusively rule out the existence of big cats'' is not warranted, Mr Walsh said.

He said there had been thousands of reports of big cats in Victoria over the last century but until now there had never been a comprehensive and co-ordinated attempt by any Victorian Government agency to collate the information in order to make a fully informed assessment.

Big cat researcher Simon Townsend, who combed through the findings, said he was "disappointed" at the decision to axe the inquiry.

"I’m disappointed, but it isn’t a surprise. When the State Government said they wanted to 'get to the bottom' of the issue, I knew straight away it wouldn’t work out that way," he said.

He claimed the State Government had launched the investigation only to ensure it fulfilled its pre-election promise and had coughed up the "minimal" amount on the study.

"They could have done a much better job," he said.

"There was no work conducted in the field, it was all off-site reports. The whole thing was just about fulfilling that election promise – there was no real will to sort out such a serious issue."

Mr Townsend supplied more than 30 years of data to aid the inquiry, including records that indicated a positive DNA test was recorded in the late 90s, which suggested a leopard had roamed regional Victoria.

"Why not put up the money to check a positive result?" he said.

"Literally hundreds of people have seen things which have traumatised them. It’s caused stock loss and left people scared and threatened.

"I have seen one myself within close range. On top of that, in all my analysis of stock killing, there are clear cases where dog mauling just doesn’t add up.

"As far as I’m concerned, they do exist."

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Big cat sightings in Upper Ferntree Gully

The fate of the mysterious big cat hangs in the balance as State Government researchers look into whether reported sightings are true, according to the Knox Leader.

This follows numerous reports in the Leader of big cat sightings in both Upper Ferntree Gully and the hills and will fulfil a pre-election promise from Nationals' leader Peter Ryan, who said there were enough credible observations to warrant an investigation.

Victorian Agriculture and Food Security Minister Peter Walsh said the big cat study would review literature, reports, correspondence and other evidence.

Evelyn state Liberal MP Christine Fyffe said a big cat would be handled like any other wild animal. She said any non-native animal found attacking livestock would be killed.

Kate Barry of Wantirna South stables her horse (pictured above) in The Basin and was horrified to see it had claw marks on its upper flank after being attacked last year.


Gary Newton writes:
Posted on 21 September 12 at 09.54am
Yes they definitely do exist. I sighted one a few kilometres east of Spargo Creek near Ballarat in January 2004. It was a Black Panther and it leaped from one side of the gravel road to the other about six feet in front of my vehicle and it was huge. My godfather owned a pub in blackwood for several decades and he also sighted Black panthers and Mountain Lions (Cougars). The americans brought them out here in the 1940s and 50s with their Circus,s and a number of them either escaped or were set free for whatever reason. This mainly occured in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. Anyone who doubts their existence simply hasnt had the pleasure of sighting one.

Jasmine Palamara writes:
Posted on 20 Sep 12 at 06:47pm
Hello I Am jasmine Palamara. In April their was a Belgrave teen that saw the Big Cat, i am that Belgrave teen, I know its real and i know it is out their and i am Very upset with the cancel of the investigation, i hope that this will be found because i know it is out their and i am very disappointed no one thinks it is!!!

Nick Costello writes:
Posted on 19 Sep 12 at 08:37am
I have just read the official report about the state Government's "investigation" of sightings of wild big cats. As someone who has studied the phenomenon in detail, I agree in principle with the findings and recommendations of the report. However, this document tells only half the story, and I hope all the information is made public so that people can make an informed decision about what has been going on.

Steve writes:
Posted on 17 Sep 12 at 08:11am
I encountered a big cat about 15 years ago in the mountains east of Melbourne. It crossed the road ahead of my car and I had a good look at it. It was bigger than a dog, pitch black and had a very long tail and gait. I'm convinced they are there.

ausGeoff writes:
Posted on 17 Sep 12 at 12:36am
Of course the alleged "big cats" don't exist! For that to occur, it would need a large - and obvious - sustainable breeding pool of - at the very least - dozens of animals. Consider all the other endangered species that are disappearing despite numbering sometimes in the hundreds as a comparison; Orang-utan; Proboscis Monkey; Snow Leopard; Blue Whale; Asian Elephant et al. To suggest that a mere handful of these imaginary felines could survive without such a pool is fanciful. I'm disgusted that our government would even contemplate spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars mounting such a worthless investigation regarding their (non) existence. And to claim a few scratches on her horse, as Ms Kate Barry does, as "evidence" of an attack by a big cat is totally unfounded. Has she never heard of roaming wild dog packs? If this is the sort of "credible" evidence that Peter Ryan supports his actions with, then I suggest that Mr Ryan stick to reading "Alice in Wonderland". It has more veracity than any big cat fairy tale.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Vic big cat report derided

Former Victorian agriculture minister Joe Helper has ridiculed the Government's big cat hunt, according to the Weekly Times.

Parliament resuming last week enabled Labor MPs to question the value of the search.

Mr Helper (pictured) suggested Agriculture Minister Peter Walsh introduce a bounty on the big cats, as he has with foxes.

"Given that the minister is continuously espousing the virtues of the Coalition Government's fox and wild dog bounty, I think it is only fitting that a bounty be introduced for Victoria's big cats," he said.

Mr Helper also said the Government's desktop search for the big cat, by checking old files, photographs and reports, was doomed to failure.

"I worked in the Department of Primary Industries building in which he now has his ministerial office," he said. "A desk search will not identify a big cat in that building."

Meanwhile, big cat sightings have continued in the past week.

Steven Brown of Hastings said he was hunting for rabbits on his block and saw a big black cat. "Its head was so big, it was four times the size of the biggest feral cat I have ever seen."


I saw a Bunyip in West Gippsland the other night. Ted ought to be investigating these fascinating creatures as well.
Posted by: Riddley Walker of Inland 03:19pm Wednesday 5th

Myself and my partner both saw a panther / puma sized black cat - it crossed the princess hwy between colac and birregurra in front of our car just on dusk, i took note of the area during the day and there were plenty of calves and lambs also plenty of cover in the area - foothills of the otway ranges. it was about 8 yrs ago now, i was a sceptic until i saw one myself - and the fact that we both saw the same thing proves i was not imagining it.

Posted by: Evan Dalton 10:50am Wednesday 5th

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Fate of big cat mystery hangs in balance

The fate of the Yarra Ranges' mysterious big cat hangs in the balance as State Government researchers look into whether the stories are true, according to the Lilydale and Yarra Valley Leader.

This follows numerous reports of big cat sightings and will fulfill a pre-election promise from Nationals' leader Peter Ryan, who said there were enough credible observations to warrant an investigation.

Victorian Agriculture and Food Security Minister Peter Walsh said the big cat study would review literature, reports, correspondence and other evidence. It will also talk to those who say they have seen a big cat in Victoria.

The Department of Sustainability and Environment has directed the Arthur Rylah Institute to conduct a statewide investigation into the big cat mystery.

Evelyn state Liberal MP Christine Fyffe said a big cat would be handled like any other wild animal. She said any non-native animal found attacking livestock would be killed.

Toolangi naturalist Bernie Mace, who has researched big cat sightings for more than 30 years, is among those contacted by State Government researchers. He said the first step was to ascertain if there were big cats, and then how to manage them.


Iain Harrison writes:
Posted on 5 Sep 12 at 02:47pm

What a waste of scarce government funds. We have schools falling to pieces, hospitals that can't utilise all of their beds, TAFE funding slashed & much more. This is just a distraction from real issues!

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Zookeeper the latest 'big cat' witness in Victoria

The latest Victorian 'panther' sighting has been made by a Wild Action zoo keeper, who said she was approaching the Mt Macedon zoo early this morning when the predatory cat ran came within metres of her before dashing off.

The former Parks Victoria ranger, who wouldn’t give her name, said while she was previously a skeptic, she was “adamant” the animal she saw was a panther.

“It was the size our dingos, it was on all four legs and it moved like a cat and it had a long tail coming after it,” she said.

“I know it sounds crazy and I wouldn’t have believed myself."

“(But) I’m so adamant of what I saw.”

The fresh sighting comes after the State Government recently announced a review into all reported sightings of the legendary big cat.

The keeper said she entered the gate to the zoo just after 6am.

She spotted what she thought was a wallaby trying to escape through fox wire, but it turned out to be a large black cat.

She said the animal bolted past her through the open gate, before she ran to hide in the reptile shed.
“I was so scared, thinking I was going to die,” she said.

Wild Action owner Chris Humfrey, who is experienced in tracking wild cats, said the animal’s footprints were consistent with a large cat.

He also said two large Western Grey Kangaroos and a Cape Barren Goose had recently been found decapitated nearby.

Mr Humfrey said he would set thermal imaging cameras around the zoo to record the animal if it returned.


Related Posts with Thumbnails

Recommended Reading