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.

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