Government reports strangely amended, over 500 sightings over 20 years, flawed scientific testing … there is a reason the Lithgow panther is part of folklore.
The crunch of dry leaves, the heavy snap of a stick, a feeling of suddenly being watched as the bush goes quiet are some of the sensations more than 560 people have reported in the Hawkesbury, Blue Mountains and Lithgow area since 1998.
Two accounts have even been regaled since 2017.
In fact, claims of big cat encounters in New South Wales have been made for over 100 years, and reported on for almost as many. The reports tell of bush walkers, land owners and tourists each with their own brush with a low slung, long tailed, box-faced, large, black, cat.
Curious Central West questioner and Bathurst local Tanya Martin is intrigued.
“I’ve never seen a large black cat but my friend Barry Lindsay has. It scared the life out of him,” she said.
“It made me wonder about the credence of the Lithgow panther. Is it possible Maine cats, mountain lions or panthers could survive here?”
Mr Lindsay, also of Bathurst, is resolute. “It was definitely around the size of what I would say is a panther.
“It was black. Jet black. Had piercing eyes and it had that sort of quickness as well,” Mr Stewart said of his encounter.
“Quickness like a cheetah, I guess. And it just ran straight across the highway coming into Lithgow.”
Black market black panthers?
Theories as to how these big cats might have come to roam the Blue Mountains paint a picture of an Australian society historically more globally connected than we credit today.
David Waldron is a lecturer in history and anthropology at Federation University in Ballarat and author of Snarls From the Tea Tree: Australia’s Big Cat Folklore.
“You did have widespread exotic animal trade in the 19th century. That’s easily proved. You can certainly see that in the classifieds of the day,” Dr Waldron said.
“If you jump on Trove you’ll see people in Sydney and Melbourne selling off leopard cubs or panther cubs.
“The big fear people had at the time — a legitimate fear — is that after their experience with rabbits, pigs and goats, what if an animal that’s dangerous gets loose and starts to multiply?
“This fear was exacerbated with the onset of the first travelling circuses, starting with St Leon’s travelling circus in the 1870s. These circuses were travelling menageries.
“I came across one case in NSW where disgruntled performers let three tigers lose when they quit.”
Another well-known theory is that today’s cats might be descendants of abandoned mascots from World War II American soldiers.
“The story is always about US serviceman, but if you look at government records the concern is actually Australian serviceman.
“They are coming back from North Africa, Asia, with all kinds of crazy animals.
“One ship had 1,650 exotic animals on board, including bear cubs.”
Hazelbrook resident and author of Australian Big Cats, Mike Williams, believes the source is a modern one.
“The best bet would be escaped exotics. Escaped leopards. And breeding leopards — to explain some of the [multiple] sightings.”
That’s a theory Grose Vale resident Chris Coffey supports.
“You can buy them on the black market. You go out and you buy a little cub and it grows to the point it will take you out. How can you keep it?,” Ms Coffey said.
“They have been released, I know that. I have a signed affidavit from a JP stating he interviewed a person [who owned a big cat] and he was told to have them put down.
“He said he couldn’t do it so he just left the doors open. And that is locally here in the Hawkesbury. And it’s the same time we started to get the problems.”
A community galvanised
Ms Coffey has been instrumental in organising the community’s approach to the phenomena.
She formed The Grose Vale Group in 1998 after her own encounters began.
“It romped around here like the family pet,” said Ms Coffey. “I’ve probably seen it five or six times.
“It all started in ’98 and it was just going on and on until I got a Rottweiler pup and it [put it up a tree] and it did not come back into my place.”
Sightings became so commonplace that fellow residents Ken Pullen and Karen Nolan began a database of sightings with Mrs Coffey in charge of interviewing witnesses.
“There’s a lot of people who, when you interview them, you know they are telling the truth,” she said.
“I have had hysterical women on the phone saying their child was in close proximity to these animals.
“I know people who have moved because of it.”
The database grew steadily, at times by 20 to 30 sightings per year.
“I have a DPI officer on there. I have National Parks rangers on the database. We are talking doctors, solicitors, police detectives — really, really credible people. Why would they all lie?” Ms Coffey said.
Down the rabbit hole
Most urban myths do not receive commissioned reports by state governments. But the compelling eye witness accounts detailed on the database, which include government staff members, meant liability could shortly become an issue. The Department of Primary Industries commissioned four enquiries during the years 1999, 2003, 2009 and 2013. The initial research request was made of wildlife ecologist Johannes Bauer of the then-NSW Agriculture in 1999.
His one-page report returned the following conclusion:
“Difficult as it seems to accept, the most likely explanation of the evidence … is the presence of a large feline predator.”
“I was lecturer in conservation biology and one of my students was working with the DPI,” Dr Bauer recalled.
“He came up to me and said ‘Look, we’ve got these problems with the black panthers. Do you know anything about panthers?’
“The DPI’s interest was mainly liability. They were worried something might happen and because they hadn’t taken it seriously that someone might take them to court.
“Anyway, I went down there for a day. It proved to be really quite staggering to be quite honest.
“I don’t have any explanation. I wrote that letter. That letter became nationally famous.”
“I stepped back from there. Suddenly I was in the middle of something I didn’t want to be in.”
Claims of a cover-up
In 2003, a second official report from the Department of Primary Industries was issued, which concluded:
“Nothing found in this review conclusively proves the presence of free ranging exotic large cats in New South Wales, but this cannot be discounted and seems more likely than not on available evidence.”
The door had been left open.
But what happened next led believers to claim proof of a government cover-up.
Discrepancies between a report written, but not publicly released, in December 2008 and a report subsequently made available to the public in March 2009 concerned local resident campaigners.
The 2008 report concluded:
“There is no scientific evidence found during this review that conclusively proves the presence of free ranging exotic large cats in NSW, but a presence cannot be discounted, and it seems more likely than not on available evidence that such animals do exist in NSW.”
However, the 2009 report offered:
“Whilst information has been provided, there is still nothing to conclusively say that a large black cat exists.”
“Why did the DPI do two reports?” Mike Williams, the author of Australian Big Cats, asked.
A fourth and final report in 2013 commissioned by then-Minister for Primary Industries Katrina Hodgkinson and written by New Zealand-based invasive species expert John Parkes shut the door firmly on the matter.
It advised “There is no conclusive evidence that large cats exist in the wild in NSW”, and:
“The sightings and other evidence presented, mostly from the Hawkesbury region, are at best prima facie evidence.”
“We were treated like idiots. Like ‘this can go away’,” Ms Coffey said.
When asked why there were discrepancies in the two reports, the DPI did not respond directly.
It did reply generally, saying:
“The NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) occasionally receives reported sightings of large cats in NSW, in locations such as the Blue Mountains.
“Large feral cats (Felis domesticus) can be found throughout most parts of Australia and it has been suggested that sightings of ‘black panthers’ may be the result of people mistaking feral cats, or even the rear view and tails of animals such as the black swamp wallaby, for panthers — particularly in dense bushland.
“Unfortunately there is rarely sufficient evidence such as clear photos or footprints to warrant further investigation.”
Seeking ‘a body on the table’
Why has hard evidence proved so elusive?
Barbara Triggs was the scientist employed by the DPI to perform comparison analysis on hair and scat, or faecal, samples provided by The Grose Vale Group for the 2008, 2009 and 2013 reports.
Mrs Triggs is an authority on the identification of mammals from ‘indirect means’ such as tracks and scats and wrote a Whitely Award-winning field guide on the subject in 1984.
“In my memory, there’s was only one scat and hair sample I was provided that was suspicious but that was in Victoria, not Lithgow,” she said.
“I have an open mind on this, but I’m very doubtful. After all this time, you’d think someone would have a photo but they haven’t.”
A second issue with hard evidence to date might be the test methods themselves.
Mike Williams and Chris Coffey believe the test methods used were not equipped to cover exotic species.
“I was unsure about some of the actual scat results so I went to people who had retired circus animals and I got hold of a leopard scat and leopard hair and I tested them with three of the leading experts in Australia,” Mr Williams said.
“They all came back feral cat or dog.”
“Basically you are forcing sub-contractors to go outside their normal [remit] and they weren’t doing DNA, they were just doing a sniff and poke test,” Mr Williams said.
“Nowadays, you would easily do the whole thing again using DNA,” Dr Bauer said.
But the problem of authentication and contamination would remain.
“Unlike a crime scene, where a trained forensic expert will seal it and take it to a DNA [lab], we can’t prove where it came from,” Mr Williams said.
“You can’t prove anything unless you have a body on the table. And the only body on the table is a lioness shot outside Broken Hill in 1985.”
It. Hasn’t. Gone. Away.
A lack of hard evidence, coupled with an abundance of soft evidence, lends an uncanny halo to the Lithgow panther saga.
It casts a twilight glow across the subject and corrodes credibility.
Mr Stewart felt this firsthand after his sighting.
“I mentioned it to someone and they just laughed at me. Who would I report this to? I didn’t feel the need to expose myself to more ridicule,” he said.
But with a sighting in April 2017 and another in March 2018, the saga refuses to go quietly.
“The whole thing has not disappeared over the years. It obviously shows there’s something to it,” Dr Bauer said.
Dr Waldron agrees.
“You shouldn’t ridicule people. I mean, if you were in Broken Hill in 1985 and you say you saw a big cat, chances are you did see a big cat.
“There’s nothing wrong with the idea. You just need to find one.”
Dr Parkes, author of the 2013 report which apparently closed the case emphatically, actually remains open to the possibility.
“Panthers used to be held in zoos and menageries in Australia. So it is possible escapees did occur in Australia and possible that they bred and we have a small cryptic population in the bush,” he said.
It is conceivable the government are playing down various findings, thwarted by the fact the presence of big cats cannot be empathically disproven.
Dr Bauer believes this is a cause to recommit with a proper, disciplined approach.
“A good idea would be a workshop where we invite people to exchange their views in a scientific atmosphere,” Dr Bauer said.
“An evaluation of the evidence would be a good thing.
“I think it’s regrettable that DPI hasn’t shown a little bit more leadership and interest.
“It seems to be outlandish for lots of people, but if you are really working in the wild environment and know how ecology works there’s really nothing unusual about the whole thing.”
The door, it would appear, remains open just a crack.
ABC Central West By Micaela Hambrett