University of New England zoologists weigh in on black panther sightings

EXPERTS from the University of New England have weighed in to debate surrounding the mythical panthers that have been sighted all across the region.

UNE zoologists Karl Vernes and Guy Ballard say there is usually a very good scientific explanation for what people report (see the latest report at the bottom of the story).

Mr Ballard has spent the best part of a decade in the bush and says large feral cats, quolls, dingoes and foxes have all been attracted to carcasses left out by his team, but never a black panther – although he has had his own big cat encounter in the Warrumbungles.

“It stopped me in my tracks, but when we investigated, it was definitely a swamp wallaby,” Mr Ballard said.

“Most people report seeing the rear end of a large dark animal with a thick tail loping off into the bush, and that's just what swamp wallabies do.

“Also, when a wallaby lands with its two feet close together, their prints can look a bit like a larger single paw print of a predator. I've had people bring me plaster casts of these, only for them to be disappointed.”

He also said poor human judgement was another likely explanation for reported big cat sightings.

“Most people commonly over-estimate the size of a feral cat, especially in the distance,” Mr Ballard said.

“When you see a black one, early in the morning, on a log in the distance, it's easy to think you've seen a much larger cat.

“There are also pure black dingoes out there, which causes honest mistakes.”

Having studied tigers in Bhutan and encountered jaguars in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, Mr Vernes draws on personal experience of big cat behaviour.

“Everybody seems to have their own big cat story, wherever you live in Australia,” Mr Vernes said.

“But we've never seen any reliable photographic evidence.

“Big cats I have studied put themselves in front of cameras quite happily, but for all the thousands of permanent camera traps scientists have out in the Australian bush we've never captured so much as a shadow of one.”

It was as big as a Labrador: Sighting in Watsons Creek

Earlier this month, Darren Starr reported a panther sighting at Watsons Creek, north-east of Bendemeer.

Mr Starr was opening a gate at a property off Bungendore Spur Road, when his mate yelled from the driver's seat to look at the opposite side of the creek running beside them.

“There was this jet black feline, as big as a Labrador, standing amongst the rocks,” Mr Starr said.

“I thought ‘what the hell is that?’. In my head I’m running through what it could be – it wasn’t a fox, it wasn’t a dingo, it wasn’t a dog, and it was much too big to be a feral cat.

“I ruled out everything else and said ‘that’s a bloody black panther’.

“My mate said ‘I’m glad you saw it cause, I thought I was seeing things’.”

A few days later when they were coming back that way, they got out and had a walk along the creek bed, where they found four dead sheep.

Mr Starr, while admitting he’s no expert, said the sheep appeared to have died of natural causes – but one had been chewed on.

“The next door neighbour said he’d lost a lamb recently and had a few sheep chewed on, but that could have been a dog or anything,” he said.