Is there a big black cat on the Illawarra escarpment?

There’s a persistent story of a panther lurking in the Illawarra escarpment.

There’s a persistent story of a panther lurking in the Illawarra escarpment.

The tough, almost impenetrable bush of the Illawarra escarpment can play tricks on bushwalkers’ eyes.

Just a few metres from the entrance of a track, visitors can be forgiven for thinking they’ve entered a lost world, devoid of human influence.

A small bird taking to the air can suddenly assault the senses – the noise seeming much greater than that caused by a honeyeater or kingfisher.

It’s this dense scrub that has given rise to myths, such as the Bunyip, Yowie and many ghost stories.

But there’s one persistent story, recently discredited by the state government, that tells of a much more plausible animal lurking in the hills behind the coast.

‘A cat wouldn’t grow that big and we don’t know of any dog with a tail like that.’

It is, of course, the tale of the panther, or big cat, said to roam undisturbed stretches of bush throughout the country.

While many dismiss the creature as an oversized moggy, others say it’s the offspring of a panther that escaped from a zoo many years ago.

Other more wild claims suggest it is not a panther at all, but the presumed extinct marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carnifex).

One human encounter with the beast allegedly occurred on the Wodi Wodi track, near Stanwell Park, on December 31, 2012.

Paw prints found in the Grampians last weekend (left) and the warning sign at the entrance to the Wodi Wodi track. Paw picture: ROD HORWILL

Paw prints found in the Grampians last weekend (left) and the warning sign at the entrance to the Wodi Wodi track. Paw picture: ROD HORWILL

Written in black pen, the witness has underlined the word ‘‘danger’’ before going on to detail the sighting.

‘‘Black panther seen + heard on Wodi Wodi track,’’ it reads.

‘‘Mt Mitchell side, size 100kg+, big big cat.’’

Among those who swear by the cat’s existence are Hilltop residents Marg and Mal Hughes.

Mr Hughes has seen giant paw prints on a track north-west of their Southern Highlands property, while Mrs Hughes said she actually witnessed the beast.

A large black animal roaming in the bush in the Blue Mountains. Picture: CHANNEL 9 A CURRENT AFFAIR

A large black animal roaming in the bush in the Blue Mountains. Picture: CHANNEL 9 A CURRENT AFFAIR

‘‘I was going shopping with a lady down to Wollongong, she’s going on Picton Road and I noticed something big and black standing, looking out of a gate,’’ Mrs Hughes said.

‘‘The main thing I noticed was this long, sweeping black tail and it actually touched the ground.

‘‘It was looking out the gate and it was probably a couple feet tall.’’

Travelling fast on Picton Road, Mrs Hughes and her companion were unable to stop to investigate the sighting further.

She said despite researching breeds of dogs, she had found nothing that could compare with what she’d seen that day.

‘‘I really don’t know what it is,’’ Mrs Hughes said.

‘‘A cat wouldn’t grow that big and we don’t know of any breed of dog with a tail like that.’’

In the  meantime, her husband, a former hunter who has regularly shot and killed feral cats after mistaking their ginger fur for that of a fox, said the paw prints he observed were much too large to be a feral cat.

‘‘I could see five pads, semi-circular, no claw marks and about three inches across,’’ he said.

‘‘I’m 99 per cent convinced there’s a big black cat out there somewhere.

‘‘Maybe there’s more than one because the sightings are a bit spread out.  They’re too frequent.’’

In October last year, a report commissioned by the  state  government attempted to take any legitimacy away from more than 500 eyewitness reports claiming to have spotted the panther.

At the time, the NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Katrina Hodgkinson, said: ‘‘The NSW  government will not commit further expenditure to this issue and, as far as I am concerned, the matter is closed.”

Likewise, a NSW Office of Environment and Heritage spokeswoman  said there was ‘‘no known panther or giant cat population in Royal National Park or the Illawarra Escarpment State Conservation Area’’.  

She said feral cats  were prevalent across NSW.

But stories of people claiming to have spotted the beast continue to emerge.

In December last year, Fairfax Media published a map of NSW divided into electorates showing 327 recorded sightings across the state as of March 2013.

While Hawkesbury led the pack with 173, Wollondilly and Kiama both recorded seven, and South Coast recorded one.

Mr Hughes doubted the Illawarra escarpment had sufficient bush to support a large, wild cat.

‘‘It’s a fairly restricted area. Stanwell Tops is at the top and all you’ve got is a steep escarpment and bush running up,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s not a big area of bushland and these things tend to be in more remote areas.

‘‘It’s got to be in a wilderness area – mostly it doesn’t come near where people are.’’

But if Mercury readers are anything to go by, the Illawarra Escarpment is prime big cat territory.

One reader was convinced he’d seen a panther at Stanwell Park.

‘‘I have actually seen one up around Stanwell Park on the railway line on the northern side of the aqueduct there, about  seven years ago,’’ he said.

‘‘I know what a panther looks like and I know I saw one in the late afternoon near the buildings there,  but it wasn’t dark.  

‘‘I rang NPWS and they said it would have just been a large cat.  This was not, it was a big, beautiful black panther.’’

Have you seen the panther? Contact scoop@illawarramercury.com.au

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