Illawarra panther picture provokes photo frenzy: photos

The mysterious black panther said to roam the Illawarra escarpment has at last paused for a photo, conveniently beside a road sign that has since attracted an ape, a leopard, a badly rendered ferret and what looks like a yowie.

The picture lit up social media this week but was quickly shot down by a long line of critics who know a Photoshop fake when they see one. They offered up a menagerie of unlikely imitations to make their point.

Blue Mountains writer Rebecca Lang, who spent 10 years researching the existence of oversized bush felines for her book, Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers, said hoax material routinely surfaced as the question of the creatures’ existence went unanswered.

‘‘I would have seen three or four reasonably good-looking hoaxes in the last 18 months – this was probably the most obvious,’’ she said. ‘‘How many anomalous, mysterious animals can you get conveniently posing in front of a location sign?’’

The photo, which shows a panther superimposed against road signs showing the way to Sydney, Wollongong, Darkes Forest and Helensburgh, bears the watermark of Wollongong photo company 16images. The company’s photographer, Steen Barnes, appears to have enjoyed setting the cat among the pixels.

‘‘Next Photoshop I will make the panther fly a UFO bahhaa,’’ he told his Facebook followers.

In researching her book, co-written with partner Michael Williams, Ms Lang examined several reported big cat sightings in the Illawarra. She believes the number of reports makes the area worthy of ‘‘further study by qualified ecologists and biologists’’ and a government-funded study.

She is doubtful of several popular theories as to the panther’s supposed introduction into Australia isolated ecosystem, including stories of circus escapees, or the theory that they were released by American airmen stationed in Australia during World War II.

‘‘That is a very remote possibility. You’re talking about some very long-lived cats, unless some sort of breeding [occurred since]. I find it far-fetched that there would have been enough in Australia to be breeding and spreading like rabbits.’’

Ms Lang favours a  simpler – but still intriguing – theory. ‘‘There seems to be some very interesting evidence that suggests feral cats are actually getting a lot bigger than we otherwise supposed they might.’’