An eight centimetre-long paw print left in the foothills of the Illawarra escarpment has piqued the interest of a roving big cat enthusiast, who believes it proof of panther activity.
Vaughan King, 30, has deemed Austinmer’s Sublime Point track a panther-spotting hotspot and flagged plans for organised surveillance, including a program that would see 24/7 game cameras concealed in area bushland.
Mr King spent five years employed at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo, working his way up from birds and mammals until he achieved his goal of working as a handler of Sumatran and Bengal tigers.
His recently formed Australian Big Cat Research group manages a website which maps user-generated reports of big cat sightings Australia-wide.
Already bound for Sydney for a meeting with a South African big cat expert last week, Mr King spent time combing bushland off Sublime Point track after a visitor to his website sent him a picture of the paw print.
“I immediately thought it looked like the hind foot of a leopard,” Mr King, of Queensland, told the Mercury.
“I have lined it up with a known leopard pug mark and it’s very similar.
“A feral cat would never get that big; the animal that would leave that sort of print would have to be between 50-60kgs. And with a dog, you can usually draw a line between the toes and the planter pad and you get a perfect ‘X’. Cats have a very different sort of footprint.”
He found no further sign of any big cat, before an intriguing account drew him to Victoria, vowing to return.
Based on the repeated reports, and the now-photographed print, Mr King believes the Illawarra sightings relate to an Asiatic leopard.
“The reports are generally always of the same size and colour, which leads me to think it's an Asiatic leopard,” he said.
“Asiatic leopards have a melanistic [all black] gene running through them a bit more strongly than the African leopard.
“There’s a theory that [the black colouring] is an evolutionary adaptation to living in the jungle.”
With the blessing of his lawyer fiance, Mr King has put paid work aside for the year to focus entirely on investigating big cat sightings.
He has dropped everything to investigate recent sightings. He says he intends to carry out prolonged surveillance, starting with his preferred hotspot, Healesville, north-east of Victoria.
“If there's a close second [hotspot] it would be Sublime Point,” he added.
“There’s a lot of weekend warriors that go out and do this sort of stuff, but it’s never been taken seriously.
“There’s so many sightings out there it’s ridiculous. I’m committing the next 12 months, full time, to basically proving this beyond the shadow of a doubt.”
Appin resident John Geragotellis took the photograph of the paw print off Austinmer’s Buttenshaw Drive, about 40-50 metres north of Buttenshaw Place, on Easter Monday.
He had seen a report on a recent big cat sighting in the area – attributed to an anonymous onlooker – and says he had this on his mind when he noticed the unusual print among more familiar-looking tracks that appeared to have been made by dogs and humans.
“It was larger than the dog prints and it looked different, which led me to think it was possibly a cat print,” Mr Geragotellis said.
“I believe they [big cats] are out there and I would just like to have more information on what species they are and where they range around Australia.
“I think it’s really exciting.”