EPIC HUNT FOR PAN­THER PROOF

Aussie Tiger King’s search for big cats in Coast hin­ter­land

Fraser Coast Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - LOUISE SHANNON

WHEN he set out on a mis­sion to find big cats in the Aus­tralian bush, one of Vaughan King’s first stops was here.

King’s mis­sion for proof has led him to ex­plore the re­gion where he has been fol­low­ing the trail of re­ported sight­ings, set­ting up cam­eras and col­lect­ing DNA sam­ples. The mys­te­ri­ous an­i­mal — or ones like it — have never been caught clearly on cam­era but have been seen many times over the decades in the area.

WHEN big cat guru Vaughan King says he’s hunt­ing big cats, he means he’s hunt­ing BIG cats.

He’s in pur­suit of the puma and the black leop­ard – the folk­loric fe­lines sup­pos­edly sur­viv­ing and thriv­ing in the Aus­tralian bush.

He’s not track­ing and trap­ping your lo­cal tabby, al­beit over­sized and boldly wreak­ing havoc in the sub­urbs.

“I’ve an­a­lysed thou­sands of these pho­tos and videos over the years of al­leged big cats, but what peo­ple don’t re­alise is these an­i­mals are ac­tu­ally huge,” Vaughan says.

“They start life as a half-a-kilo an­i­mal. We’re not deal­ing with your next-door neigh­bour’s moggy that’s gone feral.”

Vaughan fea­tures in Ro­bot Army and Ruby En­ter­tain­ment’s re­cently re­leased doc­u­men­tary The Hunt: In Search of Aus­tralia’s Big Cats, along­side ex­pert re­searchers John Turner and Si­mon Townsend.

The film fol­lows their quest around the coun­try to prove the ex­is­tence of a big cat pop­u­la­tion.

The trio wit­nesses the re­sults of baf­fling live­stock kills, hear spine-tin­gling growls in the dark, and lis­ten to tales of oth­ers’ re­mark­able con­fronta­tions, as well as col­lect ap­par­ent ev­i­dence of big cats to be sent off for test­ing.

On av­er­age, a big cat sight­ing has been re­ported daily in Aus­tralia over the last two years.

Vaughan’s mis­sion for proof has led him to ex­plore the Gympie re­gion where he has been quick on the trail of re­ported sight­ings, set­ting up cam­eras and col­lect­ing DNA sam­ples.

In and around the Glen­wood For­est, an an­i­mal nick­named the Glen­wood Pan­ther has sparked fear and in­fi­nite in­trigue among lo­cals.

The mys­te­ri­ous an­i­mal – or ones like it – has never been caught clearly on cam­era but has been seen many times over the decades in the Mary­bor­ough and Gympie re­gions, which are known as Queens­land hot spots.

In 2018, Glen­wood teenager James Fowler talked about his ren­dezvous with the Glen­wood Pan­ther – a 1.5m beast with tiger teeth reck­oned to be the de­scen­dant of a big cat that es­caped from the cir­cus in the late 1800s.

James faced the mon­ster cat – cov­ered in black, shiny fur – when he ven­tured out­side in the mid­dle of the night to check why his dog was madly bark­ing.

In 2017 Vaughan in­ves­ti­gated a big cat sight­ing in Curra, and also that year there were sight­ings at Glen­wood and Mooloo.

In an­other 2017 sight­ing in Curra, res­i­dent Mi­lan Katic was on his back deck when he spot­ted a large, shiny black crea­ture creep­ing through tall grass about 15 me­tres away.

“It was no cat and no dog. It was a big cat closely re­sem­bling a puma,” he said at the time.

Vaughan, a for­mer Sun­shine Coast zoo tiger han­dler, said the most plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion for big cats in Aus­tralia was the legend of cir­cus “ac­ci­dents”.

“I’ve spo­ken to a cir­cus owner who says as they were trav­el­ling through the Gympie area, they lost an­i­mals in the bush, and of those an­i­mals three were ap­par­ently black pan­thers,” he said.

“So, as­sum­ing they’re not the same gen­der, right there is your breed­ing pop­u­la­tion ready to go.”

The cir­cus owner told Vaughan the Gympie ac­ci­dent took place in the late 1990s as the troop was trav­el­ling on un­sealed roads “on a dark and stormy night, as all good stories go”.

A road train rolled down­hill and over­turned, killing some an­i­mals, while oth­ers es­caped and were re­cap­tured.

There was a bear and some mon­keys, but Vaughan was told, “The big cats … we never saw them again”.

“It’s crazy to think about,” Vaughan said of the po­ten­tial con­nec­tion be­tween Gympie’s big cat rev­e­la­tions and the re­gion’s colour­ful cir­cus his­tory.

“They’ve got the whole kit and ca­boo­dle up in Gympie!”

Vaughan, who lives just an hour away on the Sun­shine Coast, has heard of other re­cent re­ports in the Gympie district, although he hasn’t re­searched those … yet.

“Yes, they have had re­cent sight­ings and there’s a few I’d like to look into fur­ther.”

He said com­mon stories were from peo­ple driv­ing on the high­way who be­lieved they had seen a big cat, or they got in touch be­cause they thought they had seen some­thing on a friend’s prop­erty.

“You have to nar­row down your search cri­te­ria and work out which ones are le­git­i­mate,” Vaughan said.

Some­times peo­ple re­port ‘his­tor­i­cal sight­ings’ from 30 years ago.

“It’s too long ago and the trail’s gone cold,” Vaughan said.

His in­ter­est, how­ever, is piqued when a prop­erty owner calls.

“Be­cause that’s their do­main and they know what’s out of place and what’s nor­mally on the prop­erty.”

Some peo­ple worry he will find and harm the an­i­mal but “I’m not try­ing to kill it”.

“I’m try­ing to shoot it with a cam­era, not a gun.”

Vaughan, who ac­cu­mu­lated a moun­tain of knowl­edge dur­ing his time at Aus­tralia Zoo and as a pho­tog­ra­pher in

Africa doc­u­ment­ing big cat preda­tory be­hav­iour, has vis­ited prop­er­ties which are the sites of a “fresh kill”.

“The cra­zi­est one was a goat that was killed, but the goat wasn’t from that prop­erty,” he said. “It was in Vic­to­ria and the an­i­mal had dragged the goat to this prop­erty.”

In the Gympie re­gion, he has in­ves­ti­gated horses that had been at­tacked.

One owner, whose horse sus­tained sus­pi­cious scratch marks, had seen two sus­pect ‘big cats’, pos­si­bly a mother and a cub.

In an­other Gympie at­tack, Vaughan saw video footage of a wounded horse.

“The in­juries were very con­sis­tent with what you would ex­pect to see if a ze­bra had sur­vived an at­tack from a lion,” he said. “You could see where the claws had dug in and the an­i­mal had bit­ten down.”

The horse’s owner, an exCSIRO equine em­ployee, had seen in­juries to an­i­mals from barbed wire, and was sure these were dif­fer­ent.

Re­cently, closer to Bris­bane, Vaughan re­ceived a re­port from the driver of an elec­tric car who saw a black pan­ther which – be­cause the car was so quiet – didn’t hear him com­ing.

While there’s been a “rich his­tory” of sight­ings, big cats are an apex preda­tor, and peo­ple don’t ex­pect to find them in Aus­tralia be­cause of our strict bio se­cu­rity laws.

Vaughan said the “call­ing card” of the black leop­ard was that they spent most of their time up in trees, whereas feral cats mostly sur­vived on the ground.

“They will make a kill and drag it up a tree to get away from the com­pe­ti­tion. That’s their in­stinct, to climb a tree.

“So if I hear a story of some­thing jump­ing down from a tree … it’s such a quin­tes­sen­tial leop­ard thing to do.”

Big cats are “good at what they do”, which is sur­viv­ing in ob­scu­rity in the wild.

“And it is why they’ve lasted as long as they have. There’s a rea­son why they can be in your back­yard and you don’t know,” Vaughan said.

“In North Amer­ica, you never see a cougar but a cougar sees you. They don’t want to be seen

“Can they sur­vive here? Yes. We have a lot of wildlife they can prey on like mar­su­pi­als, which are gen­er­ally very easy to hunt.”

The only rea­son hu­mans would need to be afraid, is if peo­ple try to kill the an­i­mals.

“If they in­jure one, that’s the only time the an­i­mal will try and kill some­one.”

Hav­ing said that, if you’re out in the bush and an op­por­tunis­tic leop­ard is hun­gry or slightly in­jured, he might take a chance on you.

“We think we are apex preda­tors but we’re not. We’re easy pick­ing for the apex preda­tors,” Vaughan said.

“There’s some places I wouldn’t be com­fort­able with my daugh­ter go­ing for that rea­son. I’ve seen too much.”

While on the prowl for big cats, Vaughan is also on the look­out for sight­ings that fall into the cat­e­gory of ‘Parei­do­lia’, or a phe­nom­e­non where the mind re­sponds to a stim­u­lus and per­ceives a pat­tern where none ex­ists.

For ex­am­ple, a per­son might truly be­lieve they’ve seen a big cat – they’ve heard of them and want to see one – but ac­tu­ally they spot­ted a swamp wal­laby or black dog.

He re­cently in­ves­ti­gated two sep­a­rate ac­counts in the same field which turned out to be sight­ings of a metal cut-out of a black pan­ther a farmer had erected.

“Ninety per cent of my work is work­ing out what’s Parei­do­lia ef­fect.”

He said a ma­jor mo­ti­va­tion be­hind the doc­u­men­tary was to raise pub­lic aware­ness.

From a safety per­spec­tive, peo­ple in cer­tain ar­eas should know there’s a preda­tory mam­mal in their vicin­ity – it could save a life.

Also, there’s the pur­pose of pro­tect­ing the an­i­mals.

An­i­mals in­jured by failed hunts can be­come dan­ger­ous. Placid, elusive crea­tures can turn into man-eaters.

“I would love to see the an­i­mals clas­si­fied as a sep­a­rate sub­species.”

Cur­rently, they are seen as “in­tro­duced” or “feral”, and “not bet­ter than a cane toad, un­for­tu­nately”.

Vaughan said, for now, he was ded­i­cated to chas­ing “def­i­nite proof” in ev­ery state so “we can say, yes, we have a pop­u­la­tion in Aus­tralia”.

“They’re also a beau­ti­ful an­i­mal. There’s a rea­son why the sa­fari in­dus­try is so big – they are ma­jes­tic and de­serve to be seen.”

Dur­ing the mak­ing of the doc­u­men­tary, there was a lot of “le­git­i­mate sci­ence” go­ing on be­hind the scenes.

“We get hair sam­ples tested by lab­o­ra­to­ries. That’s go­ing to be the best bet in prov­ing they’re out there, by prov­ing the DNA anal­y­sis.”

Vaughan said that DNA tested in the 1990s in Vic­to­ria was re­turned as 99 per cent black leop­ard DNA.

He also uses track­ing tech­niques, scent traps, and re­mote long-range cam­era trap­ping.

“It’s not just a hobby. Big cats are my pas­sion.”

And his pas­sion is con­ta­gious. The doc­u­men­tary aired on the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel this month with a longer ver­sion to be re­leased next month on An­i­mal Planet, and its con­tents have been de­voured by a cu­ri­ous pub­lic.

Since its re­lease, Vaughan’s email in­box and In­sta­gram feed have been over­flow­ing. “It’s pretty hum­bling.” Big cat re­searcher, bush­man and tracker John Turner who fea­tures in the doc­u­men­tary, has his own tales.

One night in 1972, while rab­bit spot­light­ing with his father in Vic­to­ria, the duo en­coun­tered a large black cat the size of a Labrador, eat­ing a dead sheep.

Dur­ing an­other brush with a big cat in the late 1990s, he came within 10 me­tres of a leop­ard-like crea­ture.

Fel­low doc­u­men­tary re­searcher Si­mon Townsend also saw a big cat as a young man in Vic­to­ria.

The an­i­mal, which was just longer than two me­tres, was “bel­liger­ent”, he said.

“It wasn’t dan­ger­ous, but it didn’t like the look of us at all,” he said.

“This an­i­mal was prob­a­bly about my weight and it was im­mac­u­late. You could see the mus­cles mov­ing un­der the skin and the shoul­der blades go­ing up and down.

“And it wanted to get out of there damn quick. It had a ma­li­cious look on its face.”

Si­mon, who wrote Snarls from the Tea-tree: Big Cat Folk­lore, said the doc­u­men­tary was an­other step in en­cour­ag­ing more pub­lic in­volve­ment in the search for ‘big cats’.

“Some peo­ple are up­set by what they’ve seen. They lock them­selves in their houses af­ter­wards for weeks at a time.

“We did have a cou­ple who were quite se­ri­ously af­fected by what they’d seen, and what they’d seen was for real.”

Vaughan’s next goal in rais­ing aware­ness is to work on a

se­ries-style ver­sion of The

Hunt.

“There’s a lot of in­ter­est in Aus­tralia but also world­wide. And peo­ple love the mys­tery beast stories,” he said.

Find out more or fol­low Vaughan King via In­sta­gram, and his Face­book pages Vaughan King Wildlife, Big Cat Sight­ings Aus­tralia or the Aus­tralian Big Cat Re­search Group.

Sight­ings can also be re­ported at: www.face­book.com/TheHun­tFilmAUS/

The Hunt: In Search of Aus­tralia’s Big Cats airs Mon­day, June 29, at 9.30pm on An­i­mal Planet. It is also stream­ing now via Fox­tel and Fetch.

I’VE SPO­KEN TO A CIR­CUS OWNER WHO SAYS AS THEY WERE TRAV­EL­LING THROUGH THE GYMPIE AREA, THEY LOST AN­I­MALS IN THE BUSH, AND OF THOSE AN­I­MALS THREE WERE AP­PAR­ENTLY BLACK PAN­THERS. SO, AS­SUM­ING THEY’RE NOT THE SAME GEN­DER, RIGHT THERE IS YOUR BREED­ING POP­U­LA­TION READY TO GO.

Pic­tures: Con­trib­uted

A scene from The Hunt. IN­SETS: Big cat re­searcher Vaughan King on his wed­ding day with wife, Marizahn. The pair eloped to South Africa and chose a moun­tain back­drop which is home to a leop­ard pop­u­la­tion. Vaughan is aim­ing to shoot the big cats with his cam­era, not a gun.

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