Thursday, August 24, 2006

Australian experts agree - it's a big cat

Rebecca Lang
Wednesday, 23 August 2006

A GROWING corp of scientists and naturalists believe there are big cats roaming the Australian bush.

And they think the Hawkesbury region, the greater Blue Mountains and areas around Lithgow could be home to a breeding colony, right on Sydney's doorstep.

They are joined by a similarly expanding group of politicians and residents who are demanding the State Government foot the bill for conclusive DNA testing.

Many want the State Government to issue warnings to those living in regional and rural areas to alert them to the presence of the large predators, which some claim are responsible for missing dogs and mauled livestock.

Hawkesbury Mayor Bart Bassett said the State Government needed to act on the community's concerns.

"We definitely need investigation into DNA on what's been collected, not to scare people, but to encourage people to be more willing to report sightings, if the department acknowledged there were large cats in national parks," he said. "And if the DNA is proven, there should be a trapping program."

Dr Johannes Bauer, a wildlife ecologist from Charles Sturt University, was asked by the Department of Primary Industries to look into sightings in the Hawkesbury area. He concluded there were big cats.

Dr Robert Close, an associate professor of biology at the University of Western Sydney with an interest in big cats, believes there is something to the hundreds of sightings in NSW.

"I've got an open mind about it," Dr Close said. "Some of the reports seem to be fairly compelling, as are some of the kills."

Dr Keith Hart, a Rural Lands Protection Board veterinarian who has tracked leopards in Africa, has examined many carcasses and casts of footprints and is convinced there are leopards here in the Hawkesbury.

Hawkesbury psychologist Dr Tony Jinks, who works at the University of Western Sydney, saw a black leopard in 2002 in Kurrajong Heights.

"I recognised it immediately as a black leopard," Dr Jinks said. He did a sketch of the animal he saw and reported his sighting to the then-Department of Agriculture to be greeted with the words "oh, so the fire didn't kill it then?"

In 2000, David Pepper-Edwards, a recently retired big cat expert formerly with Taronga Zoo, identified a large animal track cast taken in Grose Vale as "possibly that of a puma".

Bill Atkinson, from the NSW Department of Primary Industries Agricultural Protection Officer, concluded in his own report: "Nothing found in this review conclusively proves the presence of free-ranging exotic large cats in NSW, but this cannot be discounted and seems more likely than not on the available evidence."

He quoted a report by Dr John Henry from Deakin University in Victoria, written more than 20 years ago (updated in 2001), that supported the case for pumas in the Grampians and elsewhere.

"If there are pumas in the Grampians – and we believe there's a strong case for that – then they would have bred up, they would have then moved out into adjacent suitable habitat," Dr Henry told ABC radio in 2004. "That's the Great Dividing Range. So they would have moved into the vicinity north of Ballarat, across central Victoria."

While the department maintains it is taking the issue seriously, most reports are never acted upon due to the time factor involved. Mr Atkinson said in many cases he found out too late about sightings to collect meaningful evidence on-site.

Despite the hundreds of sightings in NSW, a 'cone of silence' and a culture of ridicule prevails where the big cat is concerned.

Real or imagined, we'll never be the wiser unless the State Government takes a proactive approach in dealing with the issue.

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