Legendary panther spotted on Austinmer bush track


It is the legend that will not die - possibly because it has nine lives.
 The Illawarra’s black panther has been spotted again. Austinmer resident Manii Versoza, on a regular walk on the Sublime Point track on Thursday morning, said a jet black animal ‘‘the size of a labrador’’ with a ‘‘long, swooping cat tail’’ rushed out of the bush and crossed the track around a metre in front of him. ‘‘Any closer and he would have jumped on me,’’ said Mr Versoza, a retired sergeant and officer in charge of the Illawarra police rescue squad. ‘‘I thought it was a big tree kangaroo or feral cat but with the big tail, and how lightning fast it was, it wasn’t that. This thing should be in a zoo.’’ 
With extensive recovery and rescue experience in the Illawarra bushland, Mr Versoza said some areas was dense and quiet enough for a big cat, or several, to live undiscovered. ‘‘I guarantee there is a big black cat out there. There must be others,’’ he said. Big cat sightings are not uncommon in the Illawarra. A famous warning scrawled on a sign at the entrance of the Wodi Wodi track near Stanwell Park reports a 100 kilogram black cat was spotted on December 31, 2012.  

 Many others have reported spotting glimpses of a hulking black shape roaming the wilds of the Illawarra, but little more than hear-say evidence has been reported in the region. West Wollongong resident Jenny Causer is a believer, however. While on a bushwalk on Mount Ousley around 20 years ago, she reports seeing a huge black cat burst out of bush - a cat the same size as a large rottweiler she was walking with. ‘‘It was long and lopey, with a long thick solid tail. Jet black,’’ Ms Causer said. Mr Versoza has no doubts about what he saw. He said the encounter will not stop him from walking on the Sublime Point track, but said others should be aware of what may be hiding in the dense bush. ‘‘It blew me away, but I am concerned now. It is alarming, there must be others around,’’ he said. Experts back big cat File picture. The bushland panther is one of the most enduring legends of the Australian bush, but more than a few experts believe the big cat stories are more than  just fiction. Dr Ricky Spencer, Senior Lecturer with the Native and Pest Animal Unit at the University of Western Sydney, believes the panther legend may have a grain of truth. ‘‘Years ago, I would have thought the people making these reports were nutters. 

However, recently I’ve heard reports from wildlife biologists and naturalists who say they’ve seen these things,’’ Dr Spencer said. Panther sightings have been reported along the east coast  from Victoria to Picton, and the legendary beasts are said to roam the Blue Mountains and Penrith. The most recent sighting was at Goulburn in early October. Theories include escaped circus animals, or exotic pets released into the wild by a collector. One school of thought states the American military sometimes carried panther cubs as mascots, with several such cats let loose by troops stationed in Australia in the 1940s. 

Dr Spencer said such theories are ‘‘a bit far-fetched’’, but offered a more mundane explanation. ‘‘There is a lot of stuff imported into Australia illegally, and from what I’ve heard, maybe some escaped,’’ he said. ‘‘I’d say 99 per cent of sightings are a feral cat or swamp wallaby, but there are enough credible reports to at least look into it.’’ 

Michael Williams has pursued the panther stories for a decade. With partner Rebecca Lang, Mr Williams published the book Australian Big Cats; an Unnatural History of Panthers in 2010, after collecting sightings, DNA results and historical records. He is convinced such beasts roam the Australian bush, and said his website received about 10 big cat sighting reports a year from the Illawarra. ‘‘These things are out there. What they actually are, is the million-dollar question,’’ Mr Williams said. ‘‘Whatever it is, it is real.’’