New South Island big cat sightings, the latest in a 50-year mystery

Noble Horvath

JESSE FEARY Jesse Feary is not going possum hunting alone again after shooting what he believes is a baby big cat. The long-running debate over the presence of big cats in the South Island has been reignited after two new sightings. In the most recent case, a North Canterbury possum […]

Jesse Feary is not going possum hunting alone again after shooting what he believes is a baby big cat.

JESSE FEARY

Jesse Feary is not going possum hunting alone again after shooting what he believes is a baby big cat.

The long-running debate over the presence of big cats in the South Island has been reignited after two new sightings.

In the most recent case, a North Canterbury possum hunter has vowed never to go in the bush alone after encountering a wild “monstrous” cat.

The mysterious animals – said to be similar to pumas or panthers – have been spotted in Canterbury, Otago and Marlborough for more than 50 years.

Grainy photos have emerged of the beasts roaming the countryside, while hunters say they’ve killed wild cats that are much larger than the domestic species.

READ MORE:
* Two sightings in a week put Canterbury’s big cats back in the spotlight
* ‘I know what I saw’: Woman claims ‘large cat’ loose in south Marlborough
* Mid Canterbury’s black panther sighted again

One of the earliest sightings was in 1962 when a man said he spotted a puma in Cromwell Gorge, while in 1977 Christchurch police received a report of a tiger in a suburban street in Kaiapoi.

A search was mounted and although the animal was not found, large paw prints were discovered at nearby Pines Beach.

A Department of Conservation photo of a dead feral cat in front of a labrador. DOC says the heaviest caught was 7kg.

SUPPLIED

A Department of Conservation photo of a dead feral cat in front of a labrador. DOC says the heaviest caught was 7kg.

Further sightings were made at the mouth of Ashburton River and around Lake Clearwater in 1992 and near Twizel in 1996.

In the 2000s, big cats were seen near Alford Forest, in Ashburton Gorge, in the Mayfield foothills and near Fairton meatworks.

Then in 2013, a Timaru man “got the fright of his life” when he saw a large panther-like animal on State Highway 8, close to Fairlie.

The delivery driver said he spotted a 1 metre-long beast, which he described as black and having a “deep, throaty growl”.

Later reports put the animal in the Hakataramea Valley in 2006 and near Burkes Pass in 2019.

There are numerous theories as to how the large cats may have come to reside on the South Island

One is that pet pumas were brought to New Zealand by Californian gold miners in the 1860s.

Another suggests a pregnant puma was being transported from America to Australia in 1915, when it escaped from a cargo ship in Lyttleton and fled towards the Port Hills.

The animals could have also escaped from a travelling circus.

Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch has been home to lions and tigers since it opened in 1976.

Joseph Johnson/Stuff

Orana Wildlife Park in Christchurch has been home to lions and tigers since it opened in 1976.

Despite the reports, no evidence has ever emerged to prove the existence of wild big cats.

Biosecurity New Zealand mounted a search in 2006 but experts found no proof, while in 2013, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) said there were no big cats in the region.

Christchurch’s Orana Wildlife Park, the country’s only open-range zoo, currently has lions and cheetahs.

Spokesman Nathan Hawke said they have been contacted about wild big cats for many years, and would welcome the emergence of new evidence to solve the mystery once and for all.

“We’re not aware of any history of cats escaping New Zealand zoos and establishing a wild population, [though] that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened,” he said.

“Also, we’re not aware of any species that have been held in New Zealand zoos that fit the description of this animal.”

The Christchurch zoo has received numerous calls about big cats, says spokesman Nathan Hawke.

File/The-Press

The Christchurch zoo has received numerous calls about big cats, says spokesman Nathan Hawke.

A further possibility is that the big cats spotted in the South Islands descended from pets.

Feral cats are widespread in parts of New Zealand and can be destructive to native birds and lizards.

In March a wild cat was found with 17 full native skinks – and the parts of several others – in its stomach.

Orana Wildlife Trust has launched an online survey to gauge attitudes towards cats and cat ownership.

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