A big black cat, the size of a large German Shepherd dog, was spotted near Warburton the weekend before Easter.
Kevin Manners, of Lilydale, said he was strolling along the O’Shannassy Aqueduct trail when the animal climbed out and stared at him about 20m away. After this brief encounter, it leapt into the bush below and disappeared.
There was a similar sighting on a bush track near the Maroondah Reservoir just before Christmas last year. On that occasion, two people saw a pair of “huge black cats” driving towards Mt Saint Leonard lookout.
Similar sightings, usually describing the animal as a “leopard” or “panther”, have been reported frequently for more than a century. In Victoria the animal is sometimes called the “Gippsland Panther”, because it has often been seen between the western Gippsland region (as far east as Neerim) and Olinda and Healesville in the Dandenong Ranges.
Sightings have also been recorded in other parts of Victoria, as well as other states in Australia. According to a distribution map on the website pantherpeople.com, the big cat has been seen around the NSW-Queensland border and in the southwest corner of WA.
Various attempts have been made to explain the creature's existence. A popular theory is that it escaped from a circus, but this is not possible given the wide range in time and area of the sightings. There is very little physical evidence, including some footprints, stool samples, and reports of a mauled calf and a dozen sheep.
A 2012 study by the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research of the Department of Sustainability and Environment found the evidence was not conclusive. The report could only conclude that the “panther” might be a large feral cat. However, the size of the animal in reports makes this hard to believe.
Some people think it belongs to a native big cat species which has so far escaped observation. Vaughan King, a former big cat handler at Australia Zoo, believes there are three species in Australia.