Does a panther prowl the Illawarra escarpment?

Paw prints on the Sublime Point Track. Picture courtesy of Anthony Phillips

Paw prints on the Sublime Point Track. Picture courtesy of Anthony Phillips

Paw prints on the Sublime Point Track. Picture courtesy of Anthony Phillips

Paw prints on the Sublime Point Track. Picture courtesy of Anthony Phillips

Varied theories have been let loose about the creature reportedly roaming the escarpment above Wollongong’s northern suburbs. 

From panther or wallaby to just an abnormally large feral cat, the suggestions are wide and varied.

However, one thing is certain – the animal gets people talking. 

A Mercury story at the weekend told of how sisters Candice and Stephy Morgan were startled by a jet black animal with yellow eyes and a long sweeping tail last week.

It then suddenly sprung from the road onto the top of a roadside embankment to my left ... it did so with the grandeur and size of a panther. - Arnold McLean

Their frightening encounter on the Sublime Point track was the latest of many sightings of the Illawarra’s much-discussed black panther. 

The story prompted Anthony Phillips to share pictures of large paw prints he spotted on the same track this week.

Dr Adam Munn, from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Wollongong said the prints appeared to belong to a dog or a fox, somewhat quashing the panther phenomenon.

Dr Munn said the large mammal reportedly roaming the escarpment was possibly a dog or a very large cat.

‘‘If frightened, cats can fluff-up their fur and look considerably larger than they really are, especially the tail, which is usually the only bit you really get a good look at,’’ Dr Munn said.

Feral cats are known to grow into very large creatures, which Dr Munn said probably survived by scavenging human rubbish when they could and eating birds and small mammals.

Its eyes glowed vivid gold in my vehicle’s headlights, clearly indicating the animal was not a dog or calf. - Arnold McLean

He said research on wild dog, fox and feral cat interactions indicated that in areas where dogs and foxes were controlled through trapping or baiting, cats could ‘‘get really big’’.

‘‘We don’t really know what the ecological associations between these three predators are, especially in more heavily wooded and forested regions like the escarpment,’’ he said.

Meanwhile, Mercury reader Arnold McLean has told of a panther encounter near Robertson a few years ago.

Mr McLean said he was heading east on the Illawarra Highway one night when he saw a pair of eyes reflected in his headlights about three kilometres west of the town. 

He looked at its eye height and said it was ‘‘definitely higher than that of a dog or cat’’.

‘‘The other most notable feature was that its eyes glowed vivid gold in my vehicle’s headlights, clearly indicating the animal was not a dog or calf,’’ Mr McLean said.

‘‘It then suddenly sprung from the road onto the top of a roadside embankment to my left ... it did so with the grandeur and size of a panther.’’

It seems sightings of a mysterious ‘‘panther’’ roaming around the region’s bushland have not just occurred on the Sublime Point track.

Several Illawarra residents have taken to social media and the Mercury’s website to recount their own experience, spotting the ‘‘panther’’ as far away as Tathra on the Far South Coast.

Matt Shorty posted on Facebook: ‘‘I saw one near Darkes Forest  about four years ago while driving along a fire trail in the catchment for work’’.

Joshua Mennie wrote: ‘‘I saw one years ago cross in front of me, early morning about a kilometre onto Sheepwash Road [at] Fitzroy Falls’’ while Sarah Blake posted: ‘‘I saw one a year ago in the national parks near Tathra too!’’

Another poster wrote about four or five credible accounts of this ‘‘exact description around the Mogo and Moruya area’’.

Other people took to the Mercury’s website.

Commentator Rachel wrote: ‘‘my son was driving from Sydney; on his way down as he came past Bulli Bush he saw  a large black cat with a very long tail this was just before Christmas.’’

In another  post, fb66 said: ‘‘I believe them as I saw a panther many years ago when I was motorcross riding up at Wongawilli.’’

Stories of brushes with the ‘‘panther’’ have been doing the rounds for decades. Many Illawarra residents have reported seeing the strange creature across the escarpment.

- Emma Spillett

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