Aussie Tiger King’s hunt for panther proof on Coast
WHEN big cat guru Vaughan King says he's hunting big cats, he means he's hunting BIG cats - he's in pursuit of the puma and the black leopard - the folkloric felines supposedly surviving and thriving in the Australian bush.
He's not tracking and trapping your local tabby, albeit oversized and boldly wreaking havoc in the suburbs.
"I've analysed thousands of these photos and videos over the years of alleged big cats, but what people don't realise is these animals are actually huge.
"They start life as a half-a-kilo animal - we're not dealing with your next-door neighbour's moggy that's gone feral."
Vaughan features in Robot Army and Ruby Entertainment's recently released documentary The Hunt: In Search of Australia's Big Cats, alongside expert researchers John Turner and Simon Townsend, and the film follows their quest around the country to prove the existence of a big cat population.
The trio witness the results of baffling livestock kills, hear spine-tingling growls in the dark, and listen to tales of others' remarkable confrontations, as well as collect apparent evidence of big cats to be sent off for testing.
On average, a big cat sighting has been reported daily in Australia over the last two years.
Vaughan's mission for proof has lead him to explore the Gympie region where he has been quick on the trail of reported sightings, setting up cameras and collecting DNA samples.
In and around the Glenwood Forest, an animal nicknamed the Glenwood Panther has sparked fear and infinite intrigue among locals.
The mysterious animal - or ones like it - have never been caught clearly on camera but have been seen many times over the decades in the Maryborough and Gympie regions, which are now known as Queensland 'hot spots'.
In 2018, Glenwood teenager James Fowler talked about his rendezvous with the Glenwood Panther - a 1.5m beast with tiger teeth reckoned to be the descendant of a big cat which escaped from the circus in the late 1800s.
James faced the monster cat - covered in black, shiny fur - when he ventured outside in the middle of the night to check why his dog was madly barking.
In 2017 Vaughan investigated a big cat sighting in Curra, and also that year there were sightings from Glenwood and Mooloo.
In another 2017 sighting in Curra, Resident Milan Katic was on his back deck when he spotted a large, shiny black creature creeping through tall grass about 15 metres away.
"It was no cat and no dog - it was a big cat closely resembling a puma," he said at the time.
Vaughan, a former Sunshine Coast zoo tiger handler, says the most plausible explanation for big cats in Australia is the legend of circus "accidents".
"I've spoken to a circus owner who says as they were travelling through the Gympie area, they lost animals in the bush, and of those animals three were apparently black panthers.
"So, assuming they're not the same gender, right there is your breeding population ready to go."
The circus owner told Vaughan the Gympie accident took place in the late 1990s as the troop was travelling on unsealed roads "on a dark and stormy night, as all good stories go".
A road train rolled downhill and overturned, killing some animals, while others escaped and were recaptured.
There was a bear and some monkeys, but Vaughan was told, "The big cats … we never saw them again".
"It's crazy to think about," Vaughan says of the potential connection between Gympie's big cat revelations and the region's colourful circus history.
"They've got the whole kit and caboodle up in Gympie!"
Vaughan, who lives just an hour away on the Sunshine Coast, has heard of other recent reports in the Gympie district, although he hasn't researched those … yet.
"Yes, they have had recent sightings and there's a few I'd like to look into further."
He says common stories are from people driving on the highway who believe they've seen a big cat, or they get in touch because they think they have seen something on a friend's property.
"You have to narrow down your search criteria and work out which ones are legitimate."
Sometimes people report 'historical sightings' from 30 years ago.
"It's too long ago and the trail's gone cold."
His interest, however, is piqued when a property owner calls.
"Because that's their domain and they know what's out of place and what's normally on the property."
Some people worry he will find and harm the animal but "I'm not trying to kill it".
"I'm trying to shoot it with a camera, not a gun."
Vaughan, who accumulated a mountain of knowledge during his time at Australia Zoo and as a photographer in Africa documenting big cat predatory behaviour, has visited properties which are the sites of a "fresh kill".
"The craziest one was a goat that was killed, but the goat wasn't from that property.
"It was in Victoria and the animal had dragged the goat to this property."
In the Gympie region, he has investigated horses which have been attacked.
One owner, whose horse sustained suspicious scratch marks, had seen two suspect 'big cats', possibly a mother and a cub.
In another Gympie attack, Vaughan saw video footage of a wounded horse.
"The injuries were very consistent with what you would expect to see if a zebra had survived an attack from a lion.
"You could see where the claws had dug in and the animal had bitten down."
The horse's owner, an ex CSIRO equine employee, had seen injuries to animals from barbed wire, and was sure these were different.
Recently, closer to Brisbane, Vaughan received a report from the driver of an electric Tesler car who saw a black panther which - because the car was so quiet - didn't hear them coming.
While there's been a "rich history" of sightings, big cats are an apex predator, and people don't expect to find them in Australia because of our strict bio security laws.
Vaughan says the "calling card" of the black leopard is that they spend most of their time up in trees, whereas feral cats mostly survive on the ground.
"They will make a kill and drag it up a tree to get away from the competition. That's their instinct, to climb a tree.
"So if I hear a story of something jumping down from a tree … it's such a quintessential leopard thing to do."
Big cats are "good at what they do", which is surviving in obscurity in the wild.
"And it is why they've lasted as long as they have. There's a reason why they can be in your backyard and you don't know," Vaughan says.
"In North America, you never see a cougar but a cougar sees you. They don't want to be seen - their life revolves around being undetected.
"Can they survive here? Yes - we have a lot of wildlife they can prey on like marsupials, which are generally very easy to hunt."
The only reason humans would need to be afraid, is if people try to kill the animals.
"If they injure one, that's the only time the animal will try and kill someone."
Having said that, if you're out in the bush and an opportunistic leopard is hungry or slightly injured, he might take a chance on you.
"We think we are apex predators but we're not - we're easy picking for the apex predators.
"There's some places I wouldn't be comfortable with my daughter going for that reason. I've seen too much."
While on the prowl for big cats, Vaughan is also on the lookout for sightings that fall into the category of 'Pareidolia', or a phenomenon where the mind responds to a stimulus and perceives a pattern where none exists.
For example, a person might truly believe they've seen a big cat - they've heard of them and want to see one - but actually they spotted a swamp wallaby or black dog.
He recently investigated two separate accounts in the same field which turned out to be sightings of a metal cut-out of a black panther a farmer had erected.
"90% of my work is working out what's Pareidolia effect."
A major motivation behind the creation of the documentary, he says, is to raise public awareness.
From a safety perspective, people in certain areas should know there's a predatory mammal in their vicinity - it could save a life.
Also, there's the paramount purpose of protecting the animals.
Animals injured by failed hunts can become dangerous. Placid, elusive creatures can turn into man-eaters.
"I would love to see the animals classified as a separate subspecies."
Currently, they are seen as "introduced" or "feral", and "not better than a cane toad, unfortunately."
Vaughan says, for now, he's dedicated to chasing "definite proof" in every state so "we can say, yes, we have a population in Australia".
"They're also a beautiful animal. There's a reason why the safari industry is so big - they are majestic and deserve to be seen."
During the making of the documentary, there was a lot of "legitimate science" going on behind the scenes.
"We get hair samples tested by laboratories. That's going to be the best bet in proving they're out there, by proving the DNA analysis."
Vaughan says that DNA tested in the 1990s in Victoria was returned as 99% black leopard DNA.
He also uses tracking techniques, scent traps, and remote long-range camera trapping.
"It's not just a hobby. Big cats are my passion."
And his passion is contagious - the documentary aired on the Discovery Channel this month with a longer version to be released next month on Animal Planet, and its contents have been devoured by a curious and fascinated public.
Since its release, Vaughan's email inbox and Instagram feed have been overflowing.
"It's pretty humbling."
Big cat researcher, bushman and tracker John Turner who features in the documentary, has his own tales.
One night in 1972, while rabbit spotlighting with his father in Victoria, the duo encountered a large black cat the size of a Labrador, eating a dead sheep.
During another brush with a big cat in the late 1990s, he came within 10 metres of a leopard-like creature.
Fellow documentary researcher Simon Townsend also saw a big cat as a young man in Victoria.
The animal, which was just longer than two metres, was "belligerent", he says.
"It wasn't dangerous, but it didn't like the look of us at all.
"This animal was probably about my weight and it was immaculate - you could see the muscles moving under the skin and the shoulderblades going up and down.
"And it wanted to get out of there damn quick. It had a malicious look on its face."
Simon, who authored Snarls from the Tea-tree: Big Cat Folklore, says the documentary is another step in encouraging more public involvement in the search for 'big cats'.
"Some people are upset by what they've seen. They lock themselves in their houses afterwards for weeks at a time.
"We did have a couple who were quite seriously affected by what they'd seen, and what they'd seen was for real."
Vaughan's next goal in raising awareness is to work on a series-style version of The Hunt.
He says, "There's a lot of interest in Australia but also worldwide. And people love the mystery beast stories."
Find out more or follow Vaughan King via Instagram, and his Facebook pages Vaughan King Wildlife, Big Cat Sightings Australia or the Australian Big Cat Research Group.
Sightings can also be reported at: www.facebook.com/TheHuntFilmAUS/
The Hunt: In Search of Australia's Big Cats airs Monday, June 29, at 9:30pm on Animal Planet. It is also streaming now via Foxtel and Fetch.
(Articles contributed by Louise Shannon have been supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.)