Sunday, 1 December 2013

Big Black Cats in Southeast Queensland

     I've heard them called zoology's flying saucers, because they turn up where they couldn't possibly be, then disappear before any investigation can be done. They are ABCs: alien big cats. In Australia they are big and black, and tend to be labelled "black panthers", a term I shall retain for the sake of convenience, without conceding its accuracy as a formal identification. Reports are particularly common in Western Australia, Victoria, and New South Wales but, at the time I wrote my book (1996), I was able to include only a few cases from my home state of Queensland. Since then, however, more reports have arrived - in most cases by people actively contacting me. You have already heard about the black panthers of Tamborine Mountain, and the "pink panther" of Cooyar. Let us now examine a few more case histories.

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Great North Queensland Tiger Hunt of 1923

     You don't hear much about the legendary marsupial tiger of north Queensland, but it was all the rage in the first half of last century, and even had a semi-official status. It all began with letters to the Zoological Society of London in 1871, after which anecdotes accumulated, until they were collected in 1926 by Albert S. Le Souef and Harry Burrell in The Wild Animals of Australasia. The former came from a prominent zoological family, and was one of the founders of Taronga Park Zoo, while the latter was a naturalist most famous for his work with the platypus. Their material was subsequently republished by Ellis LeG Troughton, Curator of Mammals at the Australian Museum in Furred Animals of Australia, which continued in print until at least the early 1970s. Both books recorded the yet undescribed species as a large cat-like animal, presumed to be a marsupial, of a fawn colour, with black stripes which, unlike the thylacine's, do not meet on the back, and a short face similar to a cat's. Its height was estimated at 18 inches at the shoulder, with a length of five feet, including a long tail. For reference, this is the bottom of the size range for female leopards.
     As these two publications were the major reference material for Australian mammals for nearly fifty years, they carried a lot of weight. Unfortunately, being popular works, they bore no citations, so one is left to wonder where the anecdotes came from. Did they appear in earlier, independent publications, or were the authors informed by private correspondence received in their professional capacity? I do not claim to have reached the original sources. However, with the help of Trove, I think I have got partway there.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Thylacines in Indonesian New Guinea - Further Evidence

     My post two years ago on the possible existence of the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger in the Indonesian half of New Guinea appears to have been extremely popular, and is still attracting comments. So I think it is about time I updated it with evidence from a correspondent called Franz. He has asked me not to publish his last name, but he lives in Vienna, Austria, and has visited the country often for reasons unconnected with his career as a graphic designer. He usually travels with a doctor friend.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Bunyips, Sea Serpents, and Port Phillip

     Last Thursday, 29 August 2013 the National Wool Museum at Geelong had three guest speakers give talks on cryptozoology to a public audience. The first two were Simon Townsend and David Waldron, whose recent book has been reviewed on this blog, and they both gave enthusiastic and informative presentations on their respective subjects. The third speaker was me. I consider it a great honour that they should be prepared to bring me all the way from Brisbane, a distance of more than 900 miles [1450 km] for the purpose, and I hope they found it worthwhile. So here, for the benefit of the other seven-odd billion people who missed out, is the text of the speech.
     For readers outside Australia, I should explain that Port Phillip is the very big, triangular inlet in the centre of the Victorian coastline, with the state capital, Melbourne at the northern apex, and Geelong at the southwest apex. Corio Bay is a sub-bay next to Geelong. All the other sites mentioned are within striking distance of Port Phillip.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

A Trove of Sea Serpents

     Last month I revealed how the digitalised newspapers of Trove can be used to research old "bunyip" stories. This month, I shall demonstrate its use with "sea serpents".

Sunday, 21 July 2013

A Trove of Bunyips

     Everyone in Australia has heard of the bunyip, but since it appears I have more readers in the northern hemisphere, I had better explain. The bunyip is a mythical (?) monster which the Aborigines believe(d) frequents the inland waterways of southeast Australia. The name by which it went varied greatly between tribes, its description was generally vague, and its habits reputably dangerous. What is not often known is that it was reported not only by Aborigines, but by white settlers, every twenty or thirty years during the nineteenth century.
     Interesting though this unusual history might have been, a major difficulty has always been documentation. The original reports were squirreled away in the musty archives of many local newspapers, too voluminous to search. The result was, when I began my investigations forty-odd years ago, I had to rely on secondary sources. Sometimes these secondary sources referred back to the primary source, sometimes not. When I wrote Bunyips and Bigfoots, I was forced to list a number of sightings of which I knew practically nothing, except that I had noted some fleeting reference.
    Fortunately, time brings a change. The National Library of Australia has now digitalised an enormous number of newspapers and magazines up to the 1950, or even later, on a website labelled Trove. As it is easily searchable, I have at last had the opportunity to follow up these stories. It turns out, many reports were copied almost verbatim from one newspaper to another, but I have attempted to cite the original as far as possible. I might add, too, that Andrew Nicholson appears to have beaten me to the Thargomindah Bunyip.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Trouble With Eye Witnesses

     A major drawback with cryptozoology - and a lot of anomaly research in general - is that it has to rely to a large extent on eye witness testimony. Of course, we would like additional evidence: footprints, photos, films, hair and other DNA samples, and - the holy grail - a carcass. But, by and large, before anybody even looks for such evidence, somebody has to see something - and tell us about it.
     Now, eye witness testimony puts people in jail, so it shouldn't be scoffed at. However, as anyone involved in criminal investigation knows, there are eye witnesses and eye witnesses. To put it bluntly, some people's powers of observation and recall are less than adequate. To illustrate, let me share two double witnesses sightings I investigated. Even when two people see the same thing, there still remains the problem of cross-fertilisation, especially if they have discussed the matter before being interviewed, as is usually the case. Certainly, it is always important to interview both separately. Just the same, the bottom line is that two pairs of eyes are better than one. So, with these reservations, let us proceed.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Littlefoot in Australia?

     For a storyteller, there are only so many variations on the human condition you can invent. People with animal heads or other features can always be placed in far off, exotic lands. The wild man, who lives like an animal, can be placed in the depths of the wilds. Giants - well, they are too big to be living right next door. But tiny humans can fit in anywhere, so perhaps that is why such stories abound all around the world. Europe has its fairies and elves, while among the Australian Aborigines, the little hairy men, under various names, take their place. And just as Europeans who still believe in fairies still claim to have seen them, the same is true of the Aborigines.
     For instance, during the Gayndah episode, which I reported in my last post, the term,  jongari was introduced to the white community. Here is what was recorded by the Fraser Coast Chronicle of 10 February 2000, on page 5.
     According to Mally Clarke, anyone who sleeps at the Scrub Hill farm runs a fair chance of hearing the Jongari at night. "One Islander fellow who stayed here once got a real fright," she said. "He was out chasing cows one night and came back shaking because he had seen a little hairy man. We all laughed because we knew what it was."
     Four years later there were three separate sightings. "Someone once rang the police to say they had seen them running across the road from the old drive into the farm," Mally said. "Years ago they would play with the kids. I saw one once and thought it was a monkey because it was all hairy."
     Such legends, however, are completely unknown to the average white resident. So when they claim to see them, I start to take notice.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The Weird Little Visitor to Gayndah

     I appear to be out of the loop as far as mystery animal reports are concerned. When the "bear" or "jongari" paid a call to Gayndah, I was the last to be told. Steve Rushton, who lives nearby, heard about it. The message got passed to my friend, Paul Cropper in Sydney, and to Tim the Yowie Man in Canberra. Heck! Even the BBC got into the act before me.
     Gayndah, at 25° 38' S, 151° 36' E, stands inland, in a valley on the Burnett River in southeast Queensland, with a current population of 1745. The story began with an article on page 3 of The Fraser Coast Chronicle of 28 January 2000.

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Cryptids of Mount Tamborine

     I fell in love with Mount Tamborine as a very little boy - when my mother took me down the chasm walk (since closed), and I marvelled at my first sight of a rain forest. Mt Tamborine, at 27½° S, 153° 12' E, a short drive west of the Gold Coast in southeast Queensland, is a fragment of a huge volcanic shield. Crowned with a tourist mecca township on top, it is surrounded by a wide variety of habitats: from rain forest and eucalypt forests, down to pasture land in the valleys. Just the place, in fact, for a wide variety of animal life. And unofficial animal life as well - mysterious black "panthers", and one small, but very strange striped entity. At least, that was what was related to me by musician, Phil Manning in a letter mailed on 27 August 1998. I shall present the full text here,  with no changes except to shorten the names of third parties to their initials.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

A "National Geographic" Cryptid

     As every schoolboy knows, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel, The Lost World was inspired by the tepuis: the 100-odd mesas towering on perpendicular cliffs up to a mile above the jungle in the borderland of Guyana and Venezuela. Of course, even as a schoolboy, when I read the novel (twice), I sensed a problem: huge animals require lots of living room, and a "plateau" only 20 miles wide was far too small for a breeding population of even a single species of dinosaur. No, dinosaurs do not, and cannot, inhabit the cloud-masked, rain-soaked, infertile tops of the tepuis. But that does not mean they are not ecological islands, with populations isolated one from the other and undergoing divergent evolution. You cannot throw a net in this jungle without finding a species of something or other unknown to science. Therefore, we should take seriously any account of unknown species somewhat larger than the run-of-of-mill.
     Take Auyán-tepui, one of the largest of the group, with the distinction of  featuring the world's tallest waterfall, Angel Falls. In 1977 amateur entomologist, Dr Silvano Lorenzoni mentioned leading three expeditions to its summit, and finished his article with the following paragraph:
Moreover, there is one witness who asserts that he has seen three "plesiosaur-like things," about 50 cm. [20 inches] long (with 25 cm. necks) swimming in a river atop the Auyan-tepuy. While this witness can scarcely be called a scientist (he is an adventurer that roams the area digging for diamonds) his statement remains to be one more fascinating piece of information in a jigsaw puzzle that is already taking on a recognizable shape.
Reference: Dr Silvano Lorenzoni (1977). 'Extant dinosaurs: a distinct possibility', Pursuit 10(2): pp 60-61. (This was the official publication of the now defunct Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained.)

     Would you believe? This very same witness again turned up - this time in the august pages of the National Geographic.
     In 1986, the German explorer-writer, Uwe George joined a helicopter expedition to the top of Auyán-tepui.  But first they called on 75-year-old Alexander Laime, whom they found living alone in a termite-eaten shack on an island in the middle of a major river, surrounded by his subsistence gardens. Here was man who obviously had carved out his own little niche, and let the rest of the world go by. "Publicity hound" is not a description which springs readily to mind. But let Herr George tell his story:
     Alexander is a keen student of wildlife on the tepuis, and he insists that on his 1955 expedition to Auyan he encountered three dinosaur-like lizards. Over tea in a corner of his garden he told us he had come upon them while searching for diamonds in one of the rivers on top of Auyan-tepui.
     "They were sunbathing on a rocky ledge above the river," he said. "At first I thought they were seals, but when I sneaked closer, I saw they were creatures with enormously long necks and ageless reptilian faces. Each had four scale-covered fins instead of legs."
     For proof Alexander rummaged through a pile of papers and came up with some drawings that he had made at the time. To me they resembled plesiosaurs, marine reptiles that became extinct 65 million years ago. [pp 546, 548]
     Drawn to scale, they were revealed to be slightly less than three feet long. So what were they? A species of large, long-necked otter was one suggestion. But then one of the scientists in the group pointed out that the rivers up there contain no fish, making it rather difficult for even one otter to survive - let alone three. Also, to the best of my knowledge, otters have furry legs, not scaly fins.
     But, you might ask, whatever they were, why haven't they been seen since? After all, there have been many expeditions up Auyán-tepui, and it is even the site of tourist treks. In that case, you have no idea of the sheer ruggedness of the terrain, and the fact that the summit covers 270 square miles. It was not until Herr George's second expedition that they encountered a mountain lion, or puma. What was it doing there? And it had two cubs, so it wasn't just a transient which had scaled the terrible, steep inclines; there was a breeding population. Yet its chief prey, the lowland tapir would never be able to get up there. And yet ...a third expedition discovered tapir tracks in the same general location on the summit.

Reference:  Uwe George (1989) 'Venezuela's Islands in Time' , National Geographic May 1989, pp 526 -561

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Snarls from the Tea-tree: A Review

Snarls from the Tea-tree. Big Cat Folklore by David Waldron and Simon Townsend (2012), Australian Scholarly Publishing, available here.
     Several years ago, an envelope arrived at my former address, containing photographs of animals which gave every indication of having been killed by a big cat. A quick bit of research indicated that the sender, a certain Simon Townsend, was empoyed in the Victorian branch of the same government department as me. He was most surprised when I pointed it out. Since then, we have been retired, but he has kept up his interest in the topic, and has now collaborated with Dr David Waldron on a new book.
     This is about alien big cats in Victoria and the adjacent parts of South Australia. A couple of areas in other states are mentioned, but not Western Australia. Although the subject is of major concern for cryptozoology, it is not a regular cryptozoological book as such. You will not find a proposition, evidence, or a conclusion. Rather, it is a history and analysis of the phenomenon, and advice on dealing with it. There are 168 pages of text, eight photographs, four pages of index, and 400 end-notes, the greater part being of not-easily-assessible newspaper reports. Whatever else may be said about the book, it cannot be faulted for lack of documentation!

The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.