The search for NZ’s black panthers
Are some of New Zealand’s missing trampers victims of leopard or cougar attacks in the South Island? A new book by big cat investigators MICHAEL WILLIAMS and REBECCA LANG raises disturbing new evidence, some of which is detailed in this exclusive extract:
New Zealand, like Australia, has no indigenous big cats. In fact, the two islands that make up the landmass of the country – approximately 29 times smaller than that of Australia, and 2000km from its neighbour’s shores – can boast of only two native mammals, both bats.
The only other noteworthy possible native is the fabled waitoreke, an otter-like creature, the existence of which has been fiercely debated but never substantiated.
Since the first British settlers arrived in the 1830s, deer, wallabies, possums, quolls, foxes, and domestic cats and dogs have all been introduced to New Zealand, as well as livestock such as sheep, cattle and pigs.
However, like the waitoreke, the odds remain stacked against the existence of an apex predator such as a leopard or lion – nevertheless, reports of a big cat presence have steadily increased since the early 1900s.
Has some deadly new predator been introduced to the wilds of New Zealand? Such a plan was reportedly mooted at one time – cougars were openly discussed within the letters pages of newspapers as a possible biological control for the booming deer population in the Canterbury foothills of the south island.
Lynx and Bobcats were reportedly used to tackle the skyrocketing rodent and rabbit population in the 1900s – the wild cats were so fearsome that even dogs were reluctant to challenge them. Reckless as the idea now seems, what would it mean for New Zealand’s thriving wilderness-based tourism if it was proven that big cats – specifically cougars, predators with a history of attacking humans – were roaming the bush?
Tigers in the garden
In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, a spate of lioness and tiger sightings were reported. The first of those sightings was in 1977. Although it was by no means New Zealand’s first big cat encounter, which occurred much earlier – it was the beginning of a wave of modern reports that would grab the media’s attention and the country’s imagination.
Security guard Graham Stevens was doing his rounds in Mangere, Auckland, in the country’s north island, when he was shocked to see a large ‘lion’ with yellow eyes in front of his van. A search by the Otahuhu police found nothing, and a visiting circus denied the animal was an escapee from its travelling menagerie.
Almost two weeks later, reports of a tiger sighting in Kaiapoi in the south island dominated headlines around New Zealand.
Mrs F.M. Clark was adamant that she had seen the biggest of all ‘big cats’, a tiger, in her garden on a Monday morning, July 18, at 4am.
“I know a pig when I see one, and I know an Alsatian as well. It was definitely a tiger,” she told Wellington’s Evening Post newspaper.
“I looked once and couldn’t believe my eyes…I couldn’t make out its stripes but it was a fairish colour, had a long tail and was definitely a tiger.”
Or perhaps a lioness or cougar?
Police searched the area and checked in with the only known owners of tigers – a wildlife establishment, Orana Park, and Isherwoods Circus – but turned up nothing.
However, reports of a large felid roaming the area a week later, and the discovery of “six-inch feline paw marks” and droppings, sparked a police hunt of the sand hills along Kairaki and Pines Beaches, north of Christchurch.
Christchurch veterinarian Lindsay Fraser examined the droppings, saying at the time the “physical appearance and characteristics (are) consistent with the equivalent (tiger) species at Orana Park”.
The Evening Post quoted Orana Park administrator Adrian Johnstone as saying the paw prints were “definitely those of a big cat”.
Police used pig dogs to comb the dunes but once again came up empty-handed.
One newspaper aired speculation that the mystery animal was a private pet being taken for “secret exercise”. There was also talk that the animal could have come from a passing ship – tigers being excellent swimmers.
Whatever the truth of it, no tiger was ever found.
Lions on the loose
Three years later, sightings of an animal in Wellington dubbed the ‘Newlands Lioness’ revived interest in the big cat mystery.
On October 9, 1980, Colin Gardener and neighbour Helena Bradley were watching sheep grazing on a property bordering their suburban street when a strange animal caught their attention.
“It walked across the hill like a large marmalade cat, then sat down and scratched itself,” Mr Gardener said.
“You can tell it is a lioness. It wouldn’t be a lion, because it has no mane. But it is definitely not a dog or ordinary cat. It is too big and walks like a lioness.”
A police vigil was held on the property ‘Meadowcrofts’, set in a valley in the Horokiwi Hills, but again nothing was found – until Mr Gardner had another sighting a few days later.
“My neighbour, Maurice Bradley, and myself were able to catch a very good look at it this morning and it is definitely an ex-domestic cat that is going wild. It is at least twice the size of an ordinary cat,” he told the Evening Post.
He informed police and the hunt for the ‘lioness’ was called off.
Fourteen years later, a ‘lion’ sighting in Tawa, an outer suburb of Wellington, sparked an armed response from police. Ten officers and a helicopter carrying a sharpshooter swooped on the suburb after Ross Pedder saw a big cat.
“I was safely inside the house – it was a bit like being on an African safari – and looking out the window,” he said.
“It was a very large cat that was not your domestic variety. It was the same colour as a golden labrador but definitely not a dog.”
This lion too slipped under the police radar and disappeared.
In August 1998, Invercargill man Jim Walton saw what he described as a large cat-like animal in the Dunstan Ranges near Cromwell. 
“It certainly appeared larger than our Labrador dog, dark-orange mustard in colour. I had it in my sights for 25 minutes,” he stated. “Its movements, its style were pure cat.”
His testimony impressed Department of Conservation Central Otago manager Dave Murphy, who was aware of several big cat sightings in the area.
“I took him seriously because the sighting was obviously spectacular enough for him to report it,” Mr Murphy told The Southland Times.
The conservation official went on to point the finger at feral cats, saying hunters had been reporting “impressive-sized” feral cats for some time.
A year later in July 1999, English tourists Mark and Deb Greening photographed what they believed was “a very large black creature” resembling a mountain lion at Lindis Pass in Central Otago.
Several months later, Canadian tourist Professor Terry Chattington reported seeing a golden-coloured ‘mountain lion-like’ cat three metres long roaming near Moeraki, 33km south-west of Oamaru in December – something the locals laughed off at the time.
But Chattington remained resolute: “I know what these things look like – I’ve seen them before.”
“This is a safety hazard all right,” he told The Southland Times. “These things can move 30km in a day, no trouble. They would take sheep, cattle or even children.”
In October 2003, stock-truck driver Chad Stewart noticed a large black animal sitting beside the stockyards at Blair and Sarah Gallagher’s farm at Mayfield, 35km northwest of Ashburton.
“Initially I thought I was seeing things. It’s not every day you see a big black cat running up a hill,” he told the New Zealand Herald.
“It definitely wasn’t a dog.”
A subsequent helicopter search found nothing, but perhaps significantly, Mr Gallagher said he had noticed some strange behaviour among the stock at the time: “It seemed very unusual that there were quite a lot of sheep moving up behind the woolshed.”
The sighting unearthed another nearby report from two years earlier. A big
black cat had been seen in Mid-Canterbury in 2001 but went unreported because Alford Forest resident David Wightman feared he would not be believed.
A further search of the area by wildlife officials and residents failed to turn up any supporting evidence of a large felid.
More reports of the elusive moggy poured forth, and it was quickly christened the ‘Canterbury Cat’ by the media.
New Zealand’s Ministry of Agriculture (MAF) didn’t dismiss the sightings out of hand; rather it conceded some of the reports were highly credible, including a sighting made by two hunters.
“The two hunters with a high power telescopic sight saw this cat for about two minutes, so there was two people seeing it. They went so far next day as to take their dog to the same site to make sure that it, you know, to try and get some idea of the size, and they realised that this black cat was at least the size of their hunting dog,” MAF spokesman Rob Thornton told TVNZ in a May 2005 television special.
Peter May, who along with his wife Toni saw a large black cat by the side of the road in the same area in September 2003, offered up his own theory: “My view is that maybe it’s some kind of giant feral cat and there may well be more of them around,” he told TVNZ.
Interest was further fuelled by Timaru man Mark Brosnahan’s photograph of a large black cat near Lake Clearwater in May 2005, which at first glance seems to have more in common with your garden variety house cat than a leopard, jaguar or puma – lending further weight to the feral cat theory.
A second search of the wider Ashburton area was conducted by Biosecurity New Zealand in 2005 after a couple and their grandson saw an animal much larger than a domestic cat. Once again, nothing was found.
Wildlife establishment Orana Park’s head keeper Graeme Petrie told TVNZ that natural selection in the wild resulted in the survival of the strongest and biggest animals. “Whether it is a large domestic cat we just don’t know,” he said.
One of the better sightings to surface was by Mount Somers resident Andrea Thompson, who was in her garden one evening in October 2006 when she heard a lamb bleating and saw a large black cat dragging it across a nearby paddock.
The cat dropped the lamb and ran off when Ms Thompson screamed. The lamb later died from its injuries.
“It flew over the fence. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” she told a local newspaper. The former UK animal welfare worker also believed the cat was a feral.
Local publicans have cashed in on the proliferation of big cat sightings, with the Mayfield Tavern adopting the moniker ‘Panthers Rock’. The staff keeps an ever-growing file of big cat stories behind the bar.
Cats on film
Dunedin documentary makers Mark Orton and Pip Walls were so intrigued by the raft of sightings in New Zealand in the past six years alone that they decided to explore the big cat legend on film, and in June 2007 their film ‘Prints of Darkness’ was released.
“We did a lot of research into the possibility that an exotic could be alive and well in this part of the world,” Orton told the authors.
“While we have some good leads that throw up suspicion regarding border control and harbouring exotic animals it would seem from all our research that it is more likely that something quite remarkable in relation to size is happening amongst the feral population.
“I think that a breed of large, super-stealthy feral cats have evolved through natural selection in the back blocks. After consulting genetics experts and looking at the history of cats used in New Zealand to control other introduced species, there is definitely potential for some form of gigantism to have occurred.”
Orton isn’t alone in his speculation, nor is he the first to moot the feral cat theory.
The film, which included an interview with author Mike Williams, catalogued the human side of a mystery that has captivated people around the world. They also revisited some of the witnesses mentioned above, whose stories have not diminished with the passage of time.
One interviewee, Ben Bull, of Oxford, a small farming town in north Canterbury, recollects newspaper articles mentioning a proposal to release cougars into the foothills to control the deer population – the ill-conceived introduction of one feral species to control another.
“Somebody wanted to introduce cougars into the foothills of Canterbury to eradicate the deer. The talk about it went on for some time in the paper, about the pros and cons of introducing it,” Bull told the filmmakers. His comments were later backed up by an archive search of Christchurch newspapers by Orton and Walls.
The documentary showed that sightings have not dwindled, and that whatever is happening in the New Zealand countryside is by no means confined to that country alone.
After the documentary aired in New Zealand, the Whinwray family provided Orton with the unpublished big cat manuscript and personal scrapbook of the late David Whinwray, BEM, an outdoorsman and retired Royal New Zealand Air Force pilot, which he has kindly shared with the authors.
Whinwray was positive that a breeding population of pumas had somehow become established on the South Island.
“The fact is, mounting evidence points to the presence of the puma in rural and indeed suburban areas,” he wrote in his unpublished manuscript ‘Tracking the Big Cat: The New Zealand Experience’.
The retired airman was actively pursuing reports in the Waimakariri Gorge area, a place renowned for its steep rock walls – a perfect cat habitat.
Like Grose Vale’s Chris Coffey in Chapter 3, Whinwray also had his own sighting and believed a public warning needed to be issued to create awareness about the big cat threat.
An active field researcher, Whinwray interviewed witnesses, collected reports, bought and modified a vehicle for the specific purpose of staking out farmland, hunted with baits and rifles in an attempt to lure the animal(s) out into the open, and collected numerous missing persons reports – disappearances he believed were linked to big cat sightings.
He took part in the Police-run ground search for the ‘Kaiapoi Tiger’ in 1977, and wrote: “I am convinced that the woman reporting that sighting saw the animal alright, but mistook the roaming puma for a tiger. This is understandable considering the conditions of the sighting. The official police explanation of the incident left me appalled as I have had involvement with the search and know the extent of it.”
He refers to a similar 1921 incident in the same area in his notes, apparently documented by newspapers at the time, which he was never able to locate.
The sighting resulted in a full-scale ‘lion hunt’ 25 years before he was to come face to face with his own feline enigma.
In July, 1946, David Whinwray’s life was altered forevermore by a chance encounter. Married and living with his in-laws, Whinwray had found himself a job and life that while respectable, was no doubt lacking the same kind of adrenalin-charged purpose of his former career as a fighter pilot. That is, until he came face-to-face with a puma in downtown Christchurch – a sighting that would affect him so deeply it would set him on a life-long quest for answers.
In recalling the incident, he wrote:
“I arrived in Christchurch from north Auckland after discharge from war service to take up night shift employment at Theatre Royal Café, Gloucester St. I finished work at 2.30am and was riding my pushcycle (sic) home to No. 23 Sinclair St, New Brighton, where I lived with my first wife’s parents. I was riding into a light northeast wind with light drizzle and had reached the straight section of Pages Road.
“At about where No 125 now stands, I saw a tawny-greyish animal emerging from the lupins and stop short of fully exposing itself – right under a street light 30ft ahead of me – its head, shoulders and front legs were clearly visible. It had a black orpington hen clenched in its mouth.
“As it stopped, it padded its front feet up and down quickly (possibly to shake damp sand off its feet), and turned its head to look at me approaching – almost petrified and freewheeling towards it, only 20ft away.
“When I was about 18ft from it, the animal bounded across the road. It took four bounds to reach and clear the barbed wire fence on the south side of the road and disappear into the lupins and pine trees. It appeared to balance itself with its tail as it leapt the fence. I had a clear unobstructed close-up view of the animal as it crossed the road.
“It appeared to be as frightened of me as I was of it. My immediate thoughts were that the animal was a mountain lion, probably female about 3-4 years old, the legs were thick-set, the head rounded with small rounded ears, the body about the size of a very large dog, the tail quite thick-set and about 3-4ft long, and approximately 150-160lbs, and in no way could have been mistaken for a dog.
“My reaction after overcoming the fright was to pedal like hell, until I came to the Aranui intersection of Breezes Rd, where a taxi was sitting opposite the old petrol station on Breezes Rd, south side of the intersection.
“I stopped and asked the driver to call the police as I had just seen a mountain lion. His reply: ‘go home, you must be pissed’. I was offended by his attitude as I was then and still am a non-drinker, and certainly had not consumed alcohol that night. I decided then and there that if that was a sample of public reaction, I would keep quiet about it. I was very shaken by the experience and thought a lot about it, and finally decided to discuss the matter with my father-in-law about three weeks later. (Incidentally, I got rid of the bike and bought an old car the day after the sighting).
“The reply from Robert James Sutton, my father-in-law, was surprising and reassuring. His first words: ‘why the hell didn’t you tell me about it at the time, we could have done something about it?’.
“He then told me during the 1914-18 war he had worked as a wharfie at Lyttleton and recalled unloading a ship carrying a small consignment of zoo animals [later mentioned in the manuscript as occurring in 1915, according to the Christchurch Press]. The ship had been diverted to Lyttleton from its journey from the west coast of America to Sydney, Australia.
“The animals were being unloaded, and a case containing a pregnant female puma had been dropped from the sling. The cage broke and the animal escaped and ran off the wharf and disappeared up the Port Hills. The incident was kept quiet because it was thought the animal would not survive the South Island winter.
“I have since learned that the incident rated a small mention in the Christchurch Press among the war news. Should the wharf incident be confirmed, it would explain more than 60 reported sightings of a lion-like animal that have been made from a wide section of the South Island, and other unexplained happenings like the 19 people that have disappeared without a trace from the Heaphy Track, and others, over the past 70 years.”
It seems an extraordinary coincidence that the answer to Whinwray’s experience could be found within his own home.
But even if the story was true, a puma’s lifespan is, on average, only between 15 and 20 years at most. Could one – albeit pregnant – puma conceivably be behind New Zealand’s big cat legend? It would seem highly unlikely.
However, for the young Whinwray, it was another intriguing twist in the tale.
Missing, presumed eaten
One interesting anecdotal report collected by Whinwray no doubt further fuelled his belief that large felids were picking off trampers (bushwalkers or hikers) along the picturesque 82km-long Heaphy Track, which winds its way through the extremely rugged north western corner of the South Island now covered by Kahurangi National Park. Maoris and gold miners to reach the island’s greenstone deposits and the lucrative gold fields of the west coast once used this track.
According to the tale, which he heard in 1983 from a member of the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) search party, one of these victims was a schoolteacher who went horse riding many years earlier, possibly in the 1940s. The teacher was soon reported missing and a subsequent search – he was last seen on the Karamea side of the Heaphy Track – failed to find him.
However, the carcass of his horse was soon located on the banks of a river, its “ribcage stripped of meat, skeleton and hide only left”. His pack lay nearby…
To read more of what searchers found, and other big cat sightings, support the work of the investigators of big cat sightings by purchasing a copy of their gripping, 400 page new book, Australian Big Cats: An Unnatural History of Panthers by Michael Williams and Rebecca Lang, which explores 150 years’ worth of big cat sightings around Australia and New Zealand
 Heuvelmans, B., On The Track of Unknown Animals (Rupert Hart-Davis, 1958).
 Orton, M., ‘The Beast of Benmore’, Investigate Magazine, December 31, 2007.
 Partial news clipping, New Zealand Herald, July 8, 1977.
 ‘Tiger Tale a Puzzle to Police’, Evening Post, July 18, 1977.
 ‘Kaiapoi Tiger Hunt Has Ended in Doubt’, Evening Post, July 25, 1977.
 ‘Tiger Tracks Keep Town on Tenterhooks’, The Dominion, July 25, 1977.
 ‘Couple Sight Lioness Loose in Newlands’, The Dominion, October 9, 1980.
 ‘Sighting!…And Updating’, Evening Post, October 11, 1980.
 ‘Big, Big Cat’, The Southland Times, July 22, 1999.
 ‘DOC Says Wild Moggies Roaming Otago’, July 23, 1999.
 ‘Report puts big cat among sheep’, New Zealand Herald, October 7, 2003.
 ‘Photos rekindle Canterbury panther search’, NZPA, May 3, 2005.
 ‘Big Cat Experts Can’t Rule Out Anything’, TVNZ, August 11, 2006.
 Tracking the Big Cat: The New Zealand Experience by David Whinwray, 1991, unpublished manuscript.