Friday, 11 November 2011

Alien Big Cats in New Guinea?

    My wife, Esther has had a much more interesting life than mine, and one day I hope to get it written down. As she explained to me the day we met, she was born in New Guinea of missionary parents, and was carried home from hospital in a native string bag called a bilum. (She might also have added that she was protected from the monsoon by a cape of pandanus leaves, and was carried home over 30 miles of narrow, rugged jungle trails, and by horse and raft across flooded tropical rivers.) Not long after we were married, a lady came to the front door collecting for charity. Noticing that she was carrying a bilum, Esther immediately said, "You come from New Guinea, don't you?" And that was how we discovered that another missionary offspring, also called Esther, was living just a few doors away.
    Esther Ingram has also led an interesting life - not least of all being sent to Australia to start school at the age of five, and being totally unable to speak English, or anything except the local Papuan language. And one of her most remarkable experiences was the one she described to me on 4 October 2003, in the presence of her father, the Rev Ronald Teale, also a witness.

    The event took place in December 1999 or January 2000 ie nearly four years before the date of the interview, on one of their periodic returns to the Pitanka Mission Station in the Eastern Highlands province of PNG. On the night in question, they were returning from Goroka. Esther and her father were in the front seat of an old Landcruiser, being driven by Esther's native foster brother, Moses Teale. The sighting occurred about 11 or 12 miles from Kainantu, on the Kainantu-Okapa Road, about midnight (Esther checked her watch). Because of the roughness of the terrain, their speed was no more than what would have been expected in a built-up area at home. Their lights were full on. The road was a very rough bush track, 10 or 12 feet wide, the surrounding countryside dense jungle. On the right, the land descended to a very wooded gully with a stream at the bottom. On the left stood an almost perpendicular embankment 12 or 15 feet high.
    Suddenly, about 20 yards in front of them, what looked like a huge cat came out of the jungle on the right, and "trotted" leisurely across the road. "What on earth is that?" cried Esther to her father. "Slow down, Moses, so we can see!" As they approached within about six feet of it, it sprang straight up the embankment and disappeared. The sighting must have lasted only a few seconds.
    It was very solidly built, and the head-body length was about five feet. Both Esther and her father were amazed at how huge it was. So, too, was I, when she stated that it was as high as the table around which we were gathered: about 2½ feet.  Yes, Esther agreed, it was probably twice as long as high.
    Esther, in particular, made an attempt to study as many details as possible. (Remember, it was very close.) The basic colour was white, with ginger "trimmings" on the tail and ears. Pale gingery, vertical stripes, not terribly well delineated, appeared on the sides, but they did not extend to the back, or dorsal surface, which was completely pale. She specifically noted that the forepaws were cat-like, rather than (say) hoofed like a goat's. She didn't get a glance at the rear paws. The tail was ginger and very long, hanging to the ground. I enquired about bushiness etc, to establish a comparison with a dog's. She said it was a bit coarser or fluffier than the body, but not much. On the body itself, the fur was smooth.
    The head was broad, short, flattish, and definitely cat-like. It did not protrude like a dog's. The ears were ginger, mottled with white, and hung down. They were not as long as a spaniel's, but they were definitely long and rounded, and gave every indication of being naturally floppy. It was this feature which amazed both of them (and me as well, as it doesn't sound anything like a cat's). Esther also thought she saw whiskers.

    Explanation? Needless to say, such a creature is not supposed to exist on the island of New Guinea - or anywhere else that I'm aware of. New Guinea belongs to the Australasian faunal zone, which is the domain of marsupials. Cats - especially big ones - are no more supposed to be present than in Australia itself. Nevertheless, as many cryptozoologists will already be aware, alien big cats (ABCs) are being reported in Australia in ever increasing numbers, but this is the first time I have heard a report from New Guinea.
    At Esther's insistence, I wrote to Dr Tim Flannery, because he had recently published a book on his mammal collecting expeditions to New Guinea. His reply was as follows:
Regarding the cat-like animal that Ms Ingram observed, the information provided seems to point to a tree kangaroo. The size would be about right for one of the larger species (well over 1 metre long) and the ginger-coloured fur on some parts of the dorsum (described as completely pale) may not have been true to life if the headlights were shining on the animal. The tail of a tree kangaroo could be mistaken for that of a cat in that it is long and reasonably bushy. Tree kangaroos have short faces and the head is often held low when moving quickly over the ground. I cannot explain the shape of the ears being long and floppy. The short-footed tree kangaroos use a quadrupedal gait and rarely hop. Some species spend much time on the ground.
Sightings like the one you made of the 'cat' are always a challenge to identify. Being at night and a fleeting glimpse make it difficult, 'though I am impressed with the detail you have provided.
    If this is this case, obviously there must have been a serious discrepancy between what was seen and what was perceived. In response, Esther said that this was impossible. Both she and her father were quite familiar with tree kangaroos. The animal was much larger than a metre - more like five feet, or a metre and a half. (Note that this did not refer to the total length, but merely the head-body length, which is always less than a metre in tree kangaroos.) The tail was quite unlike a tree kangaroo's, although it did reach the ground. It was thin like a cat's, with a bit of a tuft at the end. The hindquarters were not raised, as a tree kangaroo's would have been (because, although a tree kangaroo's hind legs are proportionally shorter than a regular kangaroo's, they are still longer than the fore legs). The forepaws resembled a cat's, not a tree kangaroo's.
    So there you have it.

    Second hand reports. Then Esther recalled an event which took place at Pitanka a week or so before her sighting. The watchman told her he had approached the tea tree plantation when he heard dogs barking, and he saw a big white cat jump from one tree to another. Some of the people at the Pitanka school reported a white animal streaking into the bush. Some of the ex-pupils also spoke of black cats.
    Back in Australia, still in 2000, Esther went to the airport to pick up a missionary's widow, Ruth B-, who lived at Famu, just across the mountain from Pitanka. "You have white ones, and we have black ones," said Ruth. She had seen a photo of a black panther in a magazine, and claimed they existed at Famu.
    So, what is going on? Do alien big cats now exist in Papua New Guinea, and if so, where do they come from? If not, what did Esther, her father, and her foster brother see? The watchman had no doubts about the identity of his white animal. It was a masalai (muss-a-lye): a hobgoblin or evil spirit.
    I am not in a position to refute it.


  1. There are some rare big cats in Borneo and Sumatra which are not that far away at all... has she had a look at photos of the Borneo Bay Cat and the Sunda Clouded Leopard? They don't have droopy ears and are not mostly white, but the Sunda Clouded Leopard has only recently been discovered and there could easily be other types out there. There are photos of both on this page or just google for more images:

    1. I met up with Esther today, and showed her the photos from the website you referred to. Her immediate response was No! they looked nothing like "her" cat.
      I might add that those species' westernmost range is Borneo for a good reason: it is just east of Wallace's Line. New Guinea is in the Australasian faunal zone, so any cat present there would be just as out of place as in Australia.

  2. Thylacoleo or close relative perhaps? Sightings persist in Australia, and there is undoubted crossover in species between PNG/West Papua and northern Australia. So if, and it's a big if, the animal is extant in Australia, then it could also be in PNG. This animal whilst obviously not a cat, seen fleetingly could well give that impression especially at night.
    I read an account once, and even briefly chatted with the author about an experience he had in the bush one day, when he was out hunting, and saw in the distance a 'black panther', amazed at what he was seeing, he lifted his scope to his eye, still internally debating whether to take the shot or not, when he realised that the animal was without doubt predatory, but was also without doubt marsupial. Needless to say the shot wasn't taken, and he simply watched until the animal slid off into the foliage.