By LOIS CAIRNS - Sunday Star Times / Photo: Michael O'Neill
HIGH COUNTRY farmer David Wightman is on a mission to prove the mysterious black panther that reportedly roams the hills of Mid-Canterbury is not a figment of people's overactive imaginations – he's built a trap to catch the elusive creature.
Mystery has surrounded the animal for nearly 10 years. Wightman has never seen the panther, but others say they have spotted it on his 9500ha runholding, Winterslow Station, on at least four occasions, leaving him convinced it exists.
"Too many people have seen it to doubt what it is – without actually capturing it and doing a DNA test on it, one can only assume it is a black leopard or black panther," Wightman said.
Asked where he believed the panther had come from, Wightman said: "That's the $64,000 question. Possibly off a boat or... it may have escaped from a game park. Or whether someone managed to have it smuggled in to have as a pet and let it go, I don't know."
The area where the panther had been spotted was typical rugged high country with tussock faces, scrubby gullies and large streams. There was no evidence it was attacking stock, but there were plenty of small animals around for the panther to feast on.
Wightman said he planned to use a live goat to lure the panther into the trap. The panther would be unable to harm the goat because it would be in a separate enclosure, but its bleating should be enough to attract the cat, he said.
"I guess the chances of catching it are fairly slim but you never know. We'll just set the trap and hope for the best.
"For people to see it with their own eyes would satisfy a lot of doubts that have been floating around because, at the moment, some folk say it's just a big domestic cat, but it's a lot bigger than a domestic cat." Wightman said if he succeeded in capturing the panther, he would give it to a wildlife park.
"One of the wildlife parks would be only too happy to look after it and give it a better life. It's probably quite lonely out there if it's the only one. Of course, we've got no proof of that."
The panther was first spotted near Alford Forest in 2001. Recurring sights of the animal, which is often seen slinking along on its belly, prompted Biosecurity New Zealand officials and experts from Christchurch's Orana Wildlife Park to look for the cat in 2006.