Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Wednesday 12 April 2017


Bush dog (public domain)

According to native Indian testimony, as well as that of certain Western explorers and cryptozoological investigators, South America is home to several different types of mysterious, scientifically-unidentified cat that are very distinct from one another morphologically but which are reputedly united by a single characteristic that if genuine is highly unusual for jungle-dwelling felids – for they supposedly hunt in packs, like dogs. Indeed, so unusual do these ostensibly canine cats seem that, as will be revealed here, some authorities have suggested that perhaps they truly are canids, and not felids at all. (And for another South American mystery cat that may in reality be a dog, click here to read my ShukerNature article re the mitla)..

The warracaba (or waracabra) tiger, as it is known to the Guyanan natives, differs from the typical jaguar (called 'tigre' by Hispanics here) in an extremely significant way with respect to behaviour. For whereas the recognised jaguar Panthera onca (whether spotted or black) is a solitary hunter, Guyana's elusive warracaba tiger allegedly hunts in packs, which in turn may contain dozens of individuals. Needless to say, any felid that hunted in this manner would be a very special kind of cat indeed.

Normal spotted jaguar with black (melanistic) jaguar (public domain)

Not surprisingly, therefore, the warracaba tiger has attracted considerable interest from travellers to Guyana. In an Animal Kingdom periodical article from 1957, the eminent American naturalist and author William Bridges incorporated an impressive series of reports concerning this animal, dating back to the end of the 19th Century (oddly, modern-day reports are all but non-existent). These include the following selection.

In his book Twenty-Five Years in British Guiana, published in 1898, Henry Kirke, a former Sheriff of Demerara, noted:

There is a mysterious beast in the forest called by the native Indians the "waracabra tiger." All travellers in the forests of Guiana speak of this dreaded animal, but strange to say, none of them appear to have seen it. The Indians profess the greatest terror of it. It is said to hunt in packs (which tigers [jaguars] never do), and when its howls awake the echoes of the forest, the Indians at once take to their canoes and wood skins as the only safe refuge from its ravages.

Indeed, this was precisely the action taken by Indian attendants of British explorer C. Barrington Brown upon hearing (though not seeing) the approach of one such pack in an incident occurring at the edge of Guyana's Curiebrong River during the mid-1800s. On this occasion, a single boat was used as the means of escape, which Brown boarded too. Enquiring the nature of these evidently much-feared felids, Brown was informed by the Indians that they were small but exceedingly ferocious tigers; that they hunted in packs; and that they were not frightened by camp fires or anything except the barking of dogs. Upon crossing the river, however:

...a shrill scream rent the air from the opposite side of the river, not two hundred yards above our camp, and waking up echoes in the forest, died away as suddenly as it rose. This was answered by another cry, coming from the depths of the forest, the intervals being filled up by low growls and trumpeting sounds, which smote most disagreeably on the ear. Gradually the cries became fainter and fainter, as the band retired from our vicinity, till they utterly died away.

Brown remarked that these beasts' cry resembled that of the waracabra bird (better known as the grey-winged trumpeter Psophia crepitans, a predominantly glossy-black relative of the cranes, coots and bustards), hence the name 'waracabra tiger'. These latter mystery animals are called y'agamisheri by the Accawoio Indians, who state that they vary in both size and colour and that as many as a hundred individuals can constitute a single pack. Little wonder that Brown's Indian companions were so desperate to depart. The prospect of meeting up with a hundred or so jaguars (even under-sized ones) all at once would surely daunt even the most courageous of human hunters!

Vintage photos of trumpeters (public domain)

In Among the Indians of Guiana, published in 1883, author and explorer Sir Everard F. im Thurn alleged that he had actually encountered three warracaba tiger eyewitnesses but admitted that it was clear that the tale related by one of them was much exaggerated. Im Thurn also offered his own suggestion concerning these fabled felids, that reports of them had taken their roots from the fact that puma families occasionally travel together.

During the early part of the 20th Century, Lee S. Crandall, who went on to become the General Curator of New York's Bronx Zoo, spent time working in Guyana and encountered many reports of the warracaba tiger. Once again, however, he never met an Indian who affirmed unequivocally that he had not merely heard but had also actually seen any of these mysterious creatures. This latter aspect is a frequent but notably perplexing com­ponent of warracaba tiger reports - the creatures are heard but never seen.

Consequently, as a solution to the mystery of the warracaba tiger and especially to this notably strange facet of their case history, Crandall proposed the following elegant explanation. Namely, that this beast was not a special form of jaguar at all; instead, it was simply some animal species that hunted in packs at night, yet which voiced such terrifying sounds whilst doing so that no Indian had ever been brave enough to investigate the identity of these sounds' originators - as a result of which they had never realised that this aurally abhorrent creature was in fact already known to them by sight during the daytime.

Crandall even named the species that he felt was responsible - an animal that is neither jaguar nor, in fact, any form of felid, but is one of South America's most unusual species of wild dog. Namely, the bush dog Speothos (formerly Icticyon) venaticus, a very curious, little-known canid not closely related to other species.

Bush dogs (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Measuring no more than 3 ft in total length and a mere 1 ft in shoulder height, in colour it is dark reddish-brown dorsally and virtually black ventrally (rather rare amongst non-melanistic mammals). The bush dog's distribu­tion extends from Panama and Colombia to northern Venezuela, Brazil, Guyana, Surinam, French Guiana, northernmost Ecuador, eastern Peru, northern Bolivia, and Paraguay. According to certain reports, it does hunt in packs (indeed, it may spend its entire life in packs), but in general behaviour is exceedingly secretive.

Worth noting was the impression by botanist Dr Nicholas Guppy (who had spent much time in Guyana) that, whereas the older Indians still believe that packs of warracaba tigers exist in the more remote mountainous regions, the younger Indians seem more disposed to believing the Western identification of them as bush dogs.

And certainly, as far as its distribution, hunting behaviour, and general elusiveness are concerned, the bush dog does compare favourably with the legendary warracaba tiger (and, as the latter is not normally seen, morphological comparisons are superfluous). Conversely, the famous hideous scream of the warracaba tiger contrasts sharply with the relatively feeble whine voiced by bush dogs. Also, it is rather difficult to believe that the Guyanan Indians, frightened or not, could really confuse - visually and/or aurally, singly and/or in packs - a bush dog with any form of jaguar. The mystery of the warracaba tiger may not be solved after all.

The most obscure pack-hunting crypto-cats reputedly inhabiting South America, however, are those that have been variously reported from Peru and Ecuador.

During the 1990s, Peru-born zoologist Dr Peter Hocking collected native reports concerning a number of mystifying cat forms allegedly existing in Peru but which are not known to science. One of these is the so-called 'jungle wildcat', reported from montane forests in the lower Urubamba River valley. Apparently, it is no larger than an average domestic cat, is patterned in a varied assortment of blotches, and has noticeably long fangs. Far more distinctive, however, is its apparent proclivity for hunting in packs, containing ten or more individuals.

While visiting southern Ecuador's Morona-Santiago province in July 1999, Spanish cryptozoologist Angel Morant Forés learnt of several mystery cats said to inhabit this country's Amazonian jungles. Upon his return home, he documented them in an online field report, entitled 'An investigation into some unidentified Ecuadorian mammals', which he uploaded in autumn 1999 onto French cryptozoologist Michel Raynal's website, the Virtual Institute of Cryptozoology, and from where I downloaded a copy of it (fortunately, as it turned out, because, like so often happens in the ephemeral world of cyberspace, it now seems to have vanished). These very intriguing crypto-felids included two different alleged pack-hunting forms.

Vintage photograph from 1913 of a captive small-eared dog (public domain)

One of them is the tsere-yawá, which is also said by the native tribes to be semi-aquatic. Angel was informed that this 3-ft-long felid hunted in packs of 8-10 individuals, and was brown in colour, like the brown capuchin monkey whose local name, tsere, it shares. In 1999, a young man named Christian Chumbi from Sauntza allegedly saw eight of these cats less than 50 ft away in the river Yukipa. Unfortunately, there are insufficient morphological details available to attempt any taxonomic identification of this mystery felid.

Interestingly, the small-eared dog or zorro Atelocynus microtis, a surprisingly cat-like wild dog, inhabits Ecuador, and is known to be semi-aquatic – it even has partly-webbed feet. So might this reclusive canid species. already proposed elsewhere by me as an identity for a feline mystery mammal called the mitla (click here), once again be in contention as the true identity of a supposed crypto-cat?

Alternatively, otters are social creatures, so could the tsere-yawá actually turn out to be lutrine rather than either feline or canine? Indeed, one South American species, the marine otter Lontra felina, is so feline in outward mien that it is even referred to colloquially as the sea cat (it is predominantly coastal in distribution but will sometimes enter rivers in search of freshwater crustaceans). The other three species of South American otter currently known to science are the neotropical river otter L. longicaudis, the southern river otter L. provocax, and the aptly-named giant otter or saro Pteronura brasiliensis.

An 1848 illustration of the marine otter or sea cat Lontra felina (public domain)

The second Ecuadorian feline pack-hunter is known as the jiukam-yawá. As Angel was only able to collect second-hand reports of it, not personal eyewitness accounts, however, he declined to document this cryptid in his field report.

With so little in terms of morphological details to analyse, the supposed pack-hunting felids of Peru and Ecuador currently remain enigmatic to say the least. However, should any zoologist with cryptozoological interests be visiting either or both of these South American countries on official research business at some stage in the future, they should consider devoting some of their spare time there to the questioning of local inhabitants concerning the above mystery cats(?), in the hope of obtaining additional details.

After all, when dealing with creatures as paradoxical as pack-hunting mystery cats – not to mention a semi-aquatic cat! – every snippet of information procured is a major bonus that may conceivably shed much-needed light upon these baffling beasts' identities.

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