In the summer of 1903 in the Southern Highlands district of New South Wales, a man out hunting rabbits about 4 miles from the town of Marulan got a nasty surprise just on dusk. A mere 20 yards ahead, a tiger was perched in the branch of a tree, watching the startled hunter intently. Armed only with a shotgun, an effective weapon for bunnies, not so effective for big game, he wisely backed away … very carefully. Then, at a safe distance, the terrified man turned and bolted for home.
Before long, another encounter with the “Marulan tiger” would take place.
On 11 March 1903, the Queanbeyan Age published the following narrative as penned by Mr, A. J. Buttsworth, a respected public school teacher at nearby Canyon Leigh. The Queanbeyan Age made a point of noting that the good teacher was a tee totaller.
“I was spending Sunday with some friends beyond Marulan, and on arriving back in that town about 8.30 p.m. was told of a tiger, and was advised not to go home that night, as I would have to pass near where the beast had been seen. I laughed at the whole affair, and remarked that perhaps the man imagined he saw the tiger, believing the whole thing to be a delusion. I set out on my journey in a happy mood, having 12 miles to go. It was all thick bush, and I had got half way when my horse, who had been jogging along easily, all of a sudden gave a tremendous snort, and I bounded across the road. At the same moment the tiger, which must have been crouching behind a bush, came bounding at me with gaping mouth, and eyes which glared like bull’s-eye lanterns.
“He made about four bounds, growling fiercely all the time, and before I could scarcely realise my position, let alone gather up my reins, the horse was at a mad gallop down the road. About 150 yards ahead was a big swinging gate, where my road branched off at right angles to the main one. In my endeavours to pull up, the horse ‘slithered’ the full length of the gate on his haunches, and cannoned into the far gatepost. He was up again in an instant, and, breasting the gate, sent it flying. I looked back, and could clearly see the flaming eyes of the tiger, and, although feeling pretty certain he had given up the chase, yet my hair was up and my blood cold, for I suppose both my horse and self had mild panic. So off I set down the road, for I had not a guarantee that the brute would not change his mind and come after me.
“Another 200 yards and a small creek had to be crossed. On reaching the bottom, down we went into a bed of loose sand. On recovering, the wild chase from a supposed pursuer was renewed …
“Three miles from the scene I struck a neighbour’s house, and when I related my adventure the occupants were much scared, and two men who lived a mile away would not budge until they got horses to ride and a gun apiece. I stayed at the house all night, and next morning visited the spot where my mishap occurred. There were the tracks as plainly as could be where the tiger had crouched, and the footprints on the road where he had bounded towards me. On the gatepost I found a bunch of hair my horse had left behind also the traces of his slide. These together with my tracks in the creek convinced my companions of the truth of my story.”
Successive searches prove fruitless
“On Monday I had to attend school, but a dozen residents, mounted and armed, made an unsuccessful search for his lordship. On Tuesday a second search was made, but was also fruitless. On Tuesday afternoon the tiger was again seen five miles from Marulan in another direction, so a mounted party was organised for Thursday, men attending from all round to the number of 48, whilst a second party of eight was also out. Both parties were unsuccessful, but a couple of sheep were found ripped open and the choice parts devoured, this being a characteristic habit of the tiger.
“On Saturday another party made a fruitless search, and now the general belief is that the intruder has gone into the impenetrable gullies which lead towards the Shoalhaven. Of course, many discredit the whole affair, especially as the search parties were unsuccessful, but the scrub is so thick that [the] animal could be within a few yards and then get away unseen. Many of the schools round have scarcely a pupil left, and I’m afraid the scare will not vanish in a hurry. People do not venture out at night, and all carry firearms ranging from the venerable Black Bess to the latest repeater. In fact, the whole place is in a state of terror.”
Was Marulan tiger an escaped pet?
Could the Marulan tiger have been an escaped pet imported from South Africa? Perhaps, according to the Hawkesbury Herald which confidently reported on 20 March that:
“We have received private and confidential advice from a friendly correspondent which clears up the mystery of the Marulan tiger. It will be remembered that an awesome apparition, with eyes like saucers, has been chasing school teachers and other persons down Marulan way.
“The highest authorities in the district, after carefully cross-examining the escapees (who were as a rule too scared to be even coherent), pronounced the animal to be a tiger. The Marulan folks naturally wondered how it got there, as tigers are not an indigenous product … It appears, however, according to our correspondent, that an officer had brought a young leopard back with him from South Africa, and went to stay with a friend in the district. He took his pet with him, but the latter escaped, and has since amused itself by chasing peaceable citizens and otherwise harrowing the feelings of the people of Marulan.
“The owner, with visions of a huge bill of expenses for ‘moral and intellectual damage,’ is lying very low, and keeps on saying nothing. He hopes nobody ever saw him with the leopard in his possession, and is now studying the law on the subject. This is said to be the explanation of the Marulan mystery.”
… Or just a big old wombat?
Years later, another possible explanation was proposed. The Marulan tiger was probably just an overgrown wombat according to an article in Goulburn’s Advocate, on 16 June 1931.
“Has this Marulan or Tallong tiger come to the end of its tether? Mr. C. Hardy Johnstone, who owns property nine miles from Goulburn, thinks it has.
“Two days ago three men were cutting wood on the Johnstone property when a strange animal, half pig and half dog, came out of a nearby creek and ran towards the woodmen. Grabbing an axe, one of the party swung at the animal and struck it on the head, killing it.
“The queer creature had a head resembling a pig, short, fat legs, and heavy coat of soft, silver-grey fur, but no tail. It was about the size of a collie dog, though not as tall.
“When the pelt was shown to a local man familiar with Australian fauna he expressed the belief that it was a huge wombat, but others could not identify it. Mr. Johnstone thinks it to be the mysterious animal reported in various parts of the district in recent years.”
So, could the Marulan tiger have been an escaped pet leopard from South Africa? Or, was it just a really big wombat? We will never know for sure … but accounts of big cats stealthily slinking through the Australian bush have been doing the rounds for many years, and continue to this day.
Read about the Mystery big cats roaming 1930s Gippsland district, a modern sighting of a panther described by the witness as “looking like Mike Tyson, and officials taking seriously reports of panther sightings in Sydney’s western outskirts.