Two reports of large predators, both posted on social media over the weekend, have people in South Georgia talking. One is a photo of a panther allegedly taken on a trail camera near Rebecca while the other is of a black bear seen in Coffee County.
While reports of bear sightings in Coffee County are rare, it is entirely plausible that bears exist here. The panther photo, however, is more problematic.
First, the bear. Demetrianaa Michelle posted the photo to her Facebook account. DouglasNow.com sent Demetrianaa a message seeking more information about the photo and where exactly it was taken. At the time this story was written, she had not replied.
According to Adam Hammond, senior wildlife biologist and state bear project leader with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, it’s possible to see bears anywhere in Georgia. Georgia has plenty of bears but the healthiest populations are around the Okefenokee Swamp. And Coffee County isn’t that far from the swamp. “Having bears around is no problem, but we do advise folks not to provide bears with a free meal, as it may lead them down the wrong road, causing them to potentially lose their fear of people and develop bad habits that will cause them to search for food around homes rather than in the woods naturally,” wrote Hammond in an email to DouglasNow.com.
The panther photo is entirely a South Georgia hoax. It’s a real photo. And it’s a real panther. But it wasn’t taken anywhere near South Georgia. That photo has circulated around social media for a long time and it’s been attributed to various locations. Hammond had this to say about that photo: “I'm not positive where it first originated; however, like so many of the big cat photos that appear online and that are often submitted to wildlife agencies as proof of the presence of mountain lions, it has been passed around already among many of my counterparts in other states. Recently the photo was shared electronically among a group of bear biologists across the southeast with questions about where it may have been taken. One obvious problem with this photo is that the lack of foliage on the trees doesn't fit well with the supposed location of the photo – South Georgia in late April and not a leaf on a tree. Nah. Also, those types of evergreen trees aren't typical of South Georgia. These photos are usually picked up from other places that have well-established mountain lion populations and shared for the effect online and used to play tricks on their buddies, etc.”
Hammond added that Georgia does not have a population of mountain lions. He stated that he as investigated a number of reports of big cats over the last two decades and those reports never pan out. There are, however, isolated incidents that leave biologists puzzled. “The fact remains that in some places, large cats are kept in captivity and in other places, there is a legal and illegal trade in these animals. Also, South Florida is home to a population of Florida panthers and these animals are capable of making large movements if they can avoid being killed on the road. Even then, they would be likely to generate lots of legitimate phone calls, trail cam photos, and other sightings, something we don't often experience,” he wrote.
He also stated that in the last 25 years, there have been only three credible big cat sightings in Georgia, all of which were related to the Florida panther. The most interesting came in 2008 when a deer hunter in LaGrange shot and killed a mountain lion while hunting. Genetic testing revealed that that the cat was a Florida panther – a federally endangered species. The hunter, Dave Adams of Newnan, killed the 140-pound panther near West Point Lake, according to the Georgia Outdoor News. He was eventually charged with a federal violation, fined $2,000, and sentenced to two years’ probation. During that two years Adams couldn’t obtain a hunting license anywhere in the country.
Regarding the big cat photo, Hammond concluded with the following: “So, is it possible? Maybe. Is it likely? Not really, and the evidence is entirely stacked up against the idea that we have a population of these animals in our state. In this particular example, it's more of the same -- just a hoax.”
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