Student researches sightings

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Pogie is a long way from Africa.
   However, an anthropology student believes an African lion -- reportedly sighted in Carter County -- could adapt to the terrain and weather given a water source and food supply.
   "Animals are pretty good at adapting to their environments," said Christopher Gardner, an anthropology major at the University of Maine and employee with the U.S. National Parks Service. "With the terrain too, they would be able to find places to get into."
   But is a lion lurking in the mountains of Carter County?
   A handful of Butler area residents told the Star earlier this month that they had seen an African lion near the Poga and Elk Mills areas of the county.
   A spokesman for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in Nashville said Monday that the agency had not received any new reported sightings of an African lion in the county during the past week.
   "Out of 100 percent of sightings, a big percentage of sightings are just misidentifications," said Gardner, who spoke to the Star Friday. "But at least 10 percent are actual sightings."
   He said if the African lion was in the wild, it was likely a pet that had been freed. He added that people who had seen an African lion could make a clear distinction between it and other big cats.
   "People can usually tell the difference from a mountain lion and an African lion," said Gardner, who has traveled around the country for the Park Service investigating wildlife sightings.
   "The African males do most of the hunting. He will hunt as easily as he can," Gardner said.
   Gardner said wildlife authorities frequently downplayed or denied any presence of a mountain lion or other exotic species even if sightings were reported.
   "They don't want the public to get all upset or worked up about it," he said.
   Gardner said he had spent many years learning the lost art of tracking wild game. He got interested in cryptozoology, he said, as a youngster hearing stories about mountain lions and other wildlife sightings in the lower 48 states.
   Conventional scientific wisdom holds that mountain lions are extinct from the East Coast of the United States.
   Gardner said the anthropology community had received reports of mountain lions all the way down into Florida. His home state of Maine has seen several sightings of mountain lions as late as the week of October 7, he said.
   "A lot of us in this field doing this research believe they are back," said Gardner.
   Anthropology covers the science of historic cultures studying bones, relics and materials from ancient civilizations.
   A field within anthropology, crytozoology, focuses on "hidden animal" discoveries, according to Gardner. The field began growing as a science in the 1950s and 1960s, when reports of bizarre animal sightings began being made to authorities.
   Sightings range from the familiar -- mountain lions in southern Appalachia -- to the fantastic -- alleged sightings of Bigfoot.
   Gardner said the most frequent sightings reported were wolves and bears making their way into the lower 48 states.
   He cited the case of the "coelacanth", a prehistoric fish that lived 70 million years ago that was thought to be extinct by the scientific community.
   However, a scientist traveling through the island of Madagascar in 1938 found an odd-looking fish that he brought back to a university. The fish turned out to be a coelacanth.
   "The natives in the area had been catching them for years," said Gardner.
   Other animals such as the mountain gorillas were relatively new animals discovered it the animal kingdom during the 20th century.
   The giant sable -- an antelope-like creature native to southern Africa -- was thought to be extinct because no one had seen the animal for 20 or 30 years, through the 1990s.
   After the civil war of the African nation of Angola ended, scientists found the giant sable was still alive.
   "The animals were cut back drastically, but held on enough to survive and are starting to filter their way back," said Gardner. "It was a pretty good at adapting and surviving, and there are more animals out there still to discover."