People could be killed unless the Government wakes up to the reality of leopards and pumas living and breeding in the British countryside, an expertwarned yesterday.
Zoologist and trapper Quentin Rose, who has investigated big cat sightings for six years, said: ''These animals can become man-eaters.''
Mr Rose, who has worked with the Zoological Society of London, said the big cat phenomenon had to be taken seriously.
In the last six years he had identified 27 reliable reports of leopards and 32 of puma, and 18 smaller members of the cat family - jungle cats, leopard cats, and ocelots.
Sightings included Scotland, the West Country, the Midlands, Wales, and East Anglia.
Mr Rose warned that if nothing was done the big cat population could explode, posing a threat not only to wildlife and farm livestock, but also humans.
Although there had been no deaths so far, six people had claimed to have been attacked by the animals in the last six years, said Mr Rose.
''In their native habitat a single leopard that has acquired a taste for human flesh can kill hundreds of people before being caught.''
Mr Rose was speaking as tests were being carried out which should provide the most conclusive proof so far that big cats are at large in Britain.
Genetic fingerprinting pioneer professor Sir Alec Jeffreys is carrying out DNA tests on droppings thought to have been left by a puma or leopard in Devon. Professor Jeffreys, from Leicester University, expects to release his results next week.
Countryside Minister Elliot Morley has promised that all evidence will be examined by Government experts.
The big cats are thought to be descended from pets released into the wild after the introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act in 1976, which made it illegal to keep such creatures without a licence.
Mike Thomas, curator of Newquay Zoo, questioned whether the threat was as serious as that suggested by Mr Rose, but agreed a national inquiry was needed.
© The Herald, January 6 th 1998
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