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Was the “Black Panther” Actually a Jaguar?

By W. T. Block

Apparently some people believe a big cat called a “black panther” has never existed. “Bow Hunter,” writing in the guest book of the Missouri Conservation website, noted: “Some of you are quick to point out that there is no such animal, and call us liars!” His critic, writing on the same website, responded: “Black panthers are not native to North America; nor has there ever been one killed by a car; or the carcass of one turned in; and no one has ever provided any verifiable proof!”

If actually there are no melanistic (mutation) or black panthers, there are certainly plenty of black leopards in Africa or black jaguars in Latin-America. However, there was once an animal in East Texas called locally a “Mexican lion,” which was actually a small jaguar although it had a very large head. The Amazon male jaguar might reach 250 pounds in weight, whereas the Mexican jaguar probably weighs about 150 pounds, or equal to a cougar. Of the 9 species of jaguars, three were native to Mexico and one to Texas, although the latter has not been seen for about a century and may be considered extinct in Texas. These species included “panthera arizonensis,” “panthera goldmani,” and “panthera hernadesi,” native to Mexico, and “panthera veraecrusis,” native to Texas.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department website observes that:  “The jaguar was once fairly common over Southern Texas, and nearly the whole of the eastern part of Louisiana, and north to the Red River. The last verified record of the jaguar in Texas was around the turn of the century (1900), and this beautiful cat is now extirpated from Texas...”

On the website “Big Cats On Line” by Andrew Garman,, the author writes: “The melanistic or black jaguars are common in certain parts of the range, and they are often confusingly labeled “black panthers...”

During the 1960s,   18,000 jaguars were being killed annually, either by pelt poachers, or as threats to livestock, principally in Central or South America. There are now only an estimated 15,000 jaguars left in the wild, making it a species threatened by extinction, and Belize in Central America now has a jaguar reserve with about 200 big cats in it.

During the 19th century, 3 incidents occurred in Texas and Louisiana, which appear to have been spotted jaguars, although insufficient proof survived. Galveston Weekly News of Feb. 18, 1892 observed: “...Quite a curiosity was filed under Jasper County’s Scalp Law recently, the head of an unusually large Mexican lion, which was killed in the lower section of the county by John Shepherd... The skull shows the head to be very nearly, if not equally, as large as an ordinary African lion’s head...”

The autobiography of Mrs. Otis McGaffey of Sabine Pass revealed that her husband had “killed a tiger cat” during their journey between Natchitoches, LA., and the Sabine River in 1841. During a court proceeding at Beaumont, TX, in 1876, William McFaddin swore that he had known Absolom Williams since 1834. He added that about 1840 Williams had been attacked at his log cabin in Hardin County by “a Bengal tiger that had escaped from circus,” and that Mrs. Williams had driven off the big cat with an ox yoke. However, no circus reached Houston prior to 1875 or in Beaumont prior to 1881, so what Williams had seen was actually a spotted jaguar.

Hence it becomes known that the “Mexican lion” of East Texas was actually a spotted jaguar, although none have been seen in Texas nor for about a century. Also cougars are arriving in East Texas in much greater numbers. Yet black panther stories continue to arrive in my guest book and email, many of them seemingly quite convincing, especially stories I have recently received from Warren and Silsbee, Texas. I hope the stories keep coming, but I would dread to know that a beautiful big black cat had been killed with a rifle, only to prove its existence.

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