Reported sighting sets off frenzied search amid torrent of rumours and doctored pics before police call off the chase
© Gill and Steve Atkin
The photo taken by Gill and Steve Atkin of what they thought was a lion in a field behind their caravan at Earls Hall Farm in Essex.
A kind of August bank holiday delirium settled over Clacton-on-Sea on Monday as police and people of this seaside corner of Essex embarked on a frenzied lion hunt.
Reports of sightings of a beast with a mane like Aslan prowling in a wheatfield behind the Leisure Glade caravan park just before 7pm on Sunday evening sparked a huge police operation. It involved armed officers, a helicopter with an infrared camera, and zoological experts toting tranquilliser guns. Rumour flowed. One eyewitness said the beast had no mane; another local heard "a loud roar at 10pm". The internet buzzed with unverifiable images of a big cat at night, eyes gleaming.
"It has caused a bit of a stir in the village," said Jimmy Green, from St Osyth, near where the animal was spotted. "My wife didn't want to let our dog out."
Just 19 hours later the giddy hunt was over and the police declared there was no evidence of a lion after all. What it was remains unclear, but pictures seem to point to a wildcat or large domestic cat rather than an escaped lion from a circus or a gangster's illicit menagerie.
In an operation that locals described as "surreal" and akin to a murder manhunt, Essex police scrambled on Sunday night to scour the land around Earls Hall Drive near Clacton, telling residents nearby to stay indoors.
"Public safety is our priority which is why we are taking the sighting and all associated evidence seriously," said a spokesman. On Monday morning officers were back to search for paw prints and warned that "away from towns everyone should be aware of the possible risk".
The first sighting was made by Denise Martin, 52, a warehouse worker from Canvey Island staying at the Earls Hall Farm caravan site.
"I was looking out of the window and we saw smoke - it looked like there had been a bit of a bonfire," she said. "When the smoke cleared I could see this shape in the field, so I got the binoculars out. We had a look and it looked like a lion.
"I said to my husband: 'What do you make of that?' He said: 'That's a lion.'"
She said it was tan coloured with a white chest and her husband called the police.
"We weren't scared at all - it was excitement. You don't often see something like that in the wild. One time it sat up and looked at us and we could see its ears twitching. It knew we were there and it sat down and started cleaning itself."
Across the caravan park Gill and Steve Atkin were watching Come Dine With Me when they first saw the big cat in the field around 150 metres away.
"Steve was outside and came back to the caravan saying: 'Look at this, bring your binoculars and a camera'," said Gill Atkin, 51, from Louth in Lincolnshire. "Then one of our neighbours came running across to us. We thought someone was ill the way he looked so worried. He wanted us to confirm what he was seeing to the police." Mr Atkin said he told the police: "Christ, we have a lion here or a tiger. It's definitely a large cat."
Before long a police helicopter was in the sky above the farm and for 20 minutes he guided the police helicopter controller over the fields, before the cat, "about the size of two sheep"
, moved on. Their pictures show a grey-tinged animal with pointy ears and a whiteish collar.
His wife was less sure it was a lion, but she never mentioned her doubts to the police. "It was lying in the grass, rolling and sitting up and looking at us," she said. "I thought it was more sphinx-like than a lion." The Atkins only supplied their pictures to the police on Monday afternoon, not long before the search was called off by the authorities.
"We believe what was seen was either a large domestic cat or a wildcat," a police spokesman said in a final statement. "Extensive searches have been carried out, areas examined and witnesses spoken to, yet nothing has been found to suggest that a lion was in the area."
Sarah Forsyth, a curator at Colchester zoo who was called to assist police investigate the sighting, said the pictures of the animal were of "very poor quality" but the police had had to act as they were unable to say they definitely did not show a lion.
Forsyth said she and colleague Anthony Tropeano, the zoological director, arrived in St Osyth with tranquilliser equipment. "By the time we got there whatever it was had gone. We were shown some photographs, but they were from very far away, very poor quality and to be honest there was no way of saying yes or no."
The big cat hunt had developed into a circus. The man from the Mirror
was dressed up in a safari outfit and wielded a tin of cat food, while a resident, John Jupp, passed the time by jokingly duping a reporter from Russian television into thinking a picture of a tiger in a zoo on his iPhone was the beast of Essex.
Online the public embraced the classic bank holiday story. Twitter accounts were set up purporting to document the movements of the "Essex lion" and several doctored photographs were circulated on social networking sites.
Eddie Bowley, who set up the @EssexLion account and had amassed nearly 40,000 followers by Monday evening, said the process had been "a bizarre experience": "I had Mario Falcone from TOWIE [The Only Way is Essex] call me sad, Imogen Thomas ask me out for lunch and Philip Schofield telling me to hand myself in," he said.