Skull find was a beastly hoax

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The Beast of Bodmin Moor skulked back into the mists of legend yesterday following the revelation of a hoax which had fooled eminent zoologists.

The skull of an adult, male leopard, complete with inch-long fangs, which was found in a Cornish stream, was hailed by London Zoo last week as belonging to the elusive beast. If true, it could have been the first concrete evidence of big cats living wild in Britain.

However, examination by mammal experts at the Natural History Museum found it was no more than an imported hunting trophy placed in the stream by hoaxers.

Traces of a tropical cockroach egg-case were found inside the skull, indicating the leopard had died outside the country and marks showed part of it had been deliberately removed, probably by a sharp knife.

The museum report said: "It is most unlikely that [the skull] has been in the river where it was recently discovered for any appreciable length of time."

The exposure of the prank caused red faces at London Zoo, whose assistant curator of mammals, Douglas Richardson, had enthused last week: "I believe this is the Beast of Bodmin, or one of them. There is more than one out there, that's for sure." Yesterday he had to admit it was not the thrilling find he had at first thought.

Some newspapers also had to swallow humble pie, especially the Times, which ran the story confidently across its front page with a photograph of a black leopard apparently basking among the high grasses of its natural habitat - Bodmin.

Despite the rogue skull, Mr Richardson insisted large black cats are roaming the moor. "The exposing of this hoax does not alter my opinion concerning the presence of big cats in south-west England. The evidence that I have examined over the years, coupled with the first hand observations of some very credible witnesses, leaves me in no doubt about their existence," he said.

"There's no other animal in this country that could attack livestock in this way. The claw marks left on sheep and the way it swats the livestock are signs of a wild cat."

Paul Tyler, Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall, also remained sure there is a discovery yet to be made. "To find that the dead cat is a fake does nothing to disprove the existence of a very live Beast of Bodmin. We must wait and see," he said. Almost as elusive as the creature are the hoaxers. Mr Richardson regretted he had no idea who they were but added there was nothing to indicate that the boy who found the skull - Barney Jones, of St Cleer, Cornwall - was to blame.