French whip themselves into a frenzy over tigers in the Somme

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The Independent Online

Tiger, tiger burning bright, in the forests of the Somme... a hundred gendarmes are searching for you. No one knows where you have gone.

Tiger, tiger burning bright, in the forests of the Somme... a hundred gendarmes are searching for you. No one knows where you have gone.

Two big cats, possibly escaped or abandoned tigers, have eluded a large and elaborate search by the authorities in northern France in the past six days. The animals were first seen just west of Amiens last Thursday.

The following night, several gendarmes observed the animals - described as thin, grey felines, one metre long - for 15 minutes by torchlight. (Tigers are not grey but, as the French saying goes, all cats are grey in the dark.) Other witnesses reported seeing striped, cat-like animals, which were more than 1m high at the shoulders.

On Monday a lorry driver reported a tiger beside the A26 motorway, near Arras, in the Pas de Calais, 50 miles to the north-east. Gendarmes searched the undergrowth around the village of Etaing for several hours but found nothing.

Could a tiger cover 50 miles in three days, crossing a motorway, a railway line and dozens of small roads? Are there dozens of tigers loose in northern France? Has everyone gone crazy?

The answer to some of these questions will be known when the Museum of National History in Paris completes (possibly today) its examination of fur samples and foot-prints sent from the Amiens area.

There have been no reports of large cats missing from zoos or circuses in northern France (although a circus did pass along the A16 Paris-Calais motorway west of Amiens last week).

The Prefect (senior government official) in the Somme département is investigating two other possibilities. He believes that the animals may have escaped from smugglers, trying to sneak wild animals into Britain. On the other hand, they may be exotic pets, dumped after outgrowing their welcome in a city apartment.

At the weekend, 150 gendarmes beat through the forests and marshes west of Amiens where the animals were first seen. Two helicopters toured the area with thermal imaging cameras. Large lumps of meat were scattered as bait. Nothing was seen; the bait was not touched.

There have been no reports of attacks on pets or livestock but horses were said to have been winnowing in a panicky way in villages west of Amiens last week.

The last person to observe the Somme "tigers" was Gendarme Benoît Carbonnet near the village of Picquigny, 10 miles from Amiens last Friday. "I saw two round heads with yellowish, almond-shaped eyes. There were two slender animals about a metre long, with pale grey fur," he said. When first seen by villagers, the animals were calmly eyeing a herd of cattle.

The forests and marshes of the Somme are known as some of the best hunting country in France, with plentiful wild game. If there are big cats on the loose, it could be weeks before they are found.