ESSEX, UK – This is the image that sparked a big cat scare in Essex after walkers became convinced they had seen a lion in a field.
Police, who were handed similar pictures to this one taken in St Osyth, near Clacton on Sea, scrambled helicopters and marksmen in pursuit of the supposed beast.
But today they called off the large-scale search after 24 hours when officers found no trace of a big cat.
A police spokesman said: ‘We believe what was seen on Sunday evening was either a large domestic cat or a wildcat.
‘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.
‘We would like to thank the local community and holidaymakers for their patience and support throughout the past 24 hours as the police and media presence would have been somewhat overwhelming for them.’
It also emerged that an image believed to show the lion which was widely viewed online was in fact a fake.
Essex police warned that ‘several doctored photographs are in circulation through social networking sites and other media forums’.
And officers said one night-time picture in circulation showing the silhouette of what looked like a lion, was ‘never one that police were examining’.
People passing this photo of a lion around social networking site Twitter thought this was the lion that sparked the hunt. Police have confirmed it is a fake
It followed a reported sighting by a group of people who claim they saw the predator close to fields near Clacton, Essex, at around 7pm yesterday.
They passed an image to the police, speaking a search involving armed officers and helicopters.
And today officers were working with experts from Colchester Zoo to track down the animal until the search was called off.
Denise Martin, 52, a warehouse operative, took the picture after seeing the suspected lion from the windows of her caravan on the site at Earls Hall Farm.
Mrs Martin, from Canvey Island, was spending the Bank Holiday weekend at the site with her husband, Bob, 51, a professional driver, her brother, David Wright, 57, a lorry driver, and his wife, Sue, 58.
‘I was looking out of the window and we saw smoke – it looked like there had been a bit of a bonfire. When you are in a caravan you panic about smoke,’ Mrs Martin 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.’
She said the lion was tan coloured with a white chest.
‘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.’
Mrs Wright, a housewife and a mother of three, from Dagenham, Essex, said the group watched the lion for around half an hour before it disappeared.
‘The moment I saw it, straight away I said ‘That looks like a lioness,’ she said.
‘We then phoned the police. We phoned the police before I started to take pictures. I just thought we would take them so that we had proof of what we were seeing.
‘When the farmer came he walked into the field and the lion got up and walked away into the next field.’
Another witness described onlookers screaming as they came face to face with the predator.
Others sitting in nearby homes told how they heard it roar as it prowled the area. Rich Baker, 39, was walking with his two boys, aged nine and 11 when the drama unfolded.
He said: ‘A man started running towards us yelling ‘It’s a f****** lion!’ He looked so panicked you knew it was not a joke. The lion you could see it from the side.’
The van driver, from Romford, Essex, continued: ‘I grabbed my children’s hands and we ran towards our caravan. My children started to scream, “daddy, is the lion going to get us?”
‘It was one million per cent a lion. It was a tan colour with a big mane, it was fully grown, it was definitely a lion. It was just standing there, it seemed to be enjoying itself.
‘There were a dozen or so people who saw it. We are staying on the caravan park down the road. It’s very busy – it’s a seaside resort and a bank holiday.’
Che Kevlin, 40, who lives nearby the scene of the drama, described hearing the lion roar.
He said: ‘I was sitting with my wife in the front room playing backgammon at around 10pm when I heard this very loud roar.
‘It was incredibly odd to hear something like that at that time of night.
‘We had been for a walk earlier in the day and heard a police helicopter but didn’t realise they were looking for a lion.
‘We were trying to work out what the roar was. It was not until my brother texted me 20 minutes later and said there’s a lion on the loose in your area that we realised what exactly it was.
‘It was very, very loud. I’ve only heard what a lion sounds like on TV wildlife programmes, but it was definitely that.’
Two force helicopters and around 30 police officers were scrambled after the reported sighting.
Experts said they would try to tranquilise the creature if it was found. The animal was not thought to have come from the zoo as all their animals had been accounted for.
A witness, Rob Hull, who works as a barman at the nearby Tudor Bar social club, had already heard about the lion when he saw it ambling through the field.
He said: ‘I was in my car as I had just gone to get some petrol when I saw it in the field next to the road. It was ambling laconically along by the lake in the field, like it didn’t have a care in the world.
‘I had already heard about it. It was already all over Facebook and Twitter.’
It was originally believed the animal could have escaped from a circus that had been performing nearby. The Great British Circus had been running at Clacton Airfield, less than two miles away, until August 8.
The circus website includes video footage of lions performing as part of its show.
Last night there were conflicting reports over whether the circus had been touring with lions or not.
But police said today that officers have spoken to the circus and confirmed they do not have an animal missing, nor do they have any lions.
They also told people to enjoy the rest of the Bank Holiday.
Pub landlord Dave Sparks, who runs the Red Lion pub in St Osyth, described the police hunt as ‘surreal’.
He said: ‘You don’t really expect to be told there’s a lion wandering around the area.’
Roger Lord, of Earls Hall Farm, St Osyth, said a picture of the suspected lion had been taken by residents in caravans on the farm land and passed to police.
‘The first thing we knew about it was a phone call from the police last night,’ he said.
‘I am sceptical – I think it might just well be a large domestic cat but they certainly saw something that they were were concerned about and they went down the right route to the police.
‘They have taken it very seriously and have put two helicopters up in the air and I don’t know how many armed police that we still have on site now.
Overnight police helicopters were using heat-seeking cameras to scan fields and woods.
Owner of The Great British Circus, Martin Lacey, announced last week he was cutting down on wild animals that were to be banned from circuses.
‘I am 70 this year so have decided to finish now,’ he told Horse and Hound magazine.
He was seeking new owners for performing horses and a zebra that had been dropped from the circus. He had reportedly also sold a tiger to Italy.
Last night he could not be contacted for comment.
Police were trying to establish where the lion may have come from. Anyone who sees the lion is advised to call 999.