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Afghan Mystery Cat: The Kandahar Cougar

Posted by: Loren Coleman on September 9th, 2011

Phantom panthers or mystery cats are part of the felid cryptozoology of the world. Now comes news of mysterious unidentified cats being seen in Afghanistan by American troops, animals that are NOT snow leopards or any other known felids for the region of the country where the cryptid cats are being sighted. The U.S. soldiers are calling them the “Kandahar Cougars.”


Eyewitnesses are saying the cats have the color of a cougar, but there are additional details that make them sound a bit non-cougar-like too.

This breaking news, cryptozoologically, is from the battle fields of Afghanistan, brought to us by an internationally-respected combat journalist.

Correspondent Michael Yon writes:

06 September 2011
Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
Task Force Spartan
There is much talk about “jaguars” or “cougars” among the troops here. At least a dozen American Soldiers claim they have seen gigantic cats in these flatlands. “Gigantic” being defined as roughly the size of a German Shepherd. During a mission, I asked about these mysterious big cats. Several US Soldiers insisted—completely insisted—they were eyewitnesses. The Afghan soldiers chuckled, saying their American counterparts were hallucinating. The Americans remained adamant. The inevitable follow-up questions came. “How do you know what a cougar even looks like? Have you ever seen one before?” An Afghan commander said to a particularly persistent American, “You saw a sheep.”

“No, it was a big cat!” replied the American.
“You maybe saw a donkey,” conceded the Afghan.
Everyone laughed.

We know there are big cats in Afghanistan. This is widely accepted as fact, yet big cats are not reported living in the Zhari District of Kandahar Province. We know there are polar bears in the United States. But if you find yourself stumbling out of the Florida Everglades, ripping moss from your hair while mumbling that you saw a polar bear, locals might ask you to sit under a shade tree and enjoy an iced tea and a nap. A polar bear in Florida is as likely as an alligator in Alaska.

Snow Leopards have been photographed this year in Afghanistan, but the climate and geography in the Wakhan Corridor is extremely dissimilar, and far less populated than Zhari. We are in hot, dry country, just a short drive from the Dasht-i-Margo or “The Desert of Death.” I visited this desert in the spring of 2006 and dozens of times since.

The Afghan Soldiers refute any suggestion that there are big cats here in Kandahar. “No way,” they say, “impossible.” American Soldiers insist they have seen them by naked eye, by weapon optics, and by thermal optics that can zoom with amazing clarity. I look through these kinds of optics almost every day, and to be sure, they are so precise it’s hard to conceive anyone mistaking a sheep or donkey for a big cat. But even when Soldiers agree another Soldier may have seen a big cat, the discussion turns to, “How long did you see it? A second? Ten seconds? A minute?” Sometimes they see it for minutes at a time. Two Soldiers in separate locations claimed they saw large cats jump over high walls. One Soldier told me he saw two cats at the same time. Troops in different outfits who are miles apart are reporting seeing these cats from around Panjwai and Zhari.


Sergeant TJ Vowell (above), from McKinney, Texas, had spotted one. LTC Katona, commander of 4-4 Cav was visiting the small base called Pashmal South where TJ and his unit are stationed. They seem to get attacked every day and are dishing out the same. While LTC Katona studied a map with Captain Danny Sjursen, B-troop commander, I was asking TJ about the cats. TJ reported that sees them “plain as day” almost every morning at the same time and place. (Finally a “bingo” moment.) But then LTC Katona took a break from the map to say that TJ had recently been shot. Actually, the Commander was trying to brag about TJ, which is something you commonly see with American and British commanders. They spotlight good fighters as if they were cherished sons. LTC Katona was flagrantly bragging about TJ getting shot and returning to the fight. (Look at my son the warrior!)

Well, when you run with the big dogs in combat, you meet a lot of warriors who’ve been shot, but you don’t meet a lot of warriors who see big cats here. I wanted to ask more about the cats, but to be polite I first asked about how TJ got shot. And besides, there’s never a boring way to get shot.

[T.J. tells the story of the shooting.]

So, with the gunshot story over, I asked TJ what color is the cat he’s been seeing. He sees the cat almost every morning, and it’s brown and has spots or stripes. He said it stays about 300 or 400 meters away, and sometimes hangs out for up to twenty minutes. I asked if he’d stake it out with me if I came back, because with my camera gear we can practically get its eye color from 400 meters. He said sure, come back and we’ll stake it out.

It might not be long until we settle the question of the Kandahar Cougar.Michael Yon

About the author of this reportage: Michael Yon
Michael Yon is a former Green Beret, native of Winter Haven, Florida, who has been reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan since December 2004. No other reporter has spent as much time with combat troops in these two wars. Michael’s dispatches from the frontlines have earned him the reputation as the premier independent combat journalist of his generation. His work has been featured on “Good Morning America,” The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, CNN, ABC, FOX, as well as hundreds of other major media outlets all around the world.

Yon has written a critically acclaimed memoir, Danger Close. In 2008 Michael published his second book, Moment of Truth in Iraq, which is packed with heart-rending tales from the battlefields. He is the author of other books of his reports from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thanks for the newstip from Rob Carignan.

About Loren Coleman
Loren Coleman is one of the world’s leading cryptozoologists, some say “the” leading. Certainly, he is acknowledged as the current living American researcher and writer who has most popularized cryptozoology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Starting his fieldwork and investigations in 1960, after traveling and trekking extensively in pursuit of cryptozoological mysteries, Coleman began writing to share his experiences in 1969. An honorary member of Ivan T. Sanderson’s Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained in the 1970s, Coleman has been bestowed with similar honorary memberships of the North Idaho College Cryptozoology Club in 1983, and in subsequent years, that of the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club, CryptoSafari International, and other international organizations. He was also a Life Member and Benefactor of the International Society of Cryptozoology (now-defunct). Loren Coleman’s daily blog, as a member of the Cryptomundo Team, served as an ongoing avenue of communication for the ever-growing body of cryptozoo news from 2005 through 2013.


17 Responses to “Afghan Mystery Cat: The Kandahar Cougar”

  1. Bigfeeted Skunk Ape responds:

    This seems quite interesting. I don’t think it is impossible, and it might just be a new species of felids. And if so many soldiers claim to have seen them, then, I think there’s quite a bit chance of the reports being realistic. What kind of felids they are, though, I don’t know. :-)

  2. jayman responds:

    I wonder if they could be seeing striped hyenas. The reported size and color are good matches.

  3. DWA responds:

    jayman: I hadn’t thought about striped hyenas. Even though they don’t to me look anything like cats, hyenas may actually be more closely related to cats than dogs.

    That said: the locals’ take on this is highly unusual. (And they never mention hyenas.) You’d expect them to know.

  4. PhotoExpert responds:

    I think soldiers as eyewitnesses would be very credulous. I believe they are seeing some type of felid. I do not believe they are seeing hyenas as some previous posters have stated.

    If we are to believe the eyewitness testimony of the soldiers, then, we must believe everything they say. More than one soldier testified that they had seen these cats jumping over walls. Hyenas can’t do that! In Africa, lions will get into trees because they know hyenas can’t jump that high and can not scale the tree. This is evident in any YouTube video you wish to look at.

    I would definitely rule out these soldiers mistaking hyenas as felids and go for the more common sense approach. These soldiers are seeing some type of felid, either known or unknown to us at this time.

    Since the one soldier sees the cat in question on a daily basis, staking this area out and getting a few photos would probably close the case. Good luck!

  5. Mïk responds:

    The reports by the troops are while they are surveilling the territory with high-powered optics. The common Afgan foot soldier, or his commanders, don’t have that vantage point for hours at a time (a commander may look through them devices, but only a quick look at a specific enemy action). It may be false ID, but it also may be real. We’ll see, if he actually gets on it.

    I’m concerned that this is just another in a long string of “we’ll be showing it all to you soon” promises that never materialize. Dr. Ketchum, how about it? I want to see less of the promises and more of the “gettin’ ‘er done” Can we get that?

  6. thegsmiths4 responds:

    Michael Yon is a very reputable journalist. He wouldn’t waste his time tracking down this cryptid unless he believed there was a real possibility of it existing.

  7. jayman responds:

    I’d still say it’s more parsimonius to go with a known animal whose known range includes this territory than postulate a complete unknown. How many of these American troops have ever seen a large felid or hyena in the wild? I wouldn’t discount the skepticism of the locals either.

  8. arewethereyeti responds:

    I tend to agree with jayman here; to wit, its more likely to be, “a known animal whose known range includes this territory (rather than) a complete unknown.”

    As a side note, am I the only one who felt a bit hypocritical while reading Mr. Yon’s account? We, as Cryptomundians, so often seem willing to accept local lore and tribal legends as, at least, a stepping-off point to posit the existence of an unknown cryptid.

    This time, however, I couldn’t help but notice that my almost-automatic reaction was to dismiss the locals’ statements, to the contrary, as far fetched.

    Kinda weird when you see something from the other side of the looking glass… ;)

  9. Krimeg responds:

    Maybe very big Jungle cats (misnomer) (Felis chaus)? They are known to occur in Afghanistan and some individuals may display spots.

  10. dogu4 responds:

    I’ve read Yon’s reports over the years and agree that his reporting is remarkable for its no nonsense objectivity…and superb writing.
    I wonder if a large feline in Afghanistan could be the escaped pet of some local chieftan drug warlord, now preying on the same sheep and donkeys that the locals, lacking the sophisticated optics of the troops, believe they are seeing…the occasional livestock disappearing would hardly draw notice among the locals in a war zone…and big cats are alarmingly stealthy as evidenced by the recent sightings of mountian lions right up onto the fringes of San Francisco in California.
    And if not an escaped exotic pet, the possibility that some other previously un-described population of large cat could have been stirred from its otherwise seldom visited domain/niche in the arid regions would be an equally interesting idea. One that underscores the vastness of the wilderness that sometimes thrive while humans conduct our businesses, including war.

  11. RimT responds:

    There are actually several species of big cat whose range includes southern Afghanistan. The Persian leopard, caracal, and the smaller asian wildcat, jungle cat, and sand cat. (Even the asiatic cheetah has a small population not far away in Iran).

    There is even a photograph/documentation of caracals spotted near American soldiers in the exact same province as the story above.

    I don’t know why the “locals” were giving them such a hard time, but many Afghan soldiers are not necessarily serving in a province they are from. You could have an ANA soldier with American forces near Kandahar who had never spent any time in that part of the country before.

  12. Kalashnikovnik responds:

    Interesting article.
    having read today’s (9/10) post about “white” cheetahs, and noting how the coloration gives them a resemblance to rangy cougars (which given their genetic relationship, isn’t surprising) and noting that Afghanistan is included in the cheetah’s historical range leads me to ponder whether aberrant colored cheetahs might be another possible explanation, although I think caracals…or possibly even jungle cats, are another plausible explanation.

  13. CajunRG responds:

    Even though they are smaller than a cougar, I believe what the soldiers are seeing are caracals, which are native to Africa and Asia. Superficially the caracal has makings and coloring similar to American cougars, with some striping on the legs and they also have ear tufts similar to those on a lynx.

  14. DWA responds:

    Checking in again to agree with jayman and others:

    Go with parsimony here, and treat local skepticism as a considerable red flag.

    This isn’t sasquatch, with the attendant pressure to go with the flow and pretend you didn’t see something you did. Even so, many small towns in the PNW and the South, for example, aren’t so skeptical when the locals are honestly questioned, particularly when they aren’t publicly identified.

    As noted, there are cats that come close to this area in terms of range, as well as striped hyena. Not sure how plausible they are for this area; the fauna of Afghanistan isn’t a specialty of mine. But once again, when the locals are nay-saying something like this, one needs to take that into account as an equally valid possibility to all others on offer until the proof is in.

  15. dogu4 responds:

    Is there a modern diagram of the evolutionary family tree of all cats based on modern molecular biology and cladistics? I seem to recall that a number of earlier presumptions have been proven wrong regarding big cats,for instance; snow leopards are actually more closely related to tigers than to other leopards, and that the presence or absence of sports which had been thought of as evidence of related-ness in cats had lost merit.

  16. RimT responds:

    dogu4: You can find a phylogenetic tree of the family felidae at this link

  17. dogu4 responds:

    Thanks for that link, RimT. It does confirm the relatively close relatedness of cheetahs and mountain lions…it would be nice to see how extinct species such as similidons and the north american lion might be plotted. Cheers.



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