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The Onca, Mystery Cat of Brazil Remains as Elusive as Ever

Posted by: John Kirk on February 28th, 2006

Tony Xavier was my mother’s first cousin. Tony and his family lived on a huge farm outside of the bustling metropolis of Sao Paulo, Brazil. The Xavier family busied themselves with raising cattle, crops and enjoying the good life that a successful enterprise can bring.

Brazil is well-known for a number of cryptids such as the Sucuriju Gigante (a gigantic variety of snake), the Mapinguari (bipedal hominid) and the Holodeira a mystery aquatic beast with a serrated back known to inhabit the Amazon.

Tony Xavier was about to encounter another cryptid unbeknownst to him. One night while driving home to the farm Tony caught site of something on the side of the road, as he drew closer to the object, it moved out into the middle of the road. He could see, in the beam of his headlights, a very large cat, like none he had seen before.

This mystery felid was so different from the jaguars that haunt the Amazon forests and was certainly no cougar. After a moment or two the mystery cat bounded into the bush leaving Tony shaking his head at what he had seen.

Upon returning to his farm, he asked the farmhands about any strange cats thought to lurk around the farm and described what he had seen to them. They looked at him in amazement and could not believe Tony’s good fortune. You see Tony was born in Hong Kong to a respected Portuguese/Spanish family and had only moved to Brazil in the early 1950’s, for a foreigner to have seen an animal that few Brazilians ever had was indeed an astonishing stroke of luck.

The farm workers told Tony that this species of cat was unknown to most people and was only seen deep in the depths of the jungle. Most of them had never seen it for themselves and had only heard from others about their brief sightings. They said the creature had a light covered coat and part of the animal was spotted, I know not where, but it was not a leopard or a jaguar. The farmhands told him that the cat was known as an Onca, but not the jaguar that is known by that (Panthera onca), and that it was very rarely ever seen. For it to have been out on a road near a farm within earshot of Brazil’s largest city was even more remarkable.

Tony was so excited by this discovery that he felt compelled to write to my mother – who had an interest in the unusual – about his sighting. At that time I was in my mid teens and not yet interested in cryptozoology, but remember my mother vividly relating the contents of Tony’s letter to me. I can remember how great I thought it was that someone could run into an animal nobody has ever heard of before. This obviously was a precursor of what was to become my life’s passion some years later.

The description of the Onca and its name are remarkably similar to that of a cryptozoological cat that has only been reported from Mexico so far. In the Sierra Madre Occidental region the cat is known as the Onza. It is alleged to have faint stripes on its shoulders and back as well as spots on its legs. When I came to know the late Richard Greenwell, I told him about cousin Tony’s encounter with the Onca and he was stunned to hear of a report from a location that is over 1,500 kilometres from where the creature was previously thought to be lurking. Richard was keenly interested in the Onza and he listened with fascination to the suggestion that there was the distinct possibility that there might be a counterpart to this creature in Brazil.

Richard was given at least three purported Onza skulls during his lifetime and then, in 1986, Richard obtained a complete carcass of what was purported to be an Onza but in fact turned out to be a common cougar. The Onza mystery in Mexico has never been resolved.

Another animal in Brazil is known as the Onca-anguc which is alleged to be found in Mato Grosso state. The extraordinary Marc van Roosmalen, discoverer of several new monkey species in Brazil, heard from locals in the Aripuana that a mystery cat called the Onca-cangucu lived in the area. It had black fur with a white ruff and a tail that was tufted. The locals offered van Roosmalen a skin and skull of the animal in 2001, but so far have not lived up to their promises. This has left van Roosmalen pondering if the animal isn’t really a black species of the Jaguar (Panthera onca)

This is the extent of my limited knowledge of the Onca. I would be interested to know from any Brazilian readers to Cryptomundo, if you might have any other info you could share with us about this incredibly rare and unknown cat. You can share your info in the comments section below.

John Kirk About John Kirk
One of the founders of the BCSCC, John Kirk has enjoyed a varied and exciting career path. Both a print and broadcast journalist, John Kirk has in recent years been at the forefront of much of the BCSCC’s expeditions, investigations and publishing. John has been particularly interested in the phenomenon of unknown aquatic cryptids around the world and is the author of In the Domain of the Lake Monsters (Key Porter Books, 1998). In addition to his interest in freshwater cryptids, John has been keenly interested in investigating the possible existence of sasquatch and other bipedal hominids of the world, and in particular, the Yeren of China. John is also chairman of the Crypto Safari organization, which specializes in sending teams of investigators to remote parts of the world to search for animals as yet unidentified by science. John travelled with a Crypto Safari team to Cameroon and northern Republic of Congo to interview witnesses among the Baka pygmies and Bantu bushmen who have sighted a large unknown animal that bears more than a superficial resemblance to a dinosaur. Since 1996, John Kirk has been editor and publisher of the BCSCC Quarterly which is the flagship publication of the BCSCC. In demand at conferences, seminars, lectures and on television and radio programs, John has spoken all over North America and has appeared in programs on NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, TLC, Discovery, CBC, CTV and the BBC. In his personal life John spends much time studying the histories of Scottish Clans and is himself the president of the Clan Kirk Society. John is also an avid soccer enthusiast and player.


3 Responses to “The Onca, Mystery Cat of Brazil Remains as Elusive as Ever”

  1. FreeThinker responds:

    I’d love to see a photo of it. It sounds interesting. Almost like a liger, but some spots.

  2. kittenz responds:

    I saw the photo of the Onza that was killed, I’m not sure when but I think around 1996. The local people said it was an Onza. It looked like what you might get if you could cross a cheetah with a puma: very small head, VERY long, lanky limbs & slender body. It was the color of a puma but had some darkish stripe markings on the upper insides of its arms. DNA testing later proved it to be a subspecies of Puma concolor. So it wasn’t a different species after all. But the local people recognized it as different from pumas or jaguars.

    I have also seen photos of very unusually colored jaguars, which were incompletely melanistic. They range from almost entirely black with tan or silvery fur near the face, to half-black, half-spotted animals, to animals that were spotted but had a very dark brown base color. I was astonished that such a wide range of melanism exists in jaguars. I always thought that they were either spotted all over, or black all over. Of course I know that the black cats still have the spot pattern, but I had no grasp of the variation that occurs. There are credible reports of albino (or more likely leucistic) jaguars, which have a coloration similar to that of white tiger: bluish-gray or brownish spots on a white background color. I have not been able to find photographs of the white jaguars, but I have seen photos of the oddly colored, incompletely melanistic ones.

    Within historical times the jaguar’s range extended into the USA, all the way to the Mississippi Delta (but, surprisingly, apparently not into Florida), quite a way up the Mississippi Valley, and westward to southern California. I think it’s possible that the jaguar may be repopulating some of that range. Recently jaguars were confirmed to be living in extreme southern Texas. Some of the black big cats that are being sighted, at least in the south & southwest, could be jaguars.

    South America has some of the least explored wilderness areas on earth. I would not be at all surprised if some previously undescribed species of big cat lives there. With the world warming up, I think it is very possible that some tropical species could be expanding their ranges northward.

  3. Kronprinz_adam responds:

    This is indeed a mystery. The largest felids in Latin America are the cougar (puma) and the jaguar. Anyway, people, farmers and hunters report seeing “onzas”.

    Confusion comes from colonial times. Remember “Florida Panthers?” Florida panthers are not panthers, but cougars. In a similar way, spanish conquerors, which came to the first time to a zoo in the aztec Tenochtitlan, reported seeing “lions, tigers and onzas”. So, cougars, jaguars and some unindentified third felid. It seems that the spanish “onza” was meant to be mythical animal based on an african felid, probably the cheetah.
    There are 3 possibilities.
    1. There are not onzas but smaller felids like jaguarundis and ocelots (called today by farmers “leoncillo” and “tigrillo”, small lion and small tiger).
    2. The onza was a red lynx, which can be found today in North Mexico. This is the most logical explanation for me.
    3. The onza was the extinct “american cheetah”. A thin, gracile felid which got extinct during the Ice Ages, which scientist thought it was related with african cheetahs, but now it seems they are related with cougars. Known only by fossils.



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