Michael Yon mixes a front-lines combat story into his report of American sightings of an unidentified large cat in Kandahar province, Aghanistan.
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.
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. …
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.
Ben Brody, another embedded reporter working in the same area wrote a similar report back in June.
Last summer when I spent two weeks at Combat Outpost Lakokhel in Zhari District, a few soldiers there swore they had seen a mountain lion-sized cat stalking around their guard towers at night. While I believed they thought they had seen such an animal, I privately felt they were probably seeing a big, sneaky stray dog.
Now I am embedded with soldiers at Combat Outpost Sangsar, just a couple miles from Lakokhel, and the sightings persist. Last night the patrol I was out with spotted two of the cats circling them in the dusty gloom, using their thermal imagers. I don’t have high-tech equipment like that so I couldn’t see them firsthand.
One of the soldiers managed to capture a few photos of the cats on his imager, and I in turn photographed its eyepiece. The thermal images, while a bit indistinct, appear to show two adult Caracals walking 40 meters from an American infantry squad.
The cats followed us for several hours, always keeping their distance but occasionally uttering a low growl, casting a shadow of dread over the dark fields. As we passed a farm compound a lonely hound howled at the column of soldiers, likely unaware of the great cats slinking through the shadows who could easily make a meal of him.
Despite soldiers’ hyperbolic reports that the cats are “seven feet long and around 300 pounds,” Caracals weigh about 40 pounds.