A mafia boss's pet panther could be on the loose after a large black cat was spotted roaming in the countryside of southern Italy.
The big feline was seen and photographed on several occasions by people in the southern region of Puglia, the home turf of the shadowy Sacra Corona mafia, the least known of Italy's criminal networks. Locals suggest the mob could be the cat's owners.
Police and rangers have been deployed and a helicopter has carried out surveillance over the countryside outside the coastal town of Bari as authorities attempt the capture it.
"It's being said that the animal could have escaped from the villa of a mob boss's son," Davide Carlucci, the mayor of a local town, Acquaviva delle Fonti, told La Stampa newspaper.
"A while ago someone in the region had a tiger. It's a very serious issue - they bring in these animals and then later let them escape." A vet had identified the footprints of a panther, he said.
In a Facebook post, he said there was no need for "alarmism" and assured locals that police and forest rangers were looking for the creature.
It was important to "avoid surprising the feline, with the consequent risk that it may behave aggressively."
The authorities are warning locals around the villages of Adelfia and Cellamare to keep their pets indoors. They are also advising people not to work alone in the fields.
The animal, if confirmed to be a black leopard, would have no shortage of prey - Italy has a booming wild boar population as well as healthy numbers of roe, fallow and red deer. Domestic animals like sheep and goats would also make an easy meal.
"I was with a few other people and we saw the animal. As soon as it heard the sound of a car engine, it headed off into the undergrowth," said Roberto Surico, who lives near Acquaviva delle Fonti.
Having studied to be a vet, he estimated the panther to be fairly young, perhaps a couple of years old. "The way in which it moved was unmistakable," he said.
There were similar sightings of what was described as a black panther around the town of Foggia, also in Puglia, in January last year.
"We don't know if it is the same animal but certainly panthers can travel tens of kilometres a day," a police officer told La Stampa.