PARIS - French authorities searching for a mysterious big cat spotted prowling around a town on the outskirts of Paris revealed Friday it was unlikely to be a tiger as initially suspected.
After examining tracks, experts from the national hunting and wildlife office and a nearby big cat park said: "We can exclude the presence of an animal from the tiger species." They added though that "the feline is still being hunted".
The appearance of the furtive animal had gripped France and authorities had initially scrambled police, soldiers and a helicopter with thermal imaging equipment to find the beast.
But the threat level appeared to be downgraded on Friday, with the local director of public safety, Chantal Baccanini, saying there was "no danger for the general population".
"It's between a domestic cat and a bigger feline," said Eric Hansen from the national hunting office ONCFS.
For this reason, the searches were "reduced" to just a "security team" looking for the animal in the urban area of Montevrain, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of Paris, next to the Disneyland Paris theme park.
The town's mayor on Thursday estimated that the animal weighed around 70 kilogrammes (150 pounds).
The story had generated wall-to-wall coverage in France on rolling news channels. Local paper Le Parisien splashed a picture of the animal on its front page with the headline: "The unbelievable tiger alert." Despite deploying around 100 police, firefighters and soldiers immediately after the sightings, the search proved fruitless. Torrential rain hampered the scaled-down hunt later Friday.
A footprint, initially thought to be that of a tiger, was spotted early Friday morning at the unlikely location of a service station near the A4 motorway.
France's traffic centre also said a "stray animal" had been spotted nearby and urged motorists to exercise caution on the motorway.
Tiger or no tiger, Montevrain resident Jean-Francois Ameur was taking no chances as he told his 12-year-old son to wait for a neighbour to pick him up from school in a car.
"It's been running for 48 hours and it hasn't eaten, so yes, I'm worried," said Ameur.
Meanwhile, authorities were still scratching their heads as to where the feline could have come from.
A local woman sounded the alarm early on Thursday morning after spotting the animal in the supermarket car park.
Several more people later came forward saying they had seen a "tiger" on the prowl.
"It's becoming hysteria. That was to be expected," said a police source.
More than 100 police officers and firefighters armed with tranquiliser guns had spent Thursday combing the area in the Seine-et-Marne district to the east of the French capital.
A dog trained in tracking bears and large game was even brought in to help with the search.
Authorities had said they hope to catch the animal alive.
They will try to anaesthetise it "if it's possible," police said. "If it becomes dangerous or aggressive, the order will be given to kill it."