MONTEVRAIN, France - A tiger remained on the loose near Paris early Friday after firefighters and police called off the search for the night following a fruitless all-day hunt, with worried residents told to stay indoors.
A local woman sounded the alarm the morning of the previous day after spotting the fearsome animal in a supermarket car park in the town of Montevrain - just a stone's throw from Disneyland Paris.
Several more people later came forward saying they had seen the tiger on the prowl.
Backed up by a helicopter, more than 100 police officers and firefighters armed with tranquilising guns had spent the day combing the area in the Seine-et-Marne district near the French capital, without success.
Authorities ordered residents to stay indoors and use cars to pick their children up from school.
Town hall official Cedric Tartaud-Gineste told AFP: "We are calling on residents to be careful, not to leave their homes and to stay in their vehicles." "Anyone who sees the tiger should call the police or the fire service." He said that a security cordon covering an area about the size of four or five football pitches had been set up around a wooded area near the small town of Montevrain, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of Paris.
Experts said there was little doubt that the animal on the loose was a tiger.
"There is no doubt, it's a tiger," Robert Picaud, the head of a local group responsible for regulating pests, and who took part in the search.
"The footprints are real and they were not made by a man. These prints and photos leave no room for doubt." Police were also using thermal cameras in a bid to find the big cat, estimated to weigh around 70 kilogrammes (155 pounds), according to the town's mayor Christian Robache.
A dog trained in tracking bears and large game was also brought in to help with the search effort.
As darkness fell, officials suspended the search until daybreak.
"The hunt will be suspended for the night until dawn. The helicopter equipped with a thermal camera will keep going," said a local police source.
'I think I saw a lynx'
Earlier Thursday, an AFP reporter saw around a dozen fire engines and police vehicles lined up near the supermarket where the tiger was first spotted.
"My wife saw it this morning," Jean-Baptiste Berdeaux, who manages the Intermarche supermarket, told AFP.
"She didn't get out of the car and called me to say 'I think I saw a lynx'," he said, adding she took a photo of the animal and the couple then alerted nearby police officers.
Some people playing tennis nearby also saw the animal sloping by.
Authorities said they were hoping to catch the tiger alive.
"If it's possible, we'll try and put it to sleep. If it becomes dangerous or aggressive, the order will be given to kill it," police said.
A police source said the animal's prints were found in the woodland.
It was as yet unclear where the animal came from.
Despite the town's proximity to Disneyland Paris, a source close to the investigation said there was no link to the theme park.
Authorities have also made enquiries at a big-cat wildlife park 30 kilometres away.
Suspicion initially fell on a circus that had set up its tent in the supermarket car park a few days ago, but the mayor said it "did not have a tiger".
A source close to the search operation said the hunt for any tiger would be made more difficult because if the big cat behaved in typical fashion, it would nap a lot, possibly spending hours unnoticed sleeping in a tree.
The PETA animal rights group called on authorities to "show restraint and compassion in dealing with this tiger on the loose".
"This situation, however upsetting, is entirely preventable and should serve as a wake-up call to the public about the perils of keeping wild animals in captivity," the group told AFP in a statement.