Much like stories of massive alligators living in New York City’s sewers thanks to residents flushing unwanted pets, rumors that lions roam the Hamptons pine barrens, woods and wetlands are common since South African billionaire Hans Van der Klerk released 26 of the beasts around the South Fork back in 2013. The industrialist brought his lions as a solution to a growing deer overpopulation problem at the time, but they were rounded up and returned to Africa, according to Van der Klerk and most reports.
It seems, however, at least one lion stayed behind. And we have the photograph to prove it.
Sent to DansPapers.com from a British tourist visiting the Springs section of East Hampton over the weekend, the photograph, while blurry and partially covered by his fingertip, clearly shows what appears to be a full-grown male lion running across the salt marsh grasses in the Merrill Lake Sanctuary near Acabonac Harbor.
“I heard the roar and then saw this animal moving quite quickly across the landscape in front of me,” York resident Peter Burbidge Lake explains, noting that he fumbled to pull out his mobile phone and snap one quick photograph before the lion bounded off into a nearby copse of trees. “I didn’t know what I was seeing at first,” he says. “My hands were shaking and it took every ounce of me courage not to turn tail and run from the bloody thing.”
After gathering up his wife and children and getting back inside their car, Burbidge Lake says he felt safe enough to examine what he’d photographed. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw that lion,” he says, “but I Googled ‘Hamptons lions’ and read about Mr. Van der Klerk in your [DansPapers.com] articles, so I thought it best to pass the photo on to you lot.”
Van der Klerk would not speak directly to DansPapers.com, but a representative emailed a statement denying responsibility:
“While Hans Van der Klerk did indeed release 26 lions onto his property and several area hamlets with full permission from East Hampton and Southampton townships, he reclaimed each and every lion and returned them to their home in Africa. This photograph is either a case of misidentification, a hoax perpetrated by one of Mr. Van der Klerk’s enemies in the world of business to discredit him, or some bizarre coincidence. We handled our lions, their release, and the subsequent roundup and relocation with the utmost care and efficiency. All Mr. Van der Klerk’s lions have been accounted for, so he bears no responsibility for what this photograph claims to have captured.”
The Hamptons Police Department, while skeptical, is investigating the situation in Springs with a team of expert trackers and animal handlers. More news, including the results of their investigation, is forthcoming.