MONTEVRAIN, France (AFP) - Scores of French police armed with tranquiliser guns and assisted by a helicopter resumed the search for a tiger on the loose near Paris on Friday, as the authorities ordered residents to stay home.
A dozen or so soldiers from a nearby army base prepared to join the hunt for the animal which has eluded all attempts at capture since being spotted prowling around a supermarket carpark on Thursday morning.
A chopper equipped with thermal imaging equipment circled over the search zone, a wooded area near the small town of Montevrain, some 40km east of Paris.
And police guarded the entrance to schools as children arrived on Friday morning.
Meanwhile, the authorities were still scratching their heads as to where the tiger could have come from.
Montevrain is a stone's throw from the popular Disneyland Paris but owners insist that tigers are not among the theme park's attractions.
The authorities have also made inquiries at a big-cat wildlife park 30km away.
Suspicion initially fell on a circus that had set up its big top in the supermarket carpark a few days ago, but town mayor Christian Robache said it "did not have a tiger".
A local woman sounded the alarm early on Thursday morning after spotting the animal in the supermarket carpark.
Several more people later came forward saying they had seen the tiger on the prowl.
More than 100 police officers and firefighters armed with tranquilising guns spent the day combing the area in the Seine-et-Marne district near the French capital, without success.
The authorities ordered residents to stay indoors and use cars to pick their children up from school.
Experts were sure the animal on the loose was a tiger.
"There is no doubt, it's a tiger," said Robert Picaud, 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 70kg, according to 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 helicopter with thermal imaging continued through the night but "the search proved fruitless", a police source told AFP.
Authorities have said they hope 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 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.