Photo by Carlton Ward, Jr.
Brian Kelly, a panther biologist for the state of Florida, opens a creaking gate near Fisheating Creek, a narrow ribbon of preserved land just west of Lake Okeechobee.
The path leads from trucks rumbling by on U.S. Highway 27 to a world of towering oaks, cypress heads and a tannic-stained creek that flows into Lake Okeechobee. It’s just north of a river that for decades had been the northern limit for the panther.
“Fisheating Creek Wildlife Management Area — this is the current northern frontier of the panther breeding range,” Kelly said. “We’ve gotten female panther activity here recently, which is big news for panthers north of the Caloosahatchee River.”
As Kelly walks down a dirt path shaded by oaks, the sounds of the big trucks fade. Swallow-tailed kites part the morning skies. Hiking boots scuff on bald cypress knees poking out of the sandy soil. A couple of hundred yards in, Kelly bends down to unlock a camouflaged camera bolted to a cypress tree.
“Rabbit, possum, hiker, hiker, deer, squirrel, law enforcement, deer, deer,” he says, flipping through the camera. “It’s been only five days. Last time I checked, it had a panther. This particular camera usually will get a panther once a month.”
Kelly and Tampa-based photographer Carlton Ward, Jr. are featured in the April issue of National Geographic magazine. The article provides a glimpse into the life of the Florida panther, whose population once dwindled to below two dozen but has since rebounded to more than 200. Still, serious risks remain. In the past few weeks alone, two more endangered animals were killed after being struck by vehicles. Those deaths highlight a problem — as well as a success story for the cat the Cherokee once called “Lord of the forest.”
In order to capture panthers on camera, Kelly and Ward first had to find them. That’s not an easy task on Florida’s sandy soil, which makes them hard to track. You have to find really fresh tracks, Kelly said.
“First things first, is identifying the track and knowing if it’s a panther or not. And then the real trick is following it,” he said. “So because they go so far, like in any given night, a panther might walk oh, a couple of miles. Maybe more. To actually follow panther tracks to find the panther itself – it’s way harder than it is for any of those African animals. Way harder.”
Following their routes is the best way to figure out how to find them.
“The first thing you learn are which tracks are fresh enough to follow and find the animal, and which are not. Because if you start following tracks that are not fresh enough, you’re not going to catch up to the animal. You’re not going to find it,” he said. “So, the key is identifying the difference between a couple of hours-old track and a couple of days-old track.”
On this day, Kelly is visiting public land, but most of the range of the Florida panther is on private land. Huge ranches bracket the preserve, and the cooperation of ranchers is considered essential to their survival.
“It varies,” Kelly said of the attitude of most ranchers. “Some are very amenable and work with us quite a bit, some not so much,” he said. “At the moment anyway, we can get the information that we need from public lands, from state land. It’s not a huge priority to push the envelope with private landowners.”
Panthers “need a lot of room,” he said. “That’s the big challenge.”
Part of his fascination with these little-seen creatures hearkens back to his days as a safari guide in South Africa. There, he went on fossil digs to discover how animals lived before man.
“How do you figure out what kind of animals were walking around the Earth a million years ago? Five million years ago?,” he said. “And this is, what were animals doing here yesterday. Or last week. That fascinates me.”
Much of what used to be panther territory is being carved up by subdivisions, as every day roughly 1,000 people move to Florida.
Just north of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, a group of property owners hopes to get federal approval to develop 45,000 acres.
And that puts a lot more cars on the road. Cars and panthers are not a good mix. In 2018 alone, 26 cats were killed by vehicles. Fourteen have been killed by cars and trucks this year alone, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Recently, the first female panther was spotted north of the Caloosahatchee River in 43 years. Kelly says there’s probably between 10 and 25 cats north of the river.
But this progress will be for naught if money is not found to preserve a continuous path for them to migrate.
“Certainly, habitat connectivity is critical,” Kelly said. “In order for the panther in particular to recolonize its historic range, it needs habitat to remain connected. And that’s certainly key, not for just the panther, but for all wildlife in general.”
Historically, the Florida Legislature has allocated $300 million a year for land preservation. This year, the state is setting aside $300 million in federal stimulus dollars toward land conservation. Lawmakers are also dedicating $100 million through the state’s Florida Forever program. That money could be used to conserve land, or build highway underpasses along migration corridors.
That’s where Carlton Ward Jr. comes in.
Traffic roars overhead as Ward climbs under State Road 80, just east of the small town of LaBelle. There, he inspects an infrared camera trap that produced one of the iconic images in the National Geographic article — a lone cat walking under the overpass, its stealthy profile reflected in a still creek.
Ward, a nature photographer from Tampa, has spent the past five years setting camera traps knee-deep in Southwest Florida’s swamps. He estimates it took two years to produce each photo in the magazine.
Photo by Carlton Ward, Jr.
“To capture an image of a panther walking through some of these places might happen every one or two months,” he said. “But then to get it with some level of daylight that gives that depth and beauty to the surrounding landscape, that only happens a few times a year.”
This isn’t the first time he’s been at this underpass. In 2012, Ward led the first of two 1,000-mile treks across Florida through here to publicize the need to preserve wildlife corridors. Ward said the continued success of the panther hinges on what they’ll find as they move north.
“Now, to look at that from the panther’s perspective, with the breeding population of panthers still isolated to the southern portion of our state, that wildlife corridor that we’ve experienced is literally the lifeline for the panther to recover and reclaim its historic territory further to the north,” Ward said.
The panther’s historic territory used to be the entire Southeast. But they were hunted so relentlessly that by the 1970s, only a handful were left in the swamps west of the Everglades.
Their long road to recovery began in Fisheating Creek. In 1972, a cougar hunter from Texas tracked down one underfed female panther, and it was discovered that inbreeding was hampering their ability to reproduce. Twenty-three years later, state legislators supported a plan for him to bring in eight female pumas from West Texas.
Nature took its course. What had once been fewer than 20 panthers, now have rebounded to more than 200.
“What encourages me is that the panther recovery story is a huge success story,” Kelly said. “As opposed to large carnivore conservation in the rest of the world, where it’s very often a doom and gloom story of populations decreasing, populations on the verge of extinction, the panther is the opposite of that. The panther has been a huge success.”
And as for the ranchers who might be afraid of losing a calf to the predators, Ward says he shares their concerns. After all, he’s an eighth-generation Floridian descended from cattle ranchers.
“There are some ranchers who are appropriately anxious about having a predator returned to the landscape. I also think there is a growing recognition amongst ranchers that they themselves are also an endangered species in the state of Florida, and what some might say, we’re unlikely allies for this kind of conservation,” Ward said.
“But a lot of the ranchers that I talked to and spend time with, see that the development is coming. And if the panther can help get more funding for conservation easements [essentially paying landowners not to develop their land] and land protection, they welcome the panther as a way to help protect their way of life as well.”
Most of the range of the panther is on private land. Huge ranches bracket the area, and the cooperation of ranchers is considered essential to their survival.
Alex Johns is a rancher and executive director of agriculture for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. They ranch in the Big Cypress Swamp, considered the heartland of the panther.
“We feel like that we’re losing anywhere from 5 to 7 percent of our calf crop every year in that area, due to panthers,” he said.
But Johns has mixed feelings about the cats. It’s a revered symbol for the Seminole, and one of the clans in the tribe is named for the panther.
There are government reimbursement programs for livestock that is taken, but since the tribe is considered a co-op, they collectively make too much money to qualify.
He says the panther was here before man, but the numbers are causing a “population explosion” in the areas west of the Everglades.
“They start encroaching into the communities, and causing trouble in the neighborhoods down here, taking people’s pets, and people are fearful for their kids playing in the yards, and things like that,” he said. “So it’s a delicate balance. We know the panther needs a place, but as they start getting pushed out of the woods, back into the communities, it becomes kind of a danger for the humans living down here.”
Johns says that “delicate balance” has to be reached so ranchers can be compensated without having to cut through a lot of red tape. That way, there would be an economic incentive to protect the cats.
“There is a possibility of doing eco-tourism, and if there’s enough panther sightings that people would pay to come. And there would be an economic incentive to let people start coming to the ranch and paying money for people to feed the panthers,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the livelihood of folks are their cattle. And if they’re not getting compensated for the cattle that are lost, then it’s going to continue to be an issue.”
Still, Ward believes a balance can be reached. And the progress the cats have shown the past several decades is a good guide.
“This is a conservation success story that belongs to Florida and Floridians,” he said. “And this can be a real model of nature and people working together.”
For more on this story, visit National Geographic.