- Issue: Summer 2018
- Author: Carlton Ward Jr.
- Photographer: Carlton Ward Jr.
FLORIDA PANTHER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE :: UNITED STATES
The Florida panther is the last puma in the eastern US. In all my years working in wild Florida, I’ve seen only two. Photographing the elusive cat—which I’ve done with support from a National Geographic grant—has been the biggest challenge of my career.
In the early 1970s, a wildlife tracker hired by WWF discovered a surviving population of maybe 30 panthers in the swamps of South Florida. The population has rebounded to approximately 200 today. But for the endangered cat to recover, there needs to be three times that number.
In 2017, new hope arrived with the first panther kittens documented in the Northern Everglades—north of the Caloosahatchee River—in 44 years. The question now is whether we can protect enough land from development to keep the Everglades connected to its headwaters and the extensive forests of Central and North Florida beyond. That’s the only way to give the panther a path to recovery.
In Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, I wanted to show a panther using the swamp habitat that was paramount to the species’ survival over the past century. I placed a trail camera with an infrared trigger where a panther might jump over a creek. When one finally came through, it jumped a lot faster and higher than I anticipated.