Wildlife

Florida Wild: A Rare Face-to-Face Encounter With the Elusive Florida Panther

During a lifetime in the Florida woods, I have only seen two Florida panthers in the wild, both times fleeting glimpses, never long enough to take a picture. For the past two years I have been pursuing panthers almost full time for a National Geographic project. Custom-made camera traps have been the only reliable method for photographing them. But in June, at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, I had an encounter that I’ll be talking about the rest of my life. I was driving my truck into the backcountry, a part of Corkscrew closed to the public where I have been permitted to install a camera trap. As I got closer to my camera site, I rounded a corner to see a panther sitting in the dirt road about 200 yards away. I was on the phone with my Aunt Nell and hung up rather abruptly, grabbed a telephoto lens and nervously snapped a few frames, initially through the windshield. I slowly rolled a little closer, and pulled off to the side behind some grass and trees to try again. The elevated road swelled out into an island stretching about 40 feet to my left. The panther was still 150 yards away. The 3 PM light was harsh so I was just watching when my phone vibrated with a call from filmmaker Eric Bendick. I whispered that I was staring at a real-life panther; the conference call about our panther film would have to wait. Eric reminded me to take some video. The light was still bad and the panther was still sitting in the road, so I complied, not realizing how jacked up I was until trying to hold my iPhone steady. A few seconds into my jittery self-narration, the panther started walking down the road right towards me. I set the phone on the dash and eased towards my camera. When the big cat sat back down in the road, closer still, I resumed my video. But the panther started walking closer again! I switched back to my real camera, put it in silent mode and held my breath. The panther kept coming! It skirted the edge of the swamp, occasionally disappearing behind grass and low palms. I let the shutter rip every time it revealed itself, still coming closer with every step. Then it walked within 20 yards of my truck and then sat down beneath an island of palms directly out my driver’s window! I filled the frame with its body and looked into its eyes as it stared right back at me!

An endangered Florida panther stares at photographer carlton Ward Jr. in the backcountry at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Photo by Carlton Ward Jr.

 

I had thought the panther was a young male by its height walking down the road, but when I heard a ruffling in the palms back behind it and a kitten emerged from the vegetation, I knew I was mistaken. The little guy was in my sight for less than two minutes. When it got closer, its mother got up and continued walking down the road, patiently waiting for the slowest in her party to keep up. They soon turned off into a thick hammock leaving me alone with my thoughts. When I carried on with my plan to change the batteries and cards in my nearby camera trap, the process felt mechanical and empty. Remote cameras are invaluable. But it’s a whole different experience when the panther is looking right back at you. I am thankful to Audubon for protecting this land from the development that is consuming Southwest Florida, being an agent for conservation on adjacent lands and for allowing me the opportunity to witness the wildness that survives at Corkscrew Swamp.

See the full story with more photos and a video on NationalGeographic.com and the above photo on Instagram.com/NatGeo.

This project is supported by a Storytelling Grant from the National Geographic Society. Please consider helping me continue to raise my voice for these issues by making a donation to my Path of the Panther project, a collaboration with the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

Carlton Ward Jr is a conservation photographer and eighth generation Floridian currently focused on the story of the Florida panther and the habitat protection needed to protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor.

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