Endangered Florida Panther Is Beginning to Roar Back

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

The endangered Florida panther is finally getting the spotlight it deserves — it’s making a comeback after teetering on the brink of extinction. Featured in the April issue of National Geographic, the species bares its teeth and shows the world what successful species recovery is all about. Aggressive hunting and development left the population at less than 30 individuals by the 1970s. Today there are approximately 200 Florida panthers roaming a stretch of contiguous land south of the Caloosahatchee River. Now, conservationists are working to find a balance between Florida’s growing human population and the needs of these amazing creatures.

Why This Matters: After the recent record number of manatee deaths in Florida, we wrote about the state’s biodiversity crisis. Under the looming shadow of a global “mass extinction” event, 25% of 1,200 surveyed Florida species are at risk of losing 50% of their populations by 2050. Rising sea levels, pollution, and industrial development have hurt coastal biomes and communities in the state, but for inland animals like Florida panthers, suburban sprawl and growing human presence shrank their range, isolating them from other populations of North American big cats.  The plight of the Florida panther illustrates exactly why President Biden’s pledge to conserve 30% of the U.S. by 2030 is so important.

A Panther Pilgrimage

Big cats, like their smaller cousins, are notoriously solitary. Each cat needs their own territory, up to 200 square miles, to roam and hunt. But the presence of human infrastructure like highways and overpasses, pushing north and reconnecting big cat habitats is a grueling task. Conservationists have worked hard to set up a network of protected habitats, called the Florida Wildlife Corridor, on both public and private land, and it’s been working. In 2016, scientists spotted a female north of the Caloosahatchee River for the first time in nearly 50 years. Now, experts estimate that at least a couple dozen Florida panthers live north of the river. Interbreeding with other Puma species sustained “gene flow,” an influx of diverse genes that kept the species healthy and prevented harmful inbreeding. Now, this isolation is the final major hurdle for the wellbeing of the Florida panther.

Experts say, however, that to ensure the survival of the species panthers must make it further north, but expanding the Florida Wildlife Corridor requires more conservation funding to prevent potential corridor pathways from becoming roads and suburban developments. Conservationists hope to secure the Everglades as a protected habitat for the panthers. The Everglades provide water to 10 million Floridians and are in the direct recovery path of the expanding panther population. Conservationists say that further protections for the Everglades as an endangered species habitat is a win-win-win, and not only protects the Florida panther but the ecosystem and the water supply to local communities.

In Living Color

The National Geographic feature, written by Douglas Main, not only includes the species’ amazing conservation story, but also breathtaking photographs by Carlton Ward, Jr. tracking the climactic return of panthers to their old home turf. “It’s one of the most dramatic conservation success stories in U.S. history,” said Ward. His photos capture victorious conservation moments like the birth of three Florida panther cubs, whom veterinarians supplied with immunity boosters to help them grow big and strong. But alongside those beautiful moments, the photos tell a story of a species struggling to survive a world that paved over them. Solemn images of cats hit by cars and plagued by a mysterious neurological disorder remind us of the grim reality these animals face. Sparking hope are the numerous people in Ward’s images, passionately working to save the Florida panther.

To Go Deeper: See this tweet thread from @Douglas_Main or this one from @NatGeo.

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