MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – If you go to Zoo Miami and happen to catch a glimpse of Mahala, the 5-year-old Florida panther who was rescued as a cub, consider yourself a very lucky human.
Like a ghost in the wild, and even at the zoo, spotting her is never a sure thing.
Carlton Ward Jr. is a National Geographic Explorer, conservation photographer and eighth-generation Florida native.
He’s on a mission to save the Florida panther.
“It is a really rare experience to see one with your own eyes,” Ward said. “They’re extremely elusive. They’re primarily nocturnal, they rely on the forest.”
His new documentary, “Path of the Panther,” was just released and underscores just how daunting it is for one of the planet’s most endangered animals to survive in the rapidly-developing Florida of today.
Directed by award-winning filmmaker Eric Bendick, Ward says, “This project has been the hardest thing I’ve ever attempted.”
On average, 25 panthers are killed by cars every year.
Only an estimated 200 are left in the wild. Though the numbers are up dramatically from just 30 cats in the 1970s, recovery is still far away.
“It’s not possible to support a population of panthers or animals that move that wildly without protecting a lot of land,” Ward said. “And the only way that’s going to happen in a state like Florida is protecting a wildlife corridor.”
Signed into law by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2021, the Florida Wildlife Corridor is a network of public and private lands patched together, preserving green space for wildlife like the panther that needs 200 square miles of territory to roam and hunt. There isn’t much room left. For decades, sprawl and urban expansion has pushed the panther to the brink.
Florida panthers once roamed the entire southeast but are now mostly confined to just a small region of Florida along the Gulf of Mexico.
Most of the surviving panthers live in swampy areas that are not ideal for development, but also not ideal for the panthers.
They can survive there, but they can’t thrive. It’s very difficult for them to hunt there and grow their population and genetic flow. The wildlife corridor is a way conservationists believe we can save a path for the panther, or it’s going to be lost forever.
Frank Ridgley heads the conservation research department at Zoo Miami. He said we need at least 600 cats for the species to come back, and need to preserve three times as much land to make it happen.
“The issue is it’s running out of space,” Ridgley said. “You know, we push the Florida panthers into Big Cypress and to a lot of the wetlands. It’s not a wetland cat.
“If we maintain those corridors, we give them a chance to continue to move north into these areas.”
The window to make this happen is rapidly closing.
Only 27% of Florida is public land. That’s simply not enough, especially with 100,000 acres a year being lost to new roads and new developments.
“This is that moment where we are going to either send it further on its path to recovery or keep it stuck on an island on life support in South Florida for the future,” said Ward.
It is that sense of urgency that drove Ward and his team to make their documentary, igniting a spark for conservation, if he could bring the story of the panther to life.
“This is it, this is nature’s last stand,” said Ward. “It’s so hard to show the story, and you have to show people to create that connection, that love.”
It took five years, strategically setting up camera traps in panther territory to finally get the stunning images he needed.
They brought a new hope after a female panther was finally captured on film north of the Caloosahatchee River, north of southwest Florida, and she wasn’t alone.
“She has two Florida panther kittens following right behind her,” Ward said. “So that was a moment where the focus shifted to that next generation, and here we are and the panthers are showing us this is possible.”
In the end, it’s not about just saving the panther, but saving all of wild Florida, and the stakes have never been higher.
“I want audiences to be proud that this is our state and this wildness and this beauty exist right here,” said Ward. And it’s on our watch, this wild heart, if we pay attention to it, the panther is actually going to help us save Florida, not just for it and for other species, but for us.”
It is the Florida wild that reinforces our coastal resiliency, cleans our water for drinking and recreation, and supports our farmers, ranchers and indigenous people.
The panther is fighting for all of us.
So far, since the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act was passed, around 75,000 acres have been preserved, but we’re going to need a lot more land.
“Path of the Panther” is in select theaters now, and will begin streaming on Disney+ next month.
For more information about Path of the Panther, click here.