A once in a lifetime encounter with the elusive Florida panther

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Imagine how it must feel to look directly into the eyes of a large, majestic, gorgeous wild cat. Well, sometimes an encounter like this requires a lifetime, for the lucky ones! So, for this Florida-based wildlife photographer, when that once in a lifetime encounter occurred it really was a sight to be hold.

Carlton Ward Jr is a wildlife photographer and a conservationist who dedicated his entire career, so far, to protect the wild species in Florida as part of his project, Florida Wildlife Corridor. And above all the species, the Florida panther caught his interest in an incredible way.

“It’s taken [me] 20 years to get this photo,” and more than 2,000 miles through Florida’s wilderness for Carlton to finally take the perfect shot. But after countless failed attempts he managed to meet the majestic creature he has so much admiration for, at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.  And the interaction was so deep, the photographer called it “an encounter that I’ll be talking about the rest of my life.”

 

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Photo by @CarltonWard | For the past two years I have been pursuing Florida panthers with camera traps — the only reliable method for photographing them. But a few weeks ago, at Audubon’s @CorkscrewSwamp, I had an encounter that I’ll be talking about the rest of my life. I was driving into the backcountry and rounded a corner to see a panther sitting in the dirt road. I grabbed a telephoto lens and nervously snapped a few fuzzy frames through the windshield before rolling a little closer and pulling off to the side. The panther was still 150 yards away in harsh 3 PM light. When filmmaker Eric Bendick called, I was just watching. I whispered that I was staring at a real-life panther. The conference about our panther film would have to wait. Eric told me to take some video, and with the panther still far away in bad light, I complied, not realizing how jacked up I was until trying to hold my iPhone steady. After a few seconds of jittery self-narration, the panther started walking right towards me. When it sat back down in the road I resumed my video, but the panther started walking toward me again! I switched to my main camera, put it in silent mode and held my breath. The panther kept coming, skirting the edge of the swamp behind grass and low palms. I let the shutter rip every time it revealed itself, coming closer with every step. Then it walked within 20 yards of my truck and sat down in an island of palms directly out my window! I filled the frame with its body and looked straight into its piercing eyes! I had mistaken it for a young male by its height, but was corrected when a ruffling in the palms transformed into a kitten. When the little guy got closer, its mother stood and continued down the road. Then they vanished into a thick hammock leaving me alone with my thoughts. When I went to change the batteries 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 @audubonsociety for protecting this place and giving me access their land. Please join me @carltonward to follow the #PathofthePanther for @NatGeo #FloridaWild

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And when you’re trying to grab some frames with these wild creatures, for almost two decades, when that moment comes, it is unquestionably overwhelming.

“When the panther sat down 20 yards away and looked straight at me, I was ready. I focused on her eyes and captured the moment she gave me,”Carlton recalls the moment. “My body was pulsing with energy. I have captured some powerful pictures with my camera traps, but there was an entirely different level of emotional connection looking into the eyes of this wild panther while she was looking right back at me.”

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the Florida panther is called the last puma in the Eastern U.S. Known as one of the most elusive mammals in the North America, this extremely vulnerable wild cat is a cougar subspecies who lives in pinelands and hardwood hammocks.

 

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This week I had the privilege of photographing Sassy, an almost 4-year old Florida panther who lives at the Palm Beach Zoo. Her mother was killed by a car near Naples in 2014 and Sassy was the only of three kittens to survive. Biologists from @myfwc took her to @naples_zoo for immediate care in their animal hospital and she was later moved to the @palmbeachzoo for her permanent home where hundreds of thousands of visitors have a chance to see her each year. In addition to caring for injured and abandoned panthers, and giving homes to panthers that can’t be released to the wild, zoos serve an important role in educating the public about panthers and their conservation needs. Just a few minutes looking at this beautiful creature and anyone is going to fall in love. I’ve been chasing panthers in the wild with camera traps for 3 years and have seen two panthers in the wild with my own eyes. So I was mesmerized by the opportunity to observe Sassy in her large enclosure. Her grace, power and stealth was awe inspiring. At one point she jumped 10 feet down from a tree and landed on the ground right in front of me under full control without making a sound! Go see her yourself! Here a few photos from by visit with Sassy, all shot through the steel mesh of her habitat. Which is your favorite? Thanks @sonyalpha for loaning me a 400 2.8 lens that allowed me to produce wonderfully sharp photos with the foreground and background out of focus, and all handheld because the lens is so lightweight. Thanks to the @panthers_florida foundation, Fox Sports Miami and Zoo President Margo McKnight for working with me to share the #pathofthepanther story! #morethanamascot #PantherPortrait #FloridaWild #KeepFLWild

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In early 80s the animal was chosen the Florida state animal. Back then, there were around 20 individual remained in the wild, after humans destroyed its wild habitats. In 2017, after tireless conservation efforts, the Florida’s panther population number was up to 230 individuals.

On the other hand, thee are still so many wild cats on the verge of extinction. In the video bellow we present you the most endangered ones: