It’s taken me 20 years to get this photo.
That’s how long I’ve been a photographer interested in natural Florida. And this is the first time I’ve seen a panther in the wild with a camera in my hand.
I have trekked more than 2,000 miles through Florida’s wildest places to bring attention to the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a statewide network of public and private lands that keeps wild Florida connected for wide-ranging wildlife.
For the past two years I have been focused on the endangered Florida panther—the last big cat in the eastern United States and a subspecies of cougar. Today, there are approximately 200 panthers—up from just 30 in the early 1990s—surviving primarily in the Everglades at the southern tip of Florida. To be recovered from endangered status, there needs to be three times as many panthers distributed across a much larger landscape. (Read more about National Geographic Society's efforts to save big cats.)
As Florida's population explodes over the next 50 years, the state is expected to lose up to five million acres of farms, forests, and unprotected land, according to the Florida 2070 study. New roads and suburban sprawl threaten to cut off the Everglades from the rest of the continent and prevent panthers from expanding into their historic territory throughout Florida and beyond.
Florida’s panthers are extremely elusive. They are active mostly at night and usually concealed by thick vegetation. A single male has a home range of 200 square miles.
To photograph them, my work had relied entirely on camera traps—basically forest studios comprised of professional cameras, lights, and an infrared trip wire that allow passing animals to take their own pictures. (Watch a Florida panther pass within inches of a hiker.)
One of my camera traps is set up in the backcountry of Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, which provides important protected habitat within the Florida Wildlife Corridor and a buffer to development sprawling inland from Naples.
I was on my way to change the batteries and cards in my camera trap when I saw a panther sitting in the dirt road 200 yards ahead of me.
I drove a little closer, pulled my truck off to the side, rolled down the window and turned off the motor. The panther was initially very far away, so I used the longest lens I had available—a 100-400 zoom plus a 1.4 teleconverter, giving me 560mm of reach.
When the panther started walking closer, I put my camera on silent mode and made sure all of my movements were quiet and slow. In the harsh afternoon light the backgrounds were mostly bright and distracting. I set my aperture for a relatively shallow depth of field to minimize background detail, exposure slightly dark to prevent highlights from being blown out and autofocus sensor to a small zone so I could select the panther’s face and not the foreground or background.
"I Was Ready"
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. (See photos of Florida's wildlife habitat.)
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.
A rare glimpse into the soul of wild Florida.
Carlton Ward Jr. is a conservation photographer who founded the Florida Wildlife Corridor project in 2010. He is currently documenting the Florida panther with support from a National Geographic Society storytelling grant. You can follow Ward on Instagram.