by Carlton Ward Jr. | May 21, 2021

See the Photo That Took Carlton Ward Jr. 5 Years to Capture

With a mixture of patience and persistence, this wildlife photographer finally captures the resiliency of the Florida Panther.

A panther's head emerges from water. In the foreground is a small stretch of dark water and in the background trees rise from the water behind the panther.
Ward uses camera traps to capture photos of Florida wildlife in their natural habitats. Photography by Carlton Ward Jr.

For the past five years, I have chased photos of Florida panthers in South Florida swamps as part of our Path of the Panther project, supported by the National Geographic Society. The project aims to elevate the importance of the Florida Wildlife Corridor—the statewide network of public preserves and connected private working lands that the panther and other wildlife need to survive. The results of those years of work were published in the April 2021 issue of National Geographic

The Florida panther is a subspecies of the puma (aka mountain lion) and the last population of these large cats surviving in the eastern United States. After centuries of habitat loss, hunting and persecution, panthers were wiped out of existence east of the Mississippi, other than in the Everglades. Panther numbers fell to as few as 20 in the ’70s, and one of the first species on the endangered species list. Through efforts by the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, landowners and partners, the panther population has rebounded to nearly 200 and is poised at the brink of recovery—if we can save enough land. To be considered recovered,  there needs to be three times as many panthers. That will require the breeding range to expand out of South Florida and reclaim historic territory throughout the Florida peninsula and beyond.

To capture photos of panthers, which I have only seen twice in the wild with my own eyes, I rely on camera traps: professional cameras and flashes set up on game trails. When a panther breaks an invisible infrared beam, it takes its own picture. At least that’s how it should work. Even in my best locations, a panther would pass my camera only once a month, perhaps once every two months facing the camera, and only a few times a year in daylight. Then the camera system has to work at the exact moment, which may only happen once a year. In one case, it took five years. Our team has cameras throughout the Florida Wildlife Corridor, on public preserves and cattle ranches, as well as wildlife underpasses under highways. One of the most challenging and important panther habitats is the deep swamp of the Fakahatchee Strand. No puma habitat like it exists in America. The panther’s ability to persevere in this remote, watery wilderness, beyond the reach of people, is in large part why they exist today. 

To capture this photo, I found an old logging trail in the Fakahatchee Strand that floods every wet season. Depending on water levels, traversing panthers must wade or swim. When this photo appeared on the back of the camera, after three years of trying, with America’s most endangered cat neck-deep in the swamp, I knew we had an image that captured the resilience of this animal. Hopefully it challenges us to keep working to ensure its survival.