WINTER PARK — The 3-year-old conservation photography project “Path of the Panther,” being conducted by National Geographic Explorer Carlton Ward Jr. in Southwest and West-Central Florida, was celebrated during a conference Nov. 18-19 at Full Sail University.
A trove of Mr. Ward’s photographs appear with a collection of articles in the current, Winter 2019 edition of The Nature Conservancy Magazine, on newsstands now. Their theme is how the species’ journey from near extinction in the 1980s to its toehold on survival at the dawn of the 2020s illustrates the value of conserving nature. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) cosponsored the conference along with the university.
Capturing ‘native landscape’
Mr. Ward is an eighth-generation Floridian with a studio in Tampa who wrote his first book, about Africa, while based in West and Central Africa and working for the Smithsonian Institution in the early 2000s. In 2004, he refocused his work on this state — he calls it his “native landscape” because of his long family roots in wild Florida. Focusing first on ranching with its long history on the peninsula, he published the book “Florida Cowboys” in 2009. Mr. Ward founded the Florida Wildlife Corridor project in 2010, began a media and production company called Florida Wild in 2013 and has been working full-time since 2016 on the Path of the Panther project.
Full Sail University President Gary Jones welcomed the large audience to The Fortress, “one of 115 studios, sound stages and production facilities used by our 17,000 students and 70,000 graduates.” Mr. Jones is chairman of the Florida Nature Conservancy chapter’s board of directors.
After his opening remarks, he showed a five-minute video produced by TNC about the pathways project. Narrated by Mr. Ward, the film focuses on his efforts to document how a connected ecosystem and habitat preservation, as well as land and path protection innovations, can allow the Florida panther to survive its brush with extinction.
High-tech ‘camera traps’
As part of the Path of the Panther project, he has set up “camera traps” in some very challenging Floridascapes, one of them being a local example of those protective innovations. It is a wildlife underpass on State Road 80 near LaBelle where he, his crew and high-tech setups have captured a handful of stunning panther portraits, as well as clear pictures of other animals that use the sheltered wildlife-safe crossing and live alongside panthers in their swamp and scrub land habitat.
The overpass has been there for almost months, “and we’ve only gotten a panther two or three times. For me this is a huge challenge, like … the biggest challenge of my career. I’ve only photographed a panther one time with a camera in my hands. It’s extremely rare to even see one of these animals,” said Mr. Ward.
They like to travel at night, which explains why they get killed on highways so often; drivers can’t see them on the rural dark roads cutting through their habitat, except for their reflective eyes. That’s the reason for “Panther Crossing” signs and reduced speed limits in state, federal and tribal preserves where they roam.
“The camera trap is an essential tool,” he said. “It’s the only reliable way to get a picture of a Florida panther in the wild, the only way to show a panther in its own place on its own terms … awe-inspiring.”
He and his TNC and National Geographic teams use a full DSLR system with multiple flashes or strobes and dozens of rechargeable batteries “in environments that are so volatile you have to check them every two weeks.” It takes an entire day to set just one camera trap up. They might get a camera to get a panther facial once or twice a year in daylight, if they’re lucky.
Special moments in time
“To have those once- or twice-a-year moments and have (the equipment) all operate … in that instant when that panther is in that exact spot within tens of thousands or millions of acres of habitat … that’s what I think makes that so special to me,” Mr. Ward said.
“I have a great respect for Florida panthers, but for me it’s more about what the Florida panther represents. The panther represents Florida’s wild nature that’s still here. It’s largely overlooked and forgotten and, at the same time, it’s so exciting and inspiring to people who actually learn about it.
“To think of a state with 21 million residents, 125 million annual tourists, I think that’s what makes these pictures important, because if people can care about the panther, they can also perhaps start caring about the place that we need to save.”
Chris Felker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.