Face time: New doc gets personal with the Florida panther
Photographer Carlton Ward Jr., who’s gone about as deep into the inhospitable Everglades as any person on earth, has only seen the elusive Florida panther, live and in the flesh, on two or three occasions.
His photographs, however, give us intimate firsthand knowledge of the endangered big cat. Ward, an eighth-generation Floridian and longtime bay area resident, uses movement-activated trigger cameras, camouflaged deep in the swamps and forests of the “River of Grass,” to gather images of the panthers as they move about their natural range.
Historically, the panther’s range was north throughout Florida, into Georgia, the Carolinas and beyond. The indisputable fact that the animal’s last refuge – its only refuge – is now the Everglades is the subject of the astonishing documentary film Path of the Panther, produced by National Geographic and premiering Friday at the Tampa Theatre and 40 other Florida screening rooms.
The 90-minute film will debut on Disney+ in the spring.
“It’s not a surprise why we don’t have an image in our mind’s eye of the Florida panther,” Ward tells the Catalyst. The state’s interior wild lands, he says, “are out of sight and out of mind for so many of our 22 million residents and 130 million annual visitors.”
Translation: It’s not the beach, and it’s not Orlando.
The team behind Path of the Panther – from Ward, to director Eric Bendick to executive producer Leonardo DiCaprio – understood that conservation efforts begin and end with the public. If you want people to care about a wild animal, they have to see it for themselves.
Since there are maybe 200 panthers left, crowded into this wet, wild acreage because of the explosion of human population and development everywhere else, finding and photographing them posed a challenge.
“My goal in the photography is for people to fall in love with these places,” Ward says. “And I think the best way for people to connect with these places is to connect with an animal, like the Florida panther.
“My first choice would be for everyone in Florida to go out on these rivers or hike these trails, but we also need to meet them where they are with stories. And the Florida panther is one of those stories that’s been talked about, but not so much shown.”
Path of the Panther chronicles Ward’s attempts, starting in 2015, to set up his (very expensive) equipment in remote areas to snare images of panthers on the move.
“It was important to me,” he explains, “to show the panther immersed in that quintessential South Florida swamp, because the panther’s ability to persevere in that swamp is the reason we still have a big cat left in the Eastern United States. Because they were outside the reach of our development, our encroachment, our hunting and persecution.”
The film presents Ward’s best images, and trigger-camera videos, framed by footage of him arriving at his designated spots only to discover his gear damaged, destroyed – or underwater.
“I’m a little psychologically damaged from the process,” the photographer laughs, “or maybe I had to be that way from the beginning, I’m not sure.
“You work with a scientist, you get a sense of where the animals might be, you put out some scouting cameras. You see the tracks; you know that it has been there and could be there again.
“So you set the camera trap up, you get the flashes in just the right way. You set your focus and your composition, and get the infrared trigger to capture that exact moment in framing. And you have this image in your mind’s eye that might not ever come true.”
Then you leave. And you wait.
“I was checking the batteries and changing the cards every two weeks to once a month, and it felt like every time I’d come to the camera something was wrong – either a bear had knocked it over, or a mouse had chewed through the wires, or something got flooded, or it just stopped working for inexplicable reasons.
“In the beginning I got a nice bear shot, and I got one good picture of the tail of a panther walking away from the camera. A week later, it was filled with water from the beginning of the rainy season. That particular swamp stayed under water for 18 months before I could go back there and try again.”
He never quit, logging more than 500,000 still images and over 800 hours of ultra-high definition video from Big Cypress Swamp, the Fakahatchee Strand and other hard-to-access areas.
Path of the Panther also chronicles the evolution of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act, passed by Florida legislature, and signed into law, in 2021. The act calls for protection of some 18 million contiguous acres of South Florida land – forests, swamps and ranch spreads – from future development.
RELATED: New documentary explores and explains the Florida Wildlife Corridor
In the 1980s, when panther conservation efforts kicked into high gear, wildlife biologists estimated there were maybe 30 of the big cats left.
Today, Ward is hopeful. “We have to say vigilant and we have to keep calling for conservation, but since the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act was passed there’s been $854 million in state funds allocated towards it,” he says.
The wheels of government move slowly, he knows. Of the allocated 18 million acres, 10,000 are now fully protected – and the other 8,000 are among the highest elevation and therefore more desirable for wildlife habitat.
Environmentalists are concerned that conservation efforts will be outpaced by development. “We need to be conserving at least as much as we’re losing if we’re ever going to strike a balance,” Ward says. “But I feel tremendous hope; we had unanimous bipartisan support for the Florida Wildlife Corridor Act.”
Path of the Panther opens Friday, Feb. 24 at the Tampa Theatre. Photographer Carlton Ward Jr. and director Eric Bendick will conduct a post-show audience Q&A after the screenings on Friday and Sunday. Tampa Theatre tickets.
The film also opens Friday at Regal Citrus Park (Tampa), AMC Veterans Expressway 24 (Tampa) and AMC Woodland Square (Oldsmar).