On Jan. 30th, Christian Hunt, an environmental lawyer from the Defenders of Wildlife, lectured to approximately 100 people at the Highlands Hammock State Park about the progress being made in protecting panthers. After panthers were driven to the Everglades to escape hunters who pushed their numbers to near extinction, their population is beginning to rebound, and panthers are traveling north of the Caloosahatchee River again.
On Nov. 22, 2017, a female panther and her kittens were finally spotted north of the Caloosahatchee. Males had traveled beyond the river before but not on a regular basis. Now wildlife experts are hoping that the population will extend northward into a drier habitat that is better suited for their survival.
According to Hunt, panthers were on “the very edge of extinction.”
The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated their number to be a mere 30 individuals in 1985. With the dwindling panther population, the species became horribly inbred with holes in their hearts, kinked tails and reproductive issues. Their survival seemed unlikely, and this caused wildlife officials to make a bold move. Eight female pumas from Texas were released into Florida to revitalize the gene pool, and the species became much healthier. The panther population has increased and is traveling farther north, expanding its territory.
The pumas reproduced offspring and revitalized the gene pool before being returned to Texas. One of the offspring born from a Texan puma was named Don Juan. He fathered 30 kittens in 5 years. According to Hunt, this was one of the greatest contributions towards restoring the panther population ever made by a panther. His territory of 600 square miles was the largest ever documented for a male panther. The typical range of a panther is 200 square miles.
Despite people’s fear of panthers, Hunt informed the crowd that panthers are normally shy. If people encounter a panther, they should look it in the eye and appear big and confident rather than running away.
Although the panther usually avoids interaction with people, it doesn’t avoid the highways. In 2017, 24 panthers were killed on the highways and 34 panthers were killed the year before. This is a large percentage of the total population which only numbers 120-230 adult and sub-adult panthers. To address this problem, underpasses and fences have been installed in areas where panthers have frequently been hit by vehicles. The underpasses allow the panthers to safely move to the opposite side of the road.
Why is it so critical to protect panthers? Panthers are an umbrella species; they are at the top of the food chain. Hunt stated, “When people protect animals at the top of the food chain, they protect everything at the bottom.” The panther has made significant conservation gains in the last 40 years, but the species needs more space. Lack of habitat is their biggest problem, and this lack of habitat may grow more pronounced as Florida continues to expand development.