Everglades National Park

Florida Panther
The stealthy Florida Panther has been unable to escape its biggest predator: humans, in the guise of habitat destruction. Today only 30-50 adult panthers remain in the state. (PhotoDisc)

Opportunities to see Florida panthers are uncommon, even for the researchers who track them. With an estimated wild population of only 30 to 50 animals, Florida panthers are perhaps the rarest and most elusive native animal of the region. Known locally as panthers, these large, tawny cats are actually a subspecies of mountain lion, an animal that once had the broadest distribution of any terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere. After two centuries of intensive hunting and habitat loss, mountain lions are still found in many western states, but the only known population east of the Mississippi River now makes its last stand in south Florida.

The panther needs large wilderness areas for its survival. Federally listed as endangered since 1967, the Florida panther is down to 30 to 50 individuals. These few animals are threatened by further habitat loss, collisions with cars, the ill effects of inbreeding, and high levels of mercury in their prey.

Many of the remaining panthers live in or near Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park. The National Park Service is cooperating with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, the Florida Department of Natural Resources, and other organizations to try to bring about recovery of the Florida panther. Efforts are centered on research, captive breeding, and public education. Radio-collaring of several panthers has shown what areas and habitat types they use. Other studies have identified the principal prey—white-tailed deer. Publicity has made the public more aware of the panther's plight and alerted people to watch out for them on the highway. But with the numbers so low and suitable habitat in south Florida so restricted, captive breeding and reestablishment in other areas may be crucial for turning the population decline around.


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