Every spring, the boardwalk at Audubon’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in the Florida Everglades, just north of Naples, is a fantastic place to spot odd waterbirds, like nesting Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, and all types of herons and egrets. It’s not, however, where you’d expect to get run over by an endangered Florida panther.
Yet on the morning of March 28, that’s exactly what happened when Tina Dorschel, a visitor from Wisconsin, had a crazy close encounter with a panther. She caught the skittish feline on camera for about 14 seconds as it scrambled past her on the boardwalk. Meeting these wild cats is extremely uncommon, and Dorshel’s video has since gone viral. (Warning: The clip contains some rough language.)
On an early morning nature walk we saw a gator, a snake, frogs, pretty birds, and had this unexpected encounter. (Warning...curse word at end!)Posted by Tina Dorschel on Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Judging by this panther’s lack of scars or obvious identifying marks, “this is definitely a young cat,” probably around a three-year-old male, says the sanctuary's director Jason Lauritsen. It’s panther breeding season, so he thinks the animal was just traveling through, looking for his own territory. “Corkscrew isn’t his home,” Lauritsen says.
The sanctuary’s dominant resident male, called Lefty, is forcing out the younger, smaller males from his range this time of the year. Each juvenile has to scout out new territory, usually spanning some 200 square miles in size. However, Lefty’s been absent from Corkscrew for a year now, and Lauristen believes that the other males are now working out the pecking order. Aggression between males is the second leading cause of Florida panther death, he says—just behind accidental collisions with cars.
Over the past week, sanctuary staff have heard females calling and have seen several males meandering in and out of Corkscrew’s 13,000 acres of pine flatwoods, wet prairie, and old-growth bald cypress forest. They’ve actually seen a lot of the cats this season, perhaps due to increasing development in the area. “This has been the most frequent year of panther sightings that I’m aware of,” Lauritsen says.
While Corkscrew is indeed rich panther habitat, Lauritsen says that “it’s not enough to sustain the entire Florida panther population,” of which some 140 to 200 individuals remain. Photographer Ralph Arwood, who documents the sanctuary’s panthers, has counted three resident cats this year, as well as two to six kittens and a couple of wandering juveniles.
To bolster numbers, conservation groups are helping landowners preserve forested pathways between habitats like Corkscrew to guide the panthers away from roadways and keep populations connected. One of these corridors, which bridges across the Caloosahatchee River to the north, could be a real game changer, Lauritsen says: “This connection can create population resilience and safeguard panthers in the face of climate change.”
Unlike their domesticated, feral cousins, these cats don’t pick on the favored residents of Audubon’s sanctuary. “Panthers are eating mostly deer and wild hogs and occasionally a young alligator,” Lauritsen says. “They’re not known for hunting birds.” And since panthers rule the Everglades’ food chain, their presence speaks to the stability of the entire ecosystem. The run-in with this young male, however, reflects quite the opposite—it's a testament to the habitat that’s quickly shrinking around him.