Friday, October 23, 2020

Path of the Panther:

New Year’s Message

Photo by Rodney Cammauf - U.S. National Park Service

Photo by Rodney Cammauf – U.S. National Park Service

This New Year’s Eve, I am reflecting on the past and the opportunities we have to secure Florida’s future. Fourteen years ago, I was finishing a three-year photography project with the Smithsonian Institution in Central Africa and shifting focus back to my native Florida. I turned to the story of Florida ranches, wanting to shed light on the unseen, overlooked and forgotten heart of our state, not fully understanding the scope of the journey I was beginning.

Photographing Florida ranches taught me that the headwaters of the Everglades and most of the watersheds in peninsular Florida are safeguarded by ranches, introduced me to wide-ranging Florida black bears, led me to the Florida Wildlife Corridor idea, and inspired expeditions trekking 2,000 miles to showcase the Corridor. For the past two years, this journey has taken me to the swamps of South Florida in pursuit of the Florida panther — our state animal whose best hope of recovering from its endangered status is the preservation of ranches.

Please see my photo essay from last Sunday’s Tampa Bay Times. These photographs may be the most important I’ve made in nearly 15 years focusing on Florida ranches. The reason is that all the properties featured are priorities for conservation that could be lost to development if the state of Florida doesn’t take action to protect them.

Despite my best efforts to tell this story, alongside numerous partners fighting to save the land, Florida is still losing an average of 100,000 acres of agricultural land every year to sprawling development to accommodate an influx of 1,000 new residents per day. If we don’t accelerate the pace of conservation, we are going to lose most of Florida’s ranches and the value they provide to all of us — food, water, heritage, and critical wildlife habitat.

There is still hope, but we need to raise our voices and move our lawmakers to act. In order to achieve a sustainable balance between land protection and development, we need to increase the state’s investment in conservation by four times what has been proposed for the 2018 legislative session.

As we enter the New Year, I ask you to please join me in the fight to save wild Florida. Groups like Florida Wildlife Corridor, The Nature Conservancy, Audubon of Florida, Conservation Trust for Florida, Defenders of Wildlife and Florida Conservation Voters can help you stay connected to the issues.

I also need your help. I will be going back to the front lines for the biggest challenge in my career — producing unprecedented photographs and film to reveal the story of the Florida panther, which I believe is our best hope for engaging the widest audience about the need to save the Florida Wildlife Corridor and the ranches that comprise it. Please consider making a donation to the Path of the Panther, a project I am leading in partnership with Florida Wildlife Corridor and National Geographic Society.

Most of my remote camera systems were damaged by Hurricane Irma and I need help to rebuild and redeploy so we can capture this historic moment in time when the breeding population of panthers is expanding north of the Caloosahatchee River for the first time since 1973.

My mission lives in the words of cattle rancher Cary Lightsey when he said to me, “The panther is going to have to help us save Florida.” He explained, “The panther can show people why we need to protect these large areas.” Panthers, ranchers, wildlife and people all depend on the same common ground, and the story of the panther can show us how to save the land and ourselves.

I am attempting something that has never been accomplished – creating a national film and National Geographic article about the Florida panther – one of the most elusive and difficult to photograph animals on the planet. But when we succeed in telling this story, the world will no longer be able to ignore wild Florida and we can achieve the political will needed to save it.

I greatly appreciate your support of my photography and advocacy. I wish you the best in the New Year and look forward to staying in touch.

For a glimpse of some of my work in the Everglades, check out a highlight from 2017 — this short video produced for UpWorthy (www.facebook.com/Upworthy/videos/ 1934423386598510/) which has been viewed 2.3 million times.

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