National Geographic features panther photos by Carlton Ward
Carlton Ward Jr., 45, photographs Florida’s environments and advocates for the protection of natural landscapes.
A Florida native with children 3, 5 and 7, Ward grew up on the Gulf coast and on inland ranchland. He founded the Florida Wildlife Corridor project in 2010, which has conducted expeditions to highlight the need to preserve open spaces throughout the state.
This month, National Geographic, which funds Ward’s conservation work, published a feature story on endangered Florida panthers that includes a series of Ward’s photos. The lead image captures a panther powerfully in command of a wetlands wilderness.
Ward, who lives in Tampa, was on the road to Tallahassee to hand copies to state leaders when he spoke to the Orlando Sentinel’s Kevin Spear.
Q: Does seeing your work in National Geographic give you a big head? (Editor’s note: Ward is low-key and easy to engage.)
A: Did it give me a big head? Um, not yet, but my copy just came in the mail yesterday. Maybe my head still has some space to grow. It was such a drawnout process that this feels like just one piece of the process in five years of effort and tens of thousands of pictures and turning it into 16 pages. I’m quite happy to have it as a tool now where we can work to get it into the hands of the lawmakers, into the hands of the governor and to other people who will hopefully see why we need a wildlife corridor in Florida. This is a career goal to have a full feature story in National Geographic.
Q: Are you a photographer or an environmentalist?
A: I am a conservation photographer. I would say I am a photographer by vocation but I am a conservationist first. If I didn’t have the privilege of doing the type of photojournalism I do, I would be doing something else as a conservationist.
Q: I’m working on a story about the 27,000acre parcel called Destiny near Yeehaw Junction donated to the University of Florida. I camped there, and it’s stunning. I’m sure you are thrilled that Destiny is under conservation as a potentially future panther habitat. I heard the famed explorer Carlton Ward went there and got his vehicle stuck in sugar sand. I didn’t chuckle — overly much.
A: Ha! Stuck in Destiny! Well, it was our colleagues from the University Florida Foundation who got stuck and I pulled them out. They showed up in a Suburu with street tires.
A: Destiny is a big hope spot, a big piece of the puzzle and could ultimately change the complexion of the whole Everglades headwaters
Q: Orlando perches at the very top of the greater Everglades system. The National Geographic piece includes your aerial photo of an Orlando-area road and rooftops squeezing a lonely wedge of
A: Orlando’s growth is a symptom of the overall challenge, which is Florida growing by a thousand people a day and the sprawl. The way we are growing will squeeze out and snuff out the linkages in the state
wildlife corridor if we don’t invest in land conservation.
Q: The lead photo in the National Geographic article is arresting in how it captures the ferocity and grace of a panther and the timeless stillness of the Everglades’ deep
wetlands. How did you get the shot?
A: I relied heavily on camera traps for this work and that photograph took two years of camera trapping in that exact location to finally get a photograph capturing the essence of the Florida panther. I wanted to show the Florida panther in its uniquely Florida habitat. It’s the swamps at the southern tip of the state — the remote and wild, foreboding swamps — they are the reason that we still have a puma in the Eastern United States.
The odds were against me there. I was seeing a panther on average about once a month. I got a panther facing the camera in the daylight once or twice a year. It was an exercise in keep trying.
Q: Is it your favorite panther photo?
A: That is hard to answer. It is the most visceral and impactful panther photo I’ve taken. I think my favorite panther photo is the picture of the mother with kittens at Babcock Ranch because of what it means. It’s a historic image of the first female north of the Caloosahatchee River in my lifetime. But if it says anything, I’ve had that picture of the lead image on a wall in my own house for the past couple of years. It’s exciting to be able to share it with the world now.
Q: Who are your heroes? A: I have a lot of heroes. The two sets of heroes that really motivate me in this are panther biologists and veterinarians and the ranchers. There’s a rancher, Cary Lightsey, who has ranches throughout the northern Everglades. When I told him about when I got the picture of the first female north of the Caloosahatchee, I kind of asked him what that meant for a cattle owner and a rancher in an area that was going to start to have more panthers.
He said to me, ‘Carlton, the panther is going to have to help us save Florida.’ I about dropped my phone. In his straight-shooting cowboy way, he laid out the thesis of the whole effort I’ve been engaged in for the past five years. I asked him to go on and he said it’s because the panther is going to help the rest of the world see why we need to save these large areas.