HIGHLANDS COUNTY, Fla. — So many precious animals, including threatened and endangered species, call the Florida Wildlife Corridor home.
Professionals are able to get images and videos of these animals with no humans in sight, which allows researchers to study animals like bears in their natural habitat.
George McKenzie Jr is a photographer and camera trap technician with the Path of the Panther project. ABC Action News Anchor Lauren St. Germain and Photojournalist Allison Shaw traveled with McKenzie on a day when he was going out to service one of the cameras within the Florida Wildlife Corridor. He explained knowing where to put the cameras is truly a science.
“Bears constantly reuse the same location. They will come up – they will smell – definitely on all fours, and then they stand up and just kind of scratch scratch and like bite sometimes. If you look right here, the hairs are still in here,” said McKenzie. “Mama bears will teach their cubs the same routine so they will learn at a young age how to scratch a tree and look for scents.”
Without realizing it, these animals essentially take their own pictures by passing an infrared trip wire.
“This is another form of a trigger we use – the infrared beam. See there you go – you just activated it – that little red dot. Boom, that’s it,” said McKenzie.
Tori Linder is also with Path of the Panther. The camera trap network is a field program through that project.
“The Florida panther has a truly incredible story. It is a federally endangered species. From a historic low in the 1970s – there are over 200 panthers today. That said, it is not easy to capture their image,” said Linder.
They have a network of dozens of camera trap systems across the greater Everglades ecosystem. Linder explained it's very rare to see a panther. They are fortunate to get one on camera every few months.
“Over the last six years, we have seen the Florida panther make great leaps in its recovery. A female panther was found north of the Caloosahatchee River, and today we see females expanding their territory north,” said Linder.
Linder said it’s incredible to witness this recovery happening in real-time and humans can take action now to help and protect other animals in the process.
“Something for Floridians to consider when moving into panther habitat is the leading cause of death for the Florida panther is vehicle collision – we lose on average about 30 a year,” said Linder.
Solutions are in the works. ABC Action News has reported on new wildlife crossings that will connect ecosystems that have been separated for 50 years. Last year, our Michael Paluska brought us to a new crossing that will allow animals like panthers and bears to safely cross I-4.
Back in the ranchlands of the Everglades Headwaters, Linder said it’s going to take map makers to ranchers to political leaders to work together to protect Florida.
“The thing I find so inspiring about the effort to protect the Florida Wildlife Corridor is that it is decades long. Each of us has a role to play in the future of the wild lands and the future of our state,” said Linder.
Path of the Panther is a project of Wildpath. The “Path of the Panther" film tells the story of the Florida panther and the land it needs to survive. The film is now playing in theaters, and you can find information about show times and locations here.