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Tampa nature photographer adds fresh look to popular panther plate

 A Florida panther mother with her kitten are pictured in this photo taken when the duo tripped a remote camera set by famed National Geographic photographer and Tampa resident Carlton Ward, Jr., on the Babcock Ranch north of the Caloosahatchee River in 2018. The photo gave proof to the belief that the Florida panther is once again populating its historic, state-wide grounds, which lead to this re-issue of the state's speciality panther license plate to both mark the animal's return to North Florida and to raise money for continued conservation efforts on its behalf
Carlton Ward., Jr.
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National Geographic
A Florida panther mother with her kitten are pictured in this photo taken when the duo tripped a remote camera set by famed National Geographic photographer and Tampa resident Carlton Ward, Jr., on the Babcock Ranch north of the Caloosahatchee River in 2018. The photo gave proof to the belief that the Florida panther is once again populating its historic, state-wide grounds, which lead to this re-issue of the state's speciality panther license plate to both mark the animal's return to North Florida and to raise money for continued conservation efforts on its behalf

The picture was taken in 2018 by famed National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward Jr. of Tampa.

A popular photo of a female Florida panther, with her kitten trailing behind, is set to be the third image featured on the state’s “Protect the Panther” specialty vehicle tag.

The picture was taken in 2018 by famed National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward Jr. on the Babcock Ranch, which is about 15 miles north of Fort Myers and just north of the Caloosahatchee River, when the panther duo tripped one of his remote cameras.

Stephen Glass Photography
Carlton Ward Jr.

“It’s the most important picture of my career so far because of what it means, what it represents, for the recovery of our state animal,” Ward said. “The photograph shows this female panther being trailed by a recently born Florida panther kitten, bringing a new generation of panther to the northern Everglades since 1973.”

Specialty license plates are a popular option in the Sunshine State, which has about 130 designs to choose from. Just more than two million specialty plates are bolted to Florida vehicles right now.

The top two plates are the sunset-colored “Endless Summer” plate with a shadowed image of a surfboard, and the “Save The Manatee” plate, featuring a cartoon depiction of a sea cow.

Long ago, the Florida panther’s range included most of the American southeast, but during the last several centuries their area declined to South Florida, mostly to below Lake Okeechobee. Depending on the agency doing the counting there are about 175 Florida panthers left in the wild.

The extra money added to a vehicle’s registration and tag, currently $25, goes to the Florida Panther Research and Management Trust Fund, which the state says supports panther-related research, rescue and conservation activities.

 Florida's speciality license plates ranked by popularity showing the current design of the 'Protect the Panther' at No. 14
State of Florida
Florida's speciality license plates ranked by popularity showing the current design of the 'Protect the Panther' at No. 14

That is why Ward’s picture of the mom and her kitten, captured north of the Caloosahatchee River that flows from the western bank of the Big Lake southwest into the Gulf of Mexico near Fort Myers, is so important — it captures the hopes of many panther-lovers that the animal is in the midst of a resurgence.

The money, and other tax dollars, also go to secure land for the panthers to roam, forage, and do what panthers do when – the point is – nobody’s around.

For example, earlier this year, some of the money raised by the sale of the license tags was used to pay the owners of the Hendrie Ranch in Highlands County to buy their rights to develop — in this case never develop — 661 acres along the Florida Wildlife Corridor, an 18-million-acre network of public and private lands, waterways, and wildlife habitats that stretches from the Everglades in the south to the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission worked with Ward Florida to design the new plate, which is currently undergoing final preparation. The new panther plate should be available for sale by the end of the year.

“It’s definitely a big honor to have one of my photographs used on the new Florida panther license palate,” Ward said. “The picture they chose represents the recovery of the Florida panther, not just the South Florida panther but truly the ‘Florida panther’ once again.”

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Tom Bayles