The Day I Met An Endangered Florida Panther
“What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts soon happens to man. All things are connected.”
On a hot, swampy June morning, I sat on the concrete floor of a large run adjacent to Florida’s Big Cypress Preserve as the big cat nonchalantly licked her paws, feigning indifference to my presence. The Florida panther named Tracker regarded me much like the persnickety Morris the Cat in the old pet food commercials, acting finicky. My great friend Jim McMullen, probably the world’s foremost expert on the endangered Florida panther and author of the 1984 New York Times bestselling The Cry of the Panther, assured me, “She’s interested in you but doesn’t want to show it. Just wait, she’ll come over to you.”
I had seen photos of Tracker when she was so small that she fit easily into the palm of Jim’s hand. She was now a 150-pound panther, strong enough to fell a full-grown deer with one powerful swat of her huge paw. After a bit, Tracker sauntered my way, and in moments I was carefully stroking the head and scratching the ears of a living panther, one of my peak experiences.
“She will try to bite you,” offered Jim, “It’s her way of getting to know you.”
Tracker took my right wrist in her huge maw, and I could feel rows of needle sharp fangs. At that point Jim gave her a gentle smack, causing her to retreat to her corner.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” I protested. “For the rest of my life, I could have said, ‘Here is where I was once bitten by an endangered Florida panther.’ I would be the only person anywhere who could make such a claim.”
Tracker has long since passed away from old age, joining others of the panther community who have vanished over the years due to poaching, habitat destruction, encounters with motor vehicles and other human offenses. Before too long, rising sea levels may inundate southern Florida. Increasing salinity will probably kill the natural vegetation, destroying the panthers’ homeland. Despite the devotion of scientists and wildlife agencies, there are only an estimated 300 panther surviving in the swamplands of southern Florida today.
The term anthropocene is being used more and more to define the age we find ourselves in, the age in which human activity is the dominant influence upon climate and the environment. The starting point of this age is much debated among the scientific community, some claiming it began with the industrial revolution, with its destructive consequences for ecosystems. Others argue that it began with the agricultural revolution itself 12,000-15,000 years ago.
It is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid mankind’s footprint. Human rubble even lies on the floor of the Marianas Trench, the deepest point in all the oceans, six and half miles beneath the waves, while plastic debris covers large areas of the seas, causing agonizing deaths among seabirds, turtles and other marine creatures.
Regardless of dating, the human imprint has been a powerful, destructive one since mankind’s origins somewhere in the East African savannas. There is increasing evidence that much of the megafauna of North America disappeared at the hands of human hunters. The North American horse became extinct, along with the hairy mammoth, the mastodon, the short-faced cave bear, rhinoceros and camel, among other creatures, as did those predators like the saber-toothed tiger and the dire wolf whose existence was dependent upon such prey animals.
There have been other mass extinctions in the course of geologic time, but the current rate of vanishing flora and fauna is the result of human carelessness, greed or indifference. Because of poaching and habitat destruction, it is estimated that a mere 35 Amur leopards, 700 mountain gorillas, 35 Javan rhinoceros, and 3000 Sumatran elephants remain. There are perhaps a few thousand orangutans left in the Sumatran rain forest. The small, inoffensive pangolin, the world’s most trafficked animal, has nearly vanished as human superstition and quackery have created a market for its meat and scales to provide imaginary medical benefits. In addition, the saola, a deer discovered only a few years ago in the forests of Laos and Vietnam, is rapidly vanishing under the onslaught of human hunters. It is feared that the South China tiger may have already disappeared, gone the way of the North American passenger pigeon and the ivory-billed woodpecker.
It is estimated that up to 30,000 African elephants are killed by poachers each year, the international appetite for ivory creating a market for such carnage. The huge, sensitive beasts fall victim to fire from AK-47s, grenade launchers and poisoned arrows. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature now lists the African savanna elephant as endangered and the forest elephant as critically endangered. The IUCN estimates that there may be a mere 415,000 wild African elephants surviving, as opposed to the millions who once grazed peacefully upon the vast grasslands not so long ago.
While grizzly bears are being reintroduced to parts of their historical range, the great bruin continues to be shot, trapped and poisoned by those angered by its presence. Most recent estimates place the number of grizzlies at 1,300 in the continental United States, an estimated 700 of them inside the confines of Yellowstone National Park. They are listed as threatened, as is the polar bear of the northern ice pack and the Canada lynx. While the California condor and the black-footed ferret have been restored to parts of their range, they are still listed as endangered, as is the jaguar who sometimes slips silently across the Mexican border into the arid fastness of Arizona and New Mexico.
Among marine creatures, the right whale may vanish completely within this decade, while the Hawaiian monk seal remains one of the most endangered sea mammals in the United States, with only an estimated 1,500 surviving. The population of Southern Resident Orcas has plummeted to an estimated 70. Most orcas feast on marine mammals, like seals, but this species sustains itself mostly on Chinook salmon. As salmon populations have dwindled due to habitat destruction, overfishing and climate change, the orcas have been left to die of malnutrition.
When one thinks of endangered species, one most likely conjures up images of elephants or whales, but even the tiny, industrious honeybee is now threatened. While 70 out of 100 crops in the U.S. are pollinated by bees, it is estimated that 45 percent of America’s bee colonies collapsed last year. The fault lies with a class of pesticides classified as neonics. Bayer Corporation is the world’s largest producer of neonics.
While neonics contaminate many species of insects, including bees, the toxins are passed on to members of the bird population that feed upon them. There are several causes for the plummeting population of songbirds in North America, among them climate change and the proliferation of feral cats, but neonics are the greatest culprit. Currently, the king rail has suffered an 86 percent decline in numbers, the evening grosbeak a 90 percent decline, the bank swallow an 89 percent decline, and the black swift an 89 percent decline.
The majestic whooping crane, whose population increased from near extinction a few years ago, thanks to responsible human efforts to protect them, now sees its numbers diminishing again because of a highly toxic fungicide called inpyrfluxam, also injurious to quail, sandhill cranes and some species of songbirds.
Thomas Jefferson observed that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. It is also the price of every good thing. We must be eternally vigilant as each new threat, like neonics and inpyrfluxan, is introduced into the environment.
Living in the anthropocene is a precarious business. None of us will ever again see a sky darkened by fleets of passenger pigeons or hear the telltale drumming of another ivory-billed woodpecker. In his novel The Roots of Heaven, the French author Romain Gary posits that man is a lonely creature, that he craves companionship, that cats and dogs are not sufficient. Man needs his larger companions, like elephants. In 1968, the Apollo astronauts photographed the earth from outer space, revealing a tiny blue-and-green orb afloat in a sea of limitless black nothingness. The response among many has been labeled “existential angst.” Perhaps Romain Gary was on to something. Each of us must consider whether we really want to exist in a world without elephants and whales, songbirds, monarch butterflies and honeybees, a totally human-infiltrated and dominated dystopia, sterile, lifeless, without the company of our fellow creatures. It does not seem like it was meant to be so.
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