Record Number of Endangered Florida Panthers Killed This Year

At least 36 of the big cats have died so far in 2015, most from collisions with cars.
(Photo: Posnov/Getty Images)
Dec 1, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

It’s shaping up to be a pretty terrible year for Florida’s critically endangered panthers. At least 36 of the big cats have died so far this year, two more than died in all of 2014. The entire adult population for the species is estimated at around 180 cats.

The record number of panther deaths is “tragic, but it’s not a surprise,” said Nancy Payton, southwest field representative for the Florida Wildlife Federation, who has been working on panther issues for 20 years. “We have a growing human population with more people and more cars, particularly in southwest Florida, where most of the highway deaths are happening.”

Indeed, 25 of the deaths were caused by vehicles that struck the panthers while the cats were trying to cross roads. One panther was shot, while a kitten died of starvation after its mother was killed. The causes of several other deaths are unknown because the bodies were not discovered in time to accurately assess the reasons for their mortality.

In addition, four panthers were killed by other panthers. Male panthers jealously guard their territories from other males of their species, which can result in fighting to the death.

(Photo: Mint Image/Frans Lanting/Getty Images)

There may be other deaths that haven’t been counted. “If a mother panther is killed on the road, we also have to take into consideration the death of her kittens, which are still dependent upon her,” Payton said.

One mother panther killed Oct. 8 outside Collier-Seminole State Park left behind three cubs. One was rescued—and will probably now end up in a zoo for the rest of her life—and the second was found dead on Oct. 31. The third kitten was seen only briefly, looking emaciated, but was never located. It is not yet counted among this year’s dead.

Kittens in general may be in short supply this year. Only 15 baby panthers have been counted in 2015, down from a record 32 last year. (Wildlife officials regularly observe births only from the small number of female panthers that wear radio collars. )

RELATED: How a Video Game Is Saving Wildlife From Being Run Over by Cars

With a full month left to go in the year, Payton said, “I’m sure that, sadly, there will be more deaths on the road.” Panthers are nocturnal hunters and start becoming active at dusk, which occurs earlier at this time of year. “It coincides with the hours that people are going home or going out for the evening or early morning, when they’re on the road to work or to play golf,” Payton explained. She also noted that there are more people on the roads at this time of year as people from the north move south for the winter.

Although this has already been a terrible year for panthers, 2016 could see an improvement. Last month, the Florida Department of Transportation announced that it would finally fence the last nine miles of “Alligator Alley,” a notorious stretch of Interstate 75 known for a high number of traffic accidents. “It has been the most deadly stretch of highway for panthers,” according to Payton. The agency will also build additional underpasses to allow panthers and other wildlife to cross underneath the highway.

Despite the high number of deaths this year, Payton said she is hopeful for the Florida panther. “When I started working on panther issues 20 years ago, there were 30 panthers,” she said. “They were sickly, and the forecast was one of doom, that they would become extinct.” Before that could happen, eight females from another subspecies were brought to Florida from Texas, increasing their breeding stock and genetic health.

Florida panthers are still critically endangered, but they “have bounced back,” Payton said. Efforts to protect their remaining habitat and create migration corridors, she said, may help reduce mortalities and enable their recovery.