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Monday, 13 May, 2002, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
US panthers make a comeback
Scientists track the panthers' movement from planes
The big cats are checked from the ground and air
test hello test
The BBC's Fergal Parkinson
By Fergal Parkinson
BBC Miami correspondent

Ten years ago the Florida Panther was almost extinct.

Most people associate Florida with Disney World, but Florida really has the last remnants of wilderness in the eastern US

Project leader Darrell Land
One of the world's rarest and most elusive predators, its numbers had dwindled to as low as 30.

But thanks to previously untested methods of breeding, its numbers are growing once again.

Darrell Land, one of the project leaders in the southern US state of Florida, has been involved from the start.

"It's exciting that Florida still has some top carnivores running wild in the state," he said.

"Most people associate coming to Florida with Disney World or Sea World, but Florida really has the last remnants of wilderness in the eastern United States."

A panther is fitted with a radio collar
Radio collars are fitted to panthers to track their movements
The panthers' decline was due mainly to habitat loss - golf courses, citrus groves and suburban roads had been eating into their territory.

In-breeding was also a huge problem as their numbers dwindled.

After initial attempts to breed them in captivity were unsuccessful, biologists resorted to a previously untested method.

They released eight cougars from Texas in the hope they would mate with the panthers.

Breeding success

Although the cougars are genetically different, it was hoped by releasing only a small number that the panthers' characteristics would not be lost.

And it has worked.

An endangered species five years ago, the Florida Panther is no longer under threat.

But keeping up their numbers is now crucial.

The Florida Everglades
Success in the Everglades is attracting worldwide attention
Roy McBride, a professional panther hunter, has been brought in to track down the big cats so radio collars can be fitted.

In his cowboy boots and a Stetson hat, he may follow paw prints in the mud for more than two days until he finds a panther.

"There's more tracks and we capture them with less effort than we used to, so it's obvious to everyone - there are a lot of indicators that the population is increasing," he said.

Flying trackers

Meanwhile, in the skies high above the Everglades, other scientists are in planes tracking panther movements.

Twice a week they fly over the area trying to pick up a signal from a panther's radio collar. When they get a hit, they mark it on a map.

If, after a few days, the panther has not moved, vets are sent in to see if it is ill - all part of the project to keep these panthers alive.

The success in Florida means scientists around the world are asking questions about the new breeding techniques.

Already the team have received calls from conservationists in South America wanting to know about their experiment.

"We have yet to produce our final report, but we have had some calls from around the world " Darryl Land said.

"I think people will be interested in our final product. This may have applications to saving populations of tigers that also exist in small isolated pockets where inbreeding concerns may be a problem."

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