Florida panther to move states in survival scheme

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The shy and nocturnal Florida panther once inhabited a vast area of the south-eastern United States,from the Everglades to the forests of Arkansas. These days it is one of the world's rarest creatures, with fewer than 90 animals surviving in the wild.

But now conservationists have announced a controversial plan to try to save the panther by taking tiny populations from its last remaining strongholds in southern Florida and re-introducing them to states where it once lived.

"There is insufficient habitat in South Florida to sustain a viable panther population," says a draft of the plan, drawn up by the federal Fish and Wildlife Service. "The prospects for population expansion into south-central Florida are questionable at this time."

The Florida panther - Puma concolor coryi - is the only sub-species of the mountain lion or cougar that lives east of the Mississippi River. As recently as the 1950s, the animal could be found in eight of the southern US states - from Louisiana and Arkansas in the east to South Carolina in the north.

Though officially protected, the cat now only survives in small isolated populations in the Big Cypress National Preserve and Everglades National Park. Even in south-east Florida, the panther is threatened by inbreeding, and by rampant development that has destroyed much of its natural habitat.

The plan calls for the re-introduction of small numbers of the panthers to sites in Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. It also says a population could be transferred to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge on the Florida-Georgia border.

Conservationists say the plan is vital if the panther is to be saved. "It is part of our natural heritage - it's Americana. It represents the vitality and variation of American wildlife," said Stephen Williams of the Florida Panther Society, which campaigns for the preservation of the cat. "It's also an essential part of a healthy ecology."

The Florida panther is one of more than 30 sub-species of the American mountain lion that exist in the Western Hemisphere from northern Canada to the tip of Chile. Although similar to some other sub-species such as the Texas cougar, campaigners say the Florida panther is distinguished by its short, reddish fur, its smaller size and a skull which is broad and flat at the front. A male can grow up to 7ft and weigh more than 160 lbs.

But the re-introduction proposals have drawn opposition from officials in other states who fear the panther could threaten livestock. Some have even questioned whether the panther - which has cross-bred over the years with the Texas cougar - exists as a genetically separate animal. "I'm not even sure at this point that a Florida panther, as a sub-species, really exists," said David Goad, director of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

Some of the cross-breeding was the planned result of the introduction of eight cougars from Texas during the 1990s, when the panther population had dropped to as low as 30. At the time, one study that examined the genes of the two animals said they should be considered the same sub-species.

Since then the panther's numbers have almost tripled, though it still remains one of the world's rarest large cats, along with the Amur leopard of eastern Russia, the Iberian lynx and the Siberian tiger. Ironically, much of the development that currently threatens the panther's habitat in southern Florida was approved by the same Fish and Wildlife Service which is now trying to save the animal.

For all of this, the panther retains a prominent place in the state's folklore, with its image featuring on vehicle licence plates issued in Florida. The local ice hockey team is named after the cat and it is also Florida's official state animal.