OCHOPEE (CBSMiami) – The Florida panther is one of the most endangered animals in the world, which is why wildlife officials want to find the person who shot and killed one on federal land.

The panther was found dead Saturday in the Big Cypress National Preserve in Collier County.

Preserve Superintendent Pedro Ramos said the panther’s death is “a serious incident.”

It’s also why officals at Flamingo Gardens Wildlife Sanctuary, where they take care of a rescued panther named April, are paying such close attention to the investigation going on at the Big Cypress National Preserve.

“I’m heartbroken,” said Laura Wyatt, the curator at Flamingo Gardens. “Its bad enough so many are killed by vehicles.  For someone to do that (shoot and kill), its sickening,” she told CBS4’s Joan Murray.

The park service said it happened off a back country access road frequented by hikers, hunters and people who use off road vehicles.

Wyatt told Murray that Florida panthers are by nature reclusive.

“They are in the middle of the Everglades.  I’ve never known a panther to attack a human being,” insisted Wyatt.

Florida panthers are protected under the Endangered Species Act. The maximum sentence for the unlawful taking of a Florida panther is one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

Panthers are extremely rare. The big cats once ranged across the southeastern United States, but now they are found primarily in southern Florida. Wildlife officials estimate that between 100 and 150 adult panthers remain in the wild.

The National Park Service is asking anyone with information about the panther’s death to contact investigators at 1-800-788-0511.


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