The ocelot is on the brink
of U.S. extinction.
"Only two populations of ocelot are left in
the U.S. that we know of," biologist Jody Mays of the Rio Grande
Valley's LagunaAtascosa National Wildlife Refuge reports.
"Both are extremely small and at high risk of extinction." One
population resides at the refuge, the other on private property
The ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), a midsized wild cat covered
in spots and streaks, once roamed the southern states of America,
including Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas and Arizona. From here, their
historic range extended into South America. But over the last century,
the U.S. population has been dramatically reduced, and now the cats,
along with their natural habitat, have reached a tipping point.
by Rolf Nussbaumer
After 25 years of ocelot field research, biologists can confirm
for certain only a small number of known ocelots surviving in America
today. Past estimates were based on the amount of available habitat,
confirmed kills and sightings and trapper surveys. Decades-old
estimates suggested at the time that only 80 to 120 cats remained
in the wilds of the United States. Today, when known ocelots are
totaled from the remaining two populations in the Valley, verified
by trapped cats in-hand and those photographed by wildlife trip
cameras, the current confirmed count of ocelots in the country stands
at less than a few dozen.
This grim reality is not new. The ocelot was designated an endangered
species almost three decades ago. Its federal status afforded U.S.
protection throughout the cat's historic range. But the ocelot is
one of many species on the losing end of a battle with urban expansion,
habitat destruction and vehicular mortality. Unfettered development
and the human population explosion throughout the Rio Grande Valley
have guaranteed the ocelot's decline, not only by eliminating the
native South Texas chaparral it requires to survive, but also by
dividing what remains of it into fragmented pieces.
Worse yet, the roadway that often splits habitat in two has
frequently become the ocelot's last destination. Forty percent of
the population's mortality is attributable to vehicular deaths.
First hunted to near extinction and then deprived of its habitat,
our final ocelot population is now being reduced to road kill.
But Mays, with a smile that belies a deliberate resolve, believes
there is still hope for the cat, a creature peppered with a beautiful
pattern of dots and dashes that has inspired fashion and
helped spell the cat's decline since the time of the Aztecs.
"It's still possible to reverse the trend and start it back
toward recovery, but we better do something quick," Mays insists.
"If we stick with the status quo, we are going to lose the ocelot
in this country."
Mays has a reason for both urgency and optimism. In December
2008, one of the refuge's wildlife trip cameras caught an image
of a female ocelot with her 6-month-old male kitten. It was the
youngest ocelot documented on the refuge in almost 10 years, and
the first image to capture both mother and kitten together. The
photograph confirmed the biologist's hope that ocelots are reproducing
on the refuge. Since then, the ocelot kitten has been trapped, tagged
with an electronic identification device, tested for diseases, vaccinated
by Art Wolfe
"He was about a year old when we finally caught him," says Mays.
"He was healthy and seemed to be in good shape." Ocelot offspring
will stay within the mother's territory, which can be anywhere from
250 to 1,500 acres, for about one to two years before finally breaking
away to find their own turf. "This gives them time to bulk up,"
Mays says, "because they'll need to compete for their own territory."
Ocelots, adorable as kittens before maturing into sleek, stunning
adults, showcase all the features that have helped draw attention
to other endangered, charismatic species such as wolves and tigers,
yet these advantages have had few positive results for this wild
cat. Historically, the ocelot's survival in the United States has
been undermined by both the pet and fur trades. However, our misguided
engagement with the cat has endured over the centuries for a reason
the ocelot is, undeniably, an enchanted being.
by Rolf Nussbaumer
"Eyeshine golden," William Henry Burt, author of A Field Guide
to Mammals, stated in an unintentionally poetic notation about the
ocelot. A brief synopsis follows, revealing the entire story: "Skins
valuable as trophies; offers sport to the hunter; does little damage
because of rareness."
The ocelot has shadowed our own struggle for survival since
humans arrived on the western continents. Its original range, from
Texas to Argentina, guaranteed its presence in New World mythology.
The name ocelot is derived from the Nahuatl word ocelotl, meaning
jaguar. Nahuatl, the Mesoamerican language believed to have been
spoken since the first decades A.D., was also the language of the
Aztecs, who called the ocelot tlalocelot, meaning field tiger.
The Aztecs practiced a ritualized animism in which the ocelot,
serving as an avatar, no doubt played a part. Its claws, meat, pelt
and blood served as ritual components as well, a practice documented
in Central America as late as the 1950s. Twentieth-century ocelot
hunters were known to eat the meat, claiming it imparted strength
and health. They also drank the dead ocelot's warm blood as it accumulated
in the thorax.
Unfortunately, these kinds of supernatural beliefs continue
to prevail in many parts of the world, to the detriment of ocelots
and other wildlife. But it has been the material desire for the
ocelot's exquisite fur that has dramatically accelerated the wild
cat's downfall. The modern age has seen hundreds of thousands of
ocelot pelts incorporated into coats, hats and purses. This ocelot
fur trade became illegal in the U.S. after the ocelot acquired endangered
status. It is also prohibited in some of the Central and South American
countries, where healthier populations of ocelots survive. But in
some parts of this historic range, the fur trade continues.
So far, ocelot populations beyond our southern border have
fared better than those in America. But getting a population estimate
throughout the cat's southern range is difficult.
"It's safe to say that it's probably in the tens of thousands
based on the number per year once harvested for the fur trade,"
reports Dr. Michael Tewes, biologist and professor at Caesar Kleberg
Wildlife Research Institute. Tewes has specialized in wild cats
for more than 25 years and has studied ocelots across the cat's
entire range. "The cats are now receiving some protection under
laws in Central and South America, but there is often a lack of
enforcement. It's the biggest problem in many countries, particularly
at the field level. This along with habitat loss, poaching, human
encroachment on the wildlife preserves and the illegal fur trade
all make the ocelot vulnerable throughout its southern range."
The initial estimate of 80 to 120 cats for the U.S. population
came from Tewes and his research. Tewes studied ocelot distribution
in the Valley between 1982 and 1984, initially capturing 12 ocelots
total. "The ocelot situation in the U.S. today is dire," says Tewes,
"and habitat fragmentation and destruction are the biggest culprits."
Habitat fragmentation isolates wildlife, causing inbreeding
and loss of genetic diversity. It also increases mortality rates.
The two populations in the Rio Grande Valley must negotiate gaps
like subdivisions, urban development and major highways to access
additional habitat, exposing them to potential harm. Establishing
safe corridors between areas of natural habitat by factoring wildlife
corridor construction costs into the budgeting process for highways
would make a difference.
"We've identified some areas where wildlife crossings beneath
roads need to be placed," Mays reveals, "and are working with Texas
Department of Transportation to try and get some of those crossings
built." An additional solution is to restore or conserve natural
habitat along the Valley's many irrigation canals and drainage ditches.
"We are trying to encourage regional irrigation and drainage
districts to leave or restore natural habitat along at least one
side of these channel levees and ditches," Mays says. "It would
not only be good for the ocelots, it would be good for all the wildlife."
But the most successful weapon in the battle to save the U.S.
ocelot population is simple halt the rapid decline of existing
natural habitat. Loss of habitat spells the decline for healthy
species as much as it does for endangered and threatened wildlife.
The ocelot's thorn scrub and the surrounding coastal plains are
home to a variety of Texas natives, including roseate spoonbills,
alligators, hawks, pelicans and countless migratory waterfowl and
songbirds. Lose the habitat and the wildlife that depends on it
will vanish as well.
But Mays doesn't consider losing an option. "You don't give
up just because it's difficult. You keep working at it."
Mays and other biologists believe that one of the best ways
to preserve existing habitat is by partnering with private property
owners who may have native habitat present on their lands. Less
than 5 percent of the original Tamaulipan thorn scrub that once
covered the state's southern region remains, and much of it is in
"There's a big misconception out there that finding an endangered
species on your private property means your property will be taken
away or you will be told exactly what you can or can't do with your
property, and that's just not true," says Mays.
"It's completely up to the landowner how they wish to participate,"
she explains. "Maybe they want to improve their habitat for hunting.
Maybe they only want to involve just a strip of their property.
Maybe they want some help re-establishing an old resaca or doing
something with an abandoned field already on its way back to natural
habitat. There is no rubber stamp way to do it. We want everyone
A winning situation is needed for the South Texas ocelot, an
animal nicknamed "the ghost cat" because of its secretive, nocturnal
nature. But unless Texans are willing to reverse the decline in
the ocelot's population, soon the name will also become its epitaph.
Some Good News ...
Trap Captures Images of Texas Ocelot Kittens