Ocelot Leopardus pardalis
ESA status: endangered
Beauty may indeed be only skin-deep; that’s never been a problem for the ocelot. With its striking spotted coat, large eyes, and long tail, this mid-sized member of the cat family stands out even among its visually arresting relatives such as the tiger and the leopard.
The ocelot is comparable in size to an oversized housecat, weighing between 16 and 22 lbs. Throughout its historic range in North, Central, and South America, it inhabited diverse environments including tropical and subtropical forests, coastal mangroves, swampy savannas, and thornscrub. Its attractive design includes less-apparent features that make it well-adapted to the thick vegetation of its home: muscular forelimbs for climbing, thickened neck-skin to protect it from attacks, and broad, short paws for pouncing on prey. It walks long distances in search of food, seeking out small- to medium-sized birds and mammals and rushing them rather than waiting in ambush or stalking like some other cat species. It wanders and hunts at night and sleeps the day away hidden in heavy brush or up in a tree. The U.S. ocelot population represents the northernmost extent of the species – they used to range through parts of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, and southeastern Arizona (the Arizona population was separated from the others by the Sierra Madres). But now they are known to reside only in parts of Texas, in populations which total fewer than 25 cats. However, recent sightings in Arizona may reveal another U.S. population.
Historically, people hunted the ocelot for its fur. After 1930, the threats shifted to habitat loss, disease, and inbreeding. The ocelot was listed as endangered in the U.S. portion of its range in 1982. In the modern age of vehicle travel and roads, the ocelot is facing one of its greatest challenges yet. Despite Endangered Species Act protection, the species is struggling to recover in habitat fragmented by roads and traffic. Individuals attempting to find territories away from the crowded core habitat where the breeding populations reside are often killed crossing roads. Dispersing ocelots usually find they have nowhere to go – farmers and developers have cleared 95 percent of the ocelot’s U.S. thornscrub habitat. Despite listing the ocelot, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has refused – for 30 years – to create critical habitat protections for this imperiled cat, and that hesitation may prove fatal. From 1991 to 2000 alone, approximately 113,126 acres of suitable ocelot habitat was destroyed in south Texas. Precious thornscrub in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the ocelot’s last U.S. strongholds, is disappearing at an alarming rate. That’s a serious blow for both the ocelot and jaguarundi, which both depend on this increasingly rare habitat type. And, like many other animals on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, the ocelot is threatened by a myriad of human border activities including immigration, drug trafficking, police and military actions, border installations and fences, and artificial lighting.
Without critical habitat protections, ocelots are unable to expand into new territories and connect with other isolated ocelot populations. With no place else to go, the ocelot may be taking the long walk into extinction. WildEarth Guardians is working hard to protect critical ocelot habitat in order to give these beautiful cats the room they need to roam.
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photo credit: Brad Fulk, Arizona Game & Fish Department