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National Geographic Photo Ark Spotlight: Ocelot

Listed as an Endangered Species by the United States, the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) numbers fewer than a hundred individuals north of the Rio Grande (in small pockets of southern Texas and Southern Arizona) — and it is likely to be even more disturbed and threatened by an enhanced border wall with Mexico. “Fencing has already broken natural connections between wild cat populations in some areas of the border,” Panthera CEO Luke Hunter wrote in a recent post on Cat Watch. “Further fortification, as proposed by the [Trump] Administration, would fragment wildlife populations already under pressure.”

The unique habitats of the borderlands were once inhabited by five species of wild cats,” Hunter added. “Only two, the cougar and bobcat, are still relatively secure on both sides of the border.” An enhanced barrier would leave the diminishing population of ocelots on the U.S. even more isolated.

Click image to find out more about Photo Ark, and what you can do to help ocelots and other species survive for future generations.
Click the National Geographic Photo Ark logo to find out more about Photo Ark, and what you can do to help ocelots and other species survive for future generations.

The small spotted wild cat, weighing as much as 35 pounds (about twice the size of a domestic cat), is doing better throughout the rest of its range, from Mexico to parts of Argentina, and especially in the tropics and subtropics. The International Union for Conservation of Nature assesses the ocelot as a species of Least Concern on the Red List of Endangered Species.

Once harvested extensively for its beautiful fur, the ocelot is now listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Commercial trade of the species is strictly prohibited.

The ocelot’s biggest threat today is habitat disturbance, although IUCN also mentions retaliatory killing for predation of poultry and illegal trade for fur and pets. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service says that inbreeding resulting from small and isolated groups are keeping the species’ population numbers low.
An ocelot, Leopardus pardalis, at the Omaha Zoo. The photograph is one of thousands of portraits made by photographer Joel Sartore for the National Geographic Photo Ark, an ambitious project committed to documenting every species in captivity—inspiring people not just to care, but also to help protect these animals for future generations.
An ocelot, Leopardus pardalis, at the Omaha Zoo. The photograph is one of thousands of portraits made by photographer Joel Sartore for the National Geographic Photo Ark, an ambitious project committed to documenting every species in captivity—inspiring people not just to care, but also to help protect these animals for future generations.

In Texas, ocelots occur in the dense thorny shrub lands of the Lower Rio Grande Valley and Rio Grande Plains, says the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD). “Optimal habitat has at least 95 percent canopy cover of shrubs, whereas marginal habitat has 75-95 percent canopy cover. Shrub density below the six foot level is the most important component of Ocelot habitat.” Sadly for the ocelot, almost all of the original vegetation of the Rio Grande Valley was cleared for food production, and, according to TPWD, only about 1% of the South Texas area supports what is currently defined as optimal habitat.

“Unless vigorous conservation measures are taken soon, this beautiful cat may join the list of species extirpated from the United States,” TPWD says on its website. The Department is working with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to to build underpasses for ocelots and other wildlife to cross roads safely. Landowners are being educated and encouraged to regenerate the natural vegetation, especially along fence lines and other places that can provide wildlife corridors.

Ocelots sleep during the day, then set out at dusk on nightly hunts for rabbits, small rodents, fish, lizards and birds. They are good climbers and swimmers. “They move around during the night, usually within a well-established home range of one to two square miles for females and three to four square miles for males,” TPWD says. Kittens are born fro  late spring through December and stay with their mother for about a year.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Recovery Plan for the Ocelot
National Geographic: Last Stand for U.S. Ocelots?
Arkive: Ocelot Fact File
San Diego Zoo: Ocelot
Defenders of Wildlife: Basic Facts About Ocelots
National Geographic: Ocelot

The National Geographic Photo Ark is a multi-year project to photograph all species in captivity. The ocelot is among them. To learn more about the Photo Ark, visit natgeophotoark.org,

Follow the Photo Ark photographer Joel Sartore and the National Geographic Photo Ark on InstagramTwitter, and Facebook, and add your voice using #SaveTogether.