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Not a Lot of Ocelots

Once thought to have vanished from North America victims of hunting and habitat loss the cats maintain a slender pawhold in the thickets of South Texas

Peering through the thick, thorny south Texas brush, I can barely make out a feline form, its superb, spotted coat making it all but invisible. For nearly an hour, the creature stares at me in my pickup truck, ignoring a steady stream of vehicles crammed with bird-watchers bumping past on the road. Suddenly, the cat—about twice the size of an ordinary tabby—rises, elegantly arches its back and glares at me one last time. Then, with the haughty grace of a fashion model, this rare Texas ocelot melts into the brush.

It was two decades ago that pioneer researcher Michael Tewes, now 44, came here to the Granjeno Research Natural Area, on the edge of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (LANWR), as a graduate student on a lonely quest to find and study the Texas ocelot. Some biologists thought that it had been wiped out in the United States long before. “My ecology professor bet me a fifth of Jack Daniels I’d never find ’em,” says Tewes, now coordinator of the Feline Research Program at the Caesar Kleburg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M University–Kingsville.

The professor lost, of course, partly because of the disappearing act I saw in Granjeno, which is characteristic of the ocelot. By retreating into congenial environments, it has managed to survive not only in Texas but also in the remaining forests and thickets of Mexico and Central and South America. No one knows how many ocelots there are in the world, but Tewes says the population in Texas is somewhere between 80 and 120. Perhaps 30 to 40 reside in and around LANWR, while the rest are concentrated 40 miles to the north on several ranches that provide friendly refuge.

At one time the dappled cat’s range in the United States extended across much of Texas, as well as Louisiana, Arkansas and Arizona. Everywhere, however, its tawny hide—a “most wonderful tangle of [blackish] stripes, bars, chains, spots, dots, and smudges,” as naturalist and writer Ernest Thompson Seton once described it—was an irresistible prize. Seton added that a “trapper, frontiersman, or saddle-dandy of the sunny Rio Grande Plains did not consider himself dressed unless the silver of his gear was shining on a background of soft gray fur, the blackblotched velvet robe of an Ocelot.” Bird painter John J. Audubon’s son, J.W., who called ocelots “Leopard-Cats,” noted that their “beautiful skin makes a most favorite bullet pouch.” At one point, more than 200,000 ocelots were killed each year for their skins.

In 1980, an ocelot coat, requiring the hides of as many as 12 animals, sold for as much as $40,000. Although the cats are protected now in most places by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), poaching still takes a toll.

But it is the steady loss of ocelot habitat that devastated their population in Texas. The same soil that supports ocelot-friendly thickets also makes wonderful farmland. “Obviously, humans and wildlife were competing for the same areas,” says Tewes.

Once,“clearing that land must have been horribly hard,” says Texas rancher Michael Corbett, 52, whose grandfather tamed his corner of the thorny landscape with axes and hired hands back in 1918. But bulldozers and other machines have made the brush easier to control. “As a result, since the 1920s more than 95 percent of the native thorn-scrub communities in the lower Rio GrandeValley have been converted for agricultural or urban purposes,” says Tewes. “Now less than one-half of one percent of ocelot habitat remains.”

Because 97 percent of Texas land is privately owned, the hope for ocelots— apart from the 90,000-acre LANWR— lies with landowners. In a promising trend, says Tewes’ boss, Fred C. Bryant, director of the Caesar Kleburg Wildlife Research Institute, some owners are finding that a “wild” ranch can be more profitable than a “tame” one. “Ranchers are discovering they can make $10 an acre on hunting revenues [for deer, Texas doves, ducks and other legal game], while cattle brings about $2 an acre,” he explains.

This is good news for ocelots. When Tewes initially started looking for them, his first guides to the cat’s whereabouts were friendly ranchers like Corbett and Frank Yturria. “It’s ranchers like these who are the future of cat recovery in Texas,” says Tewes.

“As controversial as it now may seem,” says Corbett, whose 4,500-acre ranch is the habitat of choice for one key ocelot population, “it’s the hunters who’ve saved the ocelot. Our ranch is devoted to wildlife. Thank heavens we didn’t clear it all, back when we only farmed and ran cattle.” Corbett’s ranch is in the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), a voluntary farmer– government partnership. “The CRP and hunting have saved us. It’s too difficult to make a living farming now, and cattle get less profitable.”

Tewes trapped his first ocelot on the Corbett Ranch on March 2, 1982. He and his colleagues had set cage traps in promising thickets, but for days failed to bag even an opossum. Then one morning they were greeted at their first trap by a spotted cat, “flagging its long ringed tail at us,” says Tewes. “I shouted, ‘It’s an ocelot!’ and promptly crushed my soda can with my bare hands.” Thus began the first scientific inquiry into the Texas variety.

Yturria is no less concerned with protecting the ocelot. Under a plan worked out with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) several years ago, he set aside 600 acres of brush in the middle of his 15,000 acres north of the Rio GrandeValley. “I realized I was part of the problem when I found out that the land I was clearing for cattle still held the ocelot,” he says. “I’d like to see some semblance of this country just like I remember it as a boy.”

When Yturria was growing up in the 1930s, both ocelots and some jaguars made Texas their home. And when his great-grandfather started ranching here around 150 years ago, 6 of the 37 species of wildcats in the world could be found in what is now Texas. Four of them— the mountain lion, the bobcat, the jaguarundi and the ocelot—are thought to remain, though the jaguar and the margay have vanished. (The last known Texas jaguar was shot just outside Kingsville in 1948, and the margay, a sort of miniature ocelot, was last seen 100 years before, near Eagle Pass, on the Mexican border.)

Until recently, ocelots had a reputation as varmints, since they were often accused—sometimes with good reason— of raiding the henhouse. Taking advantage of their taste for poultry, Tewes used live chickens to draw the cats to his traps. That wasn’t necessarily bad news for the bait. The chickens were safe in separate cages at the rear of the traps and even viewed captured ocelots as a food source. “I often found them picking ticks off an ocelot’s head in the trap,” says Tewes.

Ocelots in the wild will go after rodents, rabbits, birds, snakes, lizards and even fish. Some naturalists say they’ll also stalk bigger game—red brocket deer and squirrel monkeys.

Noted Smithsonian mammalogist Louise Emmons, in her classic 1980s study of ocelots in Peru, reports they seem fond of playing with their food: “Once in Peru I watched an ocelot walk out on the path with a baby Proechimys [spiny rat] in its mouth. . . . It put it down and let it run away briefly before pouncing on it. It repeated its ‘game’ several times, alternately batting the baby rat a bit with its paw—just as we’ve all seen domestic cats do—before finally picking it up in its mouth and heading back into the forest . . . presumably to nosh on its catch.”

In contrast to our stereotypical view of the cat as a loner, Emmons’ work suggests that ocelots may have a more social lifestyle than fellow felines such as jaguars, pumas and tigers. “Although the sexes each maintained individual territories and, as is usual among many cat species, a dominant male’s territory overlapped several female tracts,” she recounted, “the cats would often meet and spend time together. And this included at least two males, a father and son, who, one would expect, wouldn’t have tolerated each other.”

One of Tewes’ Texas colleagues, Linda Laack, 41, a FWS field biologist at LANWR, reports that ocelots are “solitary but hardly antisocial.” Ocelot mothers, she says, are dutiful. “Usually, they protect the kittens by moving them from den to den, sometimes as often as five times in their first few months.” Dens are located on the ground, well hidden and defended by thorn scrub. Once, though, Laack noted that a mother had stashed her kitten in a tree before going out hunting. “There I was, intent on setting a trap at the base of a tree,” she says, “when suddenly it was ‘raining’ cats. The kitten landed near me before it quickly bounded away.” Females teach their young to hunt, and if there is enough food, they will take motherhood one step further by setting their daughters up in a kind of land tenure system. “They’ll subdivide their territory to accommodate their daughters,” says Laack. “But sons, too, are allowed to hang around for a couple of years, as long as the mother is still associated with the son’s father. Or it may be that they stay with mom or in her territory for longer, to further mature and hone survival skills.”

For an ocelot in Texas—with only a few thousand free acres of possible habitat, separated by vast tracts of farms, ranches, development and highways— finding a territory is especially challenging. One young male from the Yturria Ranch managed to cross a 27- mile gantlet of highways, roads and farmland before being hit by a car and killed near Harlingen.

“Vehicles are the enemy,” says Tewes. “In the last few years at least 20 ocelots have been killed by them.” The Texas Department of Transportation has been experimenting with culvert underpasses for ocelots and other wildlife, and the FWS is continuing its 20-year project to develop a wildlife corridor along the Rio Grande.

“Once an ocelot does get a territory, it takes a lot of the male’s time to access females and defend his right to them,” says Tewes. A case in point, he says, involved “a macho male that I had tracked for a couple of years at LANWR. Soon M61, as we called him, moved in on a female, F30, who was already part of the harem of the resident male, M35. M61 kicked M35 out of F30’s life. When M35 got killed by a car, M61 moved in, grabbing territory right and left and, with a certain bravado, claiming another M35 female as well.”

Females, too, have to fight for goodquality range. F88, known as Sabia, is one example. Laack first found her as a 2-week-old kitten in 1985. She soon discovered that the cat didn’t hesitate to assert herself, and F88 picked up scars from many battles. First she chased away another female from a sub-territory she inherited from her mother. But she seemed to dream of greener pastures— or perhaps pricklier ones. By February 1988, when she was 2 years old, she had established a home range on the choicest parcel around the Granjeno, a little more than a mile from her birthplace. Here Laack tracked her for ten years, losing her once for five years when her collar dropped off, only to retrap her in 1996, then lose her again in 1998.

At dusk one day, I am alone again in a borrowed pickup truck, patrolling LANWR and hoping for another ocelot sighting. Peccaries play on the road, looking in the fading light like rollicking plush toys. A flock of redhead ducks passes over, and a pair of ospreys leap from one dead yucca to another. Then, high on a hill above the laguna, a good-sized cat strides along the ledge of an overlook used by bird-watchers. A bobcat? Too refined, I think. Although bobcats and ocelots weigh about the same, a bobcat is the tough-guy rugby fan in full bellow, while an ocelot is the reserved spectator at Wimbledon’s center court. When darkness falls, I hear a distinct meow.

Back at LANWR headquarters, I keep my own counsel. Who would believe that I spotted another ocelot? A week later, though, Laack e-mails me: “You are going to be so envious. I trapped a new male ocelot!” Sure enough, it turns out she trapped it near the bird-watcher overlook. A few days later she phones: “We got another one—a female!” Subsequent radio tracking confirms that the two cats are staying in the area and are even hanging out together. “Now that,” says Laack, “makes me cautiously optimistic about the future of the Texas ocelot.”

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