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.”