"Not a Lot of Ocelots"
By Vern and Lori Geiger
February 2005 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 21, Number 6

     The most gorgeously patterned wild cat in the world, the ocelot, has paid a steep price for its beauty! A wondrous combination of beauty and grace, the Ocelot’s coat is a tawny yellow with dark rosettes, spots and stripes. Their coat patterns are as unique as a person’s fingerprints, no two are alike. The hue of its coat depends on habitat... ocelots living in arid regions have lighter coats than those living in forested areas.
     In Mexico, ocelots occupy various habitats; mangrove forests and coastal tropical forests of all types. Preferred habitats are found at elevations below 1,200 m and include the Yucatan peninsula and most coastal states, including Jalisco. The availability of sufficient dense vegetation cover is the common factor linking the various habitats where ocelots are found. It is suggested that ocelot distribution is patchier than one would expect, given its wide geographical range; strong populations are dependent upon abundant rodent prey and good ground cover. These exquisite animals have been endangered since 1973. The exotic pet trade, illegal hunting and habitat destruction have left ocelots a heartbeat away from extinction.
     Originally found in the southern states of North America, Mexico and most Latin American countries except Chile, estimates are that approximately 90 to 110 ocelots live in Texas. They are critically in danger of extinction in Mexico. Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how many ocelots still remain in Mexico in the wild, or how many remain worldwide.
     Ocelots are territorial; the male’s territory often overlaps with one or more females’ territories. A male’s territory can be up to 31.2 sq. km while females have territories of 14.3 sq. km, or smaller. Ocelots are solitary except during breeding season. Males travel extensively mating with females within their territory. Mating can occur during any time of the year suitable for kittens to be born in. One or two are born in a den ten weeks after mating. The male ocelot may help to raise the young by bringing the mother food. However, typically the mother cares for her young alone. Ocelot kittens are highly dependent upon their mother for survival.
     When it becomes necessary for her to hunt, she will conceal the litter in a den surrounded by thick shrubs. Kittens are completely dependent on their mother for five to six months. At around six months of age, kittens start to practice hunting techniques alongside their mother, but they will not hunt alone until 18-24 months of age.
     Ocelots represent some of the most highly evolved predators on earth. They have an extraordinary sense of vision at low light levels, as well as an acute sense of smell and hearing. Ocelots are primarily nocturnal and do most of their hunting on the ground, their slender bodies enabling them to capture prey in the thickest brush. Although they are mainly ground hunters, ocelots are extremely agile and will expertly climb trees for birds or squirrels, as well as swim in rivers and ponds for fish.
     Few people are aware of the extraordinary damage that has been done to wildlife by the pet trade. In the 1960s, for every ten ocelot kittens collected from the wild, destined to be pets in U.S. households, nine died en route. Those ten, had they been left to live normal lives in their natural habitats, would have produced well over 100 kittens.
     Therefore, for every ocelot kept as a pet, at least 100 were denied the opportunity to live free. Keeping a single wild animal in captivity can be extremely detrimental to wild populations.
     Their physical beauty cannot be separated from their essential nature. They are appealing because of their wildness. When such an animal is raised in captivity, that wonderful characteristic is sadly diminished; the instincts are still there, but not the skills to survive in the wild. The animal is left in a state of limbo, having all the natural behaviors it was born with, yet without the right environment to express them.
     Having a relationship with a wild animal is undeniably one of the most enriching experiences a person can hope to have. However, with so few “Hallmark” moments likely to occur, it is more realistic to aim for a relationship based on mutual respect. Respect means striving to save populations in their natural habitats, where they can be what they were born to be.
     The distinctive coat of the ocelot has been sought after since the time of the Aztecs. Sadly, it has been hunted to near extinction for its pelt, in spite of being a protected species in most countries. It is believed that not all subspecies still exist.
     As late as the 1980s ocelot coats were still quite the fashion. Each coat required the demise of 13 to 15 ocelots, and sold for an average price of $40,000.00 dollars.
     The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has greatly curtailed killing and capture of ocelots, but ongoing habitat destruction has slowed recovery tremendously. Man continues to pillage the forests and the rainforests, threatening the very existence of many species that depend on these places to exist. A species that is threatened is only one step away from endangered, the next step is . . . extinction; once they are gone, they will never be again.
     “When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.” —Anon