The beautiful ocelot is a spotted and striped cat that now occupies a reduced habitat in far south Texas, close to the cities of Brownsville and Harlingen. It ranges in size from 30 – 41 inches long and weighs from 15 – 30 pounds. Males are larger than females.
The cat’s markings are unique; no two cats have the same pattern.
Their range is 1 – 4 square miles. Females give birth to 1 – 4 kittens that become mature at approximately 20 months for females and 30 months for males. Their diet consists mostly of small animals, such as rodents, rabbits, birds, snakes, and young deer. The ocelot is a very capable swimmer and can cross large rivers and is a good climber. It is primarily a nocturnal-crepuscular feline.
Most closely related to the margay though considerably larger, the ocelot is the third biggest cat in Latin America, after the jaguar and mountain lion. Ocelots’ range exists from northern Mexico throughout Central America and much of South America. A remnant population exists in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
Historically, land conversion to farming caused a reduction in ocelot habitat. And they occurred in south, central, and east Texas. Now, however, habitat loss due to urbanization (subdivisions, wind industry, road expansion, human population growth, and other habitat disruption) is the main reason for decline. Ironically, throughout the remainder of its range in Latin America, the ocelot is often the predominant predator and is considered abundant.
The remaining ocelots in Texas occupy Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge and some surrounding private properties in what is known as dense thorn scrub habitat.
This habitat is inhospitable to people and many other animals but is one that provides suitable shelter for these remaining cats.
Ocelots have low reproductive rates and typically produce a very small litter of one or two kittens. In Texas, mortality caused by car strikes is quite significant; however, with the construction of 12 underpasses around the Refuge, reported deaths have dropped. In Latin America, the main threats facing this cat are habitat destruction and fragmentation. Many are also killed by traffic.
These cats were also once hunted for their spotted coats, which was in great demand in the fur trade. During the 1960s and 1970s, as many as 200,000 skins were exported annually from Latin America. However, international trade in these skins became illegal in 1989, and hunting is prohibited in their home range states.
The ocelot is classified as Least Concern in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, though that classification varies somewhat depending upon the country or state in Latin America. The biggest population is believed to be in Brazil, where it’s estimated there are 40,000 ocelots.
Due to environmental constraints and a reduction in genetic variability, Texas ocelots may face extirpation in less than 40 years.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service calls for a recovery plan of 200 - 275 ocelots in Texas in order for them to be removed from the endangered species list. However, until ocelots have enough suitable habitat and a reasonably secure environment, they continue to face degraded habitat and potentially declining numbers.