by Annette J Beveridge
Agile, adaptable and sleek, the Ocelot is potentially one of the most beautiful of the feline family. With short, thick and velvety fur, they are still, even now, subjected to illegal hunting and for years, were prized for their fur. Nowadays, many are sold illegally as pets. With a population of around 40,000, they are located throughout Central and South-America, but conservation is still a point of concern as a loss of habitat could easily make this species vulnerable once again.
The word ocelot originates from the Aztec word tlalocelot and this translates as Field Tiger but many call them Painted Leopards. In ancient times, the Ocelot was a sacred animal, worshipped by Peruvian tribes. In Latin, it translates as ‘like a leopard’.
Their colour varies – yellow, to brown to reddish grey. These variations of markings provide perfect camouflage breaking up their outline as they hunt. Ocelots have spots on the legs, and chain-like rosettes or splodges which merge along the sides of the body and back. The tail is long and ringed and on the head and face, visible stripes can be found. One well-recognised characteristic is the fur along the neck that directs up towards the crown. Each Ocelot pattern is unique and so, individuals can be detected through study. These are sleek, graceful animals – approximately 3 feet in length, excluding the tail. In the wild, they would be expected to live between 8-11 years.
Ocelots can also be found in South Western United States and on the Caribbean islands of Margarita and Trinidad. It is the largest predatory mammal on Trinidad. Adaptable, they can be found in forests, and in savannas but prefer habitats with a large percentage of water. They will adapt to thorn forests or mangrove swamps and have even been recorded at an elevation of 3,800 m.
Rainforests suit this predator as they creep through dense undergrowth monitoring their prey. Predominantly nocturnal, they often roam for several miles at night searching for food although are seen during the day at times. Males tend to roam further as they have higher energy requirements and they will also be lured to check out the sexual condition of females in their territory. Ocelots are opportunistic when it comes to prey. Their diet is likely to include rodents, birds and even, the occasional Armadillo. They will hunt in trees when needed and take monkeys and sloths if the opportunity presents itself. Highly territorial, Ocelots have been recorded fighting to the death.
Ocelots are mainly solitary, and will only come together to breed. Once the female has kittens, she will not mate again until they have moved from her territory when they are approximately 2 years of age. Females are known as Queens and are smaller than the males. They usually give birth to 1-3 kittens following a 70-80 day gestation period. The birth process occurs in a cave, sometimes, in the roots of fallen trees or in dense undergrowth. The kittens remain in and around the den for a few weeks and are fully dependent on the female for months. At 18 months, females reach sexual maturity. Males usually take longer becoming sexually mature at 2 1/2 years. Both will disperse from the territory at 2 years. These are vocal cats with adapted vocal chords and will produce many sounds and vibrations.
The risks to Ocelots
Although these cats are not considered endangered currently, we must be mindful of habitat loss which could lead to a greater vulnerability. Historically, the species was susceptible when exploited for their fur and around 500,000 pelts were sold during this time. This was stopped in 1969 although illegal hunting continues and sadly, the illegal pet industry still occurs where the female is killed and the kittens are taken and sold in local markets to tourists. This can have a detrimental effect on the population.
Ocelots live alongside Jaguars and Pumas and will try to adapt their hours of activity so to avoid these larger cats. Interestingly, in some areas, the bigger cats seem to have very little impact on the Ocelot population but this is not the same in other areas where they are definitely considered prey.
We must not be complacent about the threat to Ocelots. The loss of habit is a very real issue especially as people push more aggressively into areas that were previously untouched or inaccessible. Ocelots may have resilience and adaptability when home territories are disturbed, but if their target prey is lost, or when cover is sparse, they are at risk. The loss of this cat would be a travesty. Logging is a very real concern as so much of the Ocelot’s natural habit is threatened, but it also causes fragmentation of cover and this can put this secretive cat at risk. Some Ocelots are killed in retaliation when they attempt to target livestock but in Texas the threat is mainly from cars. Fragmented habitat means that Ocelots are forced out of the forests and onto roads. Careful monitoring could secure the future of this charismatic cat.