English Common Names: Ocelot, Painted Leopard, McKenney’s Wildcat
Spanish Common Names: Manigordo, Ocelote
Scientific Name: Leopardus pardalis
Survival Status: In Costa Rica they are considered in danger of extinction and are protected under Wildlife Conservation Law No. 7.317. They are also internationally protected by CITES (Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species). They were classified as a “vulnerable” species from 1972 until 1996 but are now rated “least concern” by the 2008 IUCN Red List which is the least endangered of its ratings.
The IUCN Conservation status order is as follows: 1) Least Concern 2) Near Threatened 3) Vulnerable 4) Endangered 5) Critically Endangered 6) Extinct in the Wild 7) Extinct
Characteristics: The Ocelot is the third largest of the Central American wild felines weighing 25-35 lbs. and measuring about 5 feet from head to tail. They are about twice the size of an average house cat although sizes among individuals can range dramatically with the male being significantly larger than the female. They are primarily nocturnal and have keen eyesight including day and night vision and hearing. The white rings around the ocelot's eyes help to reflect extra light into the eye at night.
They are good climbers, jumpers and swimmers and do not avoid water so they are adept at crossing natural boundaries like rivers. Like all wild cats in the Americas they lead a solitary existence and do not form groups.
Their only natural predator in the wild is the Jaguar which will hunt them for food and to eliminate competition for prey. Biologists believe that the reason they have the white spots on the back of their ears is to protect them against Jaguar attacks because the spots look like eyes from behind and a jaguar prefers to attack only when its prey is not looking.
They are known by the name “Manigordo” in Costa Rica which means “fat hands” because of the extremely large size of their front paws in relation to their bodies. The name “Ocelot” derives from the Aztec word tlalocelot, which means “field tiger”.
Although scientists do not understand why, they have the lowest resting body temperature of any feline in the world. They are adaptable and can live in habitats ranging from rainforest to desert to brush lands or swamp. They have also been able to adapt to human altered habitats like farm and ranchlands. The problem is that they consume young livestock and are normally killed by the farmer or rancher. This is especially true in Mexico, Texas and Arizona where they are rarely seen these days. The continued presence of the Ocelot in Texas is doubtful given the loss of habitat, introduction of dogs to ranches, extermination by ranchers and the introduction of highways. Each year a large number of Ocelots are killed by cars while crossing highways.
Their historical population decline resulted for a number of reasons. The primary reason was the market for their spectacular fur. Their dappled fur is considered to be one of the most beautiful furs in the world. Unfortunately, Ocelots have been heavily hunted for their pelts for thousands of years, as far back as the ancient Aztec civilization. During the 1960’s, 1970’s and early 1980’s more than 100,000 furs were imported to the United States annually. Today they are protected by several international laws which prohibit the trade of Ocelot pelts.
Unfortunately, this was not the only threat they faced. Ocelots were once very popular as exotic pets. Mother Ocelots were often killed in order to capture their kittens, that are affectionate and tame when young, but become unpredictable and sometimes dangerous when mature. The distinct and pungent smell of their urine also deterred their owners from keeping them as pets when they matured. There are still countries such as Nicaragua, Ecuador and Peru where you can buy a pet Ocelot or Margay from traders in the street. However, the number one threat the Ocelot faces is the loss of their natural habitat and natural prey.
Distribution: The Ocelot is still widely distributed over Mexico, Central America and South America but has been reported as far north as Texas and Arizona and as far south as Argentina. Only a few probably still exist in Texas and Arizona. A few Ocelots have been reported to exist on the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean as well. They can be found in low, middle and high elevations up to 12,350 feet (3,800 meters).
Hunting and Feeding: These largely nocturnal cats use their keen eyesight and hearing to hunt and eat almost anything including rabbits, rodents, armadillos, anteaters, turtles, iguanas, fish, frogs and snakes. They also take to the trees and stalk monkeys or birds. Their style of hunting would be classified as “stalk and ambush”.
Like other cats, ocelots are adapted for eating meat. They have pointed fangs used to deliver a killing bite, and sharp back teeth that can tear food like scissors. Ocelots do not have teeth appropriate for chewing, so they tear their food to pieces and swallow it whole. Their raspy tongues can clean even the toughest meat from a bone.
Reproduction and Lifespan: Although males and females will live together in one territory they will never hunt or spend time together except when mating. These cats do not have a determined reproductive season. The gestation period is 75-90 days and normally 1 to 2 cubs are born. The mother normally hides them in a hole in a tree. In captivity these cats can live past twenty years but in the wild the average lifespan is 8 to 10 years.
Future Survival in the Wild: It has been calculated that in order to maintain a genetically healthy population, a minimum of 500 individuals is required. This means 500 territories in one location. Now, some cats may have overlapping territories, so let us say the females can occupy territories within the male’s, which leaves us with 250 territories. A male Ocelot’s territory is a minimum of 7 square miles (18 km2) so a genetically successful population needs 1,650 square miles (4,500 km2) of connected habitat to survive. Costa Rica has admirably dedicated many parts of its land to conservation, but if these islands of green do not connect to each other, the gene pool will deteriorate over time and cause a slow extinction.
In today’s world we all appreciate the impossibility of maintaining protected areas as large as those required by the dominant predators of the food chain. Even with this impossibility there is still hope in a concept called “Biological Corridors”. These are green corridors connecting different protected zones, allowing animals’ free mobility through protected gateways to and from protected habitats.
Meanwhile, maintaining a genetic bank of animals in captivity is a practical safeguard in case we need to repopulate the lost wild species assuming one day we can connect the biological corridors sufficiently to maintain healthy wild populations.
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