Rebirth at the Muddy Lagoon: Ocelots in South Texas

The ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) is about the size of a bobcat but holds many characteristics of its more famous cousin, the jaguar, (Pathera onca). This spotted yellow- furred cat prowls in the tropical forests of South and Central America, and the coastal thorn brush forests of Northern Mexico and South Texas. While ocelots that reside south of the Chihuahua Desert are not endangered, ocelots on the northern border of Mexico are critically low, especially in the United States. Habitat destruction, along with large-scale hunting that occurred up until the late- twentieth century and deaths from vehicles on roadways, place ocelots in the United States in the endangered species category. [1] This cat’s American population, which used to reside as far north as Arkansas, as far west as Arizona, and as far east as Louisiana, can now only be found in South Texas. This paper focuses on the largest population of ocelots in the United States at Laguna Atascosa Nature Preserve which is only a short drive away from the U.S.- Mexican border. Although the location is American, the story of ocelots in South Texas is transnational because the environmental issues that ocelots face in South Texas are faced by ocelots in Mexico as well.

Before their population faced extinction in the United States, ocelots were prized animals amongst the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mesoamerica. Scholarship on these cultures tend to focus on the jaguar, which makes sense due to the deification of the animal’s awesome power, but the little look-alike that is the ocelot is not entirely out of the picture. According to art historian Rebecca Stone, where the jaguar is king, the ocelot is a prince. The ocelot is depicted at the side of jaguars in rituals that depicted animals, meaning that they are helpers to the jaguar. In the shamanistic hierarchy, a high priest may take on the spirit, or even the physical form, of a jaguar, whereas his subordinates might take on ocelot spirits. Another view of this is that captured priests are ritually represented as ocelots because the ocelot is subservient and weaker than the jaguar. [2] With reverence to both the jaguar and ocelot in mind, the obsession with their pattern and pelts would make sense. Leaders of cities would drape pelts of jaguars over their thrones, but more than likely they also used ocelot pelts, as the ocelot is both less deadly to hunt and the fur is incredibly soft. [3] The softness of the ocelot’s fur led to the overhunting of the animal by Europeans, and later Americans, for clothing.

Overhunting was a serious issue that affected ocelot populations in the United States until it was placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act in 1982. However, habitat destruction causes the most damage to population. At the peak of poaching, around 140,000 ocelot pelts were produced in the United States in a single year, but its placement on the endangered species list put a stop to this mass shipment. [4] Even with the ban placed on hunting, the population continued to decline with the continued destruction of thorn brush forests. As of 2002, around 95% of the thorn brush forest habitat has been destroyed due to expanding agricultural land, which is evident in the fact that 97% of Texas land is privately owned. While private landowners are beginning to find and host ocelots in their land where they have not cleared, the numbers are still devastatingly low. [5]However, the largest population of ocelots in Texas is at Laguna Atascosa Nature Reserve.

Laguna Atascosa is the perfect representation of the South Texas/ Northern Mexican frontier ecosystem. Laguna Atascosa, the muddy lagoon in Spanish, lays claim to a number of habitats such as freshwater wetlands, lagoons, estuaries, clay dunes called lomas, beaches, prairies, and of course the thorn brush forests. [6] This unique biome forms due to the combination of South Texas meeting the Chihuahua Desert and the Gulf Coast. With around 97,000 acres of protected land, the reserve boasts a population of around 50 ocelots. While tourists rarely see the timid wild cat, the hope of a glimpse draws large crowds to Laguna Atascosa.

Wild cats require large territories in order to correctly thrive in their habitats. The human pressures on the environment keep this from happening, whether it is the separated forests that discourage travel or the roadways that stop travel altogether by taking the lives of ocelots. This separation of the estimated one hundred or so ocelots left, creates a lack of genetic diversity that leads to birth defects and an enduring challenge to evolve. With programs that relocate ocelots from similar habitats, such as those in Tamaulipas, Mexico, unique genetic make ups can create more diverse communities of ocelots. [7] While the struggle ocelots face on the frontier is the most extreme in comparison to other ocelots, other ocelot habitats head in this direction as well. Deforestation across Latin America is responsible for habitat destruction for ocelots, but there is still far more habitat in places like the rainforests of the Americas than there is in south Texas. [8] While bans on hunting the ocelot are important for the survival of the species, placing the focus on habitat conservation in areas the ocelot calls home will better benefit the chances of this cat’s survival.