Ocelot (Leopardis pardalis) sightings in Arizona since 2009 have raised the hopes of some wildlife conservation organizations, but the endangered animals have not been proven to have established a breeding population in the area. Whether the wild cats are transients from Mexicos Sonoran population just over the border or whether they are the vanguard of a population attempting to establish itself in Arizona remains to be determined.Threats to Wild Ocelots Result in Their Continued Decline
The ocelot has been on the Endangered Species List since 1972 and to date there are only two known breeding populations in the US, both in Texas. The IUCN Red List has them characterized as a Species of Least Concern but lists populations in Columbia, Argentina and all of Brazil outside the Amazon as Vulnerable to Extinction. Overall ocelot numbers are in decline throughout their entire range, which extends from Mexico through South America. Habitat fragmentation and loss, illegal hunting for their pelts and for sale as pets, and killing by poultry farmers all contribute to this continued decline. In addition recent studies suggest that ocelots, once thought to be tolerant of disturbed habitat, may be struggling under environmental constraints as a result of human settlements in their habitat.
Why Ocelot Sightings in Arizona Need to be Further Studied
In February of 2011, an ocelot was sighted in the Huachuca Mountains of Southern Arizona and in April of 2010, an ocelot was run over by a car near Globe in the same state. A third report of an ocelot photographed by remote camera in Cochise County in November of 2009 is also being reviewed.
The problem is that ocelots are often kept as pets. If the camera trapped animal was an escaped or abandoned pet, it would not be considered evidence of the return of the endangered cats to Arizona. Another issue is that the two confirmed ocelot sightings were of young males, who would be at an age to be dispersing from their natal territory. In that case they might have simply been passing through the area.
Search for Evidence of a Breeding Population of Ocelots in Arizona Continues
Ocelots are, like many of t he wild cat species, shy and nocturnal, making their study very difficult. The development of remote camera traps as a tool in studying nocturnal animals is helping wildlife biologists to learn more about these elusive species. The camera trap sighting of an ocelot by Sky Island Alliance, a wildlife conservation organization, reinforces the usefulness of this technique.
But beyond the occasional sighting of an endangered ocelot, proving the presence of a breeding population is less likely simply using camera traps. And within the United States the outcry after the last known jaguar was radio-collared and subsequently died, has meant that officials, especially within the US Fish and Wildlife Service, are reluctant to capture and collar animals to track their activities.
In lieu of radio or satellite telemetry, increased camera trap efforts and surveys of potential ocelot habitat will be needed to determine where ocelots exist and where suitable habitat might be protected for their future population recovery.