The Elusive Ocelot

One of the most recognizable of all the small cats of Central America, the ocelot – known also as the Painted Leopard, Field Tiger, or Dwarf Leopard – is one of the most common cats of Belize, yet also one of the hardest to spot. Nocturnal by nature and prone to hunting solitarily amongst the forests of Belize, catching a glimpse of one of these beautiful cats in the wild is a rare surprise, even in comparison to its larger jaguar cousins.

Despite its nickname and distinctive spotted pelt, the “Dwarf Leopard” is only distantly related to proper leopards, jaguars and tigers, belonging to the Felinae subfamily of cats rather than the big cat Panthera. The second-largest spotted cat in the Americas after the jaguar, the ocelot ranges from the far southern extreme of Texas to much of Argentina and Brazil. In Belize, they share their range with big cats such as the puma and jaguar, as well as other smaller relatives like the margay and jaguarundi.

Mostly nocturnal hunters, ocelots have been known to prey on animals as varied as small rodents and birds to monkeys and sometimes even deer. Like jaguars, each individual ocelot sports a distinct pattern of spots on its pelt, allowing scientists to track individuals through motion-sensing cameras and other observation methods. However, these beautiful and unique coats have historically come at a steep cost: until 1972, when the U.S banned the importation of ocelot pelts, these little leopards faced extinction throughout their range as a result of fur poaching. In the decades since, their numbers have rebounded, due in part to the ocelot’s more adaptable nature compared to their smaller feline cousins, the margay and jaguarundi.

The Ocelot Effect

The Ocelot Effect refers to a unique situation that has occurred as large cats, such as jaguars and pumas, have declined even as ocelot numbers have surged. With less competition from big cats, ocelots – less picky eaters able to adapt easier to changing habitats.- have in turn out-competed margays and jaguarundi. These smaller cats have in turn been forced out of smaller and smaller pockets of rainforest, reducing their numbers.

The Ocelot Effect is just one example of how ecosystems exist in balances, with disruptions to the populations of one species having cascading effects throughout the system. In this case, the decline of jaguar populations and the erosion of rainforests may have helped ocelot numbers increase, but at the cost of other equally vulnerable cats. The solution might be in rebuilding big cat numbers in Belize and Central America, while also preventing further forest loss, allowing all five cat species to live together in harmony.

Ocelot Conservation

Even as ocelot numbers rebound, the species – now listed as “Least Concern” by the IUCN – nevertheless remains threatened by habitat loss, poaching, and the capture of kittens for the illegal pet trade. While Belize has a healthy and thriving ocelot population, the species is endangered in Mexico and the United States, and vulnerable in Colombia, Argentina, and Brazil, mostly due to poaching and animal trafficking. While Belize has a thriving ocelot population, as the nation’s human population grows, habitat fragmentation, hunting, and road accidents pose increasing threats to ocelots as well as other Belizean cats.

Come evenings near the rainforests of Belize, keep a keen eye out for these small, spotted hunters, who like to venture into clearings from during the night hours. While a rare chance, you might just catch a glimpse of what the Mayans called tlalocelot – the “field tiger.”

article by Devin Windelspecht

last updated: April 13, 2020

%d bloggers like this: