There are about 80 known wild ocelots in the U.S., and they’re all in Texas.
The ocelot is an endangered, medium-sized wild cat, with known populations stretching from Argentina to the U.S.-Mexico border. What was once a thriving population across the southern U.S. is now barely self-sustaining.
About 13 of them live at the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge at the southern tip of the state.
Shari Wilcox is the Texas representative for conservation group Defenders of Wildlife. She said a newly detected young, male ocelot has given researchers hope for the future.
“This is a cause for celebration because, again, there are only 13 cats that we know of living at the refuge. So every individual cat matters so much to the genetic diversity of that very small population,” Wilcox said.
The ocelot population barely survived extermination efforts by foreign settlers in the 1800s, and increased development has threatened their natural habitat and ability to roam freely.
“And to find out that here's this male who looks to be, you know, maybe a little less than a year old... basically walking around for, I don't know, nine months, 10 months, something like that without being detected, lets us know that there are possibly more ocelots out there,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field biologist Hilary Swarts.
Swarts said the detection of a new ocelot is great news for the rest of the population.
A monitoring project run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has detected three previously unknown ocelots in the past year. But along with increased development, the ocelot population is also threatened by busy highways and a possible border wall.
Swarts said drivers can help protect ocelots by travelling carefully, and property owners can help by working with the Fish and Wildlife Service to limit the impact of development on the cats' natural habitat.
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