Q&A with Dr. Shari Wilcox of Defenders of Wildlife

An ocelot
Brazilian ocelot – Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) by Martha de Jong-Lantink. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This is a special post, and one that I’m excited to share. It’s a Q&A with Dr. Shari Wilcox: Texas Representative at Defenders of Wildlife, and an expert on wild felid (cat) conservation in the United States-Mexico borderlands.

Our conversation focuses on a species of cat called the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis). Ocelots are smaller cats, with females weighing between 6.6 and 11.3 kg (15–25 lbs) and males ranging from 7–18.6 kg (15–41 lbs), according to Dr. Luke Hunter’s Wild Cats of the World.

Ocelots are also widespread – ranging from Texas to Northern Argentina – and they used to live throughout parts of the Southwestern U.S. In fact, this study from Dr. Jan Janecka and her colleagues says that ocelots once inhabited the states of Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, and Arkansas.

Now, however, American ocelots are isolated in two small pockets in Southeastern Texas: Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (LANWR) and on private ranchlands near the reserve.

The entire breeding population of ocelots in the U.S. may consist of as few as 60 individuals, although lone ocelots sometimes appear in Arizona, which experts believe are dispersing males from Mexico.

The coastline at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge
Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas by Vince Smith. CC BY 2.0

Below, Dr. Wilcox explains what happened to American ocelots, the threats they face, and what Defenders is doing to help them.

Q&A

First, please tell us a little bit about yourself. What’s your background, and how did you come to serve as Defenders’ Texas Representative?

I started my career at Defenders in the early 2000s, so taking the role of Texas Representative in 2019 was really a homecoming for me!

Dr. Shari Wilcox in the field.
Dr. Shari Wilcox working in the field (click to enlarge). Photo courtesy of Dr. Shari Wilcox.

Defenders was where I first gained experience working on “border cat” (jaguar, ocelot, and jaguarundi) conservation projects — and I was hooked. The intersections of these rare species and a mosaic of human cultures across diverse natural landscapes of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands intrigues me. This is truly a region of unique challenges and opportunities for conservation work.

Following my start at Defenders, I went to graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, where I earned a Ph.D. in Cultural Geography studying the cultural and historical dimensions of these human-wild cat interactions, co-habitations, and conflicts in the borderlands region.

After a few years in academia, I jumped at the opportunity to work in a more applied context on the ground with Defenders’ new office in Texas.

Why has the ocelot’s range in the U.S. declined so heavily?

Most people don’t know that ocelots once ranged across portions of the southwestern United States from Arizona to Louisiana, including much of the Texas Gulf coast. These cats were targeted by widespread predator eradication efforts practiced by settlers in the 19th century and formalized by the U.S. government in 1915.

Throughout the 20th century, ocelots suffered losses throughout their range largely due to demands for their pelts driven by a booming international fur trade.

What are the main threats to U.S. ocelots right now?

Today, the greatest threat to ocelots in the U.S. is loss of habitat.

Ocelots in Texas are specialists who reside in the cover of Tamaulipan thornscrub, a dense matrix of thorny brush and mesquite trees that provide cats with excellent protection, denning sites and ideal hunting grounds for rodents, lizards, birds and other preferred prey.

In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, only 1% of Tamaulipan thornscrub habitat remains, as most of it has been plowed over for agriculture and suburban development.

The leading known cause of ocelot mortality (death) in Texas is vehicular collisions, which is directly related to the loss of contiguous habitat. As male ocelots reach maturity and disperse across the landscape, they move through human-altered areas including, unfortunately, roads.

A dirt road with an ocelot crossing sign.
Vehicle collisions are the largest, known cause of death for Texas ocelots. This road runs through prime ocelot habitat in LANWR, and is closed to the public to protect the cats. Photo courtesy of Dr. Shari Wilcox.

After a spate of ocelot deaths on the roads around LANWR in 2016, the Texas Department of Transportation worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to install 13 wildlife crossings under the roads.

These underpasses have seen substantial use by a wide variety of species and at least one ocelot. Work will need to continue on this front, to expand and connect these travel corridors to ensure safe passage for these endangered cats.

What is Defenders doing to help conserve ocelots?

Defenders works to address the challenges facing the Texas ocelot population on many fronts:

  1. We work at the national level to ensure the Endangered Species Act remains strong and enforceable.
  2. We support the excellent science being done at LANWR and by researchers working on private ranch lands.
  3. We strive to ensure that science informs policies and practices that impact development and management of the South Texas landscape.
  4. On the ground here in Texas, we are working alongside federal and state agencies, nonprofit organizations, landowners, and community members to protect and restore essential habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (RGV).
A group of conservation professionals, including Dr. Wilcox.
Dr. Wilcox and some of her partners from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo courtesy of Dr. Shari Wilcox.

We must protect and restore natural habitat to ensure that ocelots have adequate space to stabilize and recover.

Another important aspect of the work to protect ocelots is the human dimension. Thus, Defenders is working to unite diverse groups of stakeholders in the RGV to better understand the ways in which we can bring this cause into the community, and to find common ground and allies for ocelots.

We must protect and restore natural habitat to ensure that ocelots have adequate space to stabilize and recover.

Dr. Shari Wilcox

Lastly, Defenders raises awareness about U.S. ocelots throughout the state of Texas and beyond, garnering support for their conservation.

Finally, if everything goes well, what is your greatest hope for ocelots in the U.S.?

My greatest hope for the ocelot population in Texas is that we can secure adequate connectivity between the two populations in Texas that would permit the movement of individuals (and their genes) across the landscape.

Much work has been done to increase connectivity and to establish wildlife corridors, addressing hazards on the landscape (like roads) and working with private landowners to ensure safe passage for these rare cats. Despite these successes, there’s still more to do.

An ocelot using a wildlife underpass.
In 2016, the Texas Department of Transportation collaborated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to install 13 wildlife underpasses to protect ocelots. Here, an ocelot uses an underpass near LANWR. Photo credits go to the Texas Department of Transportation and USFWS.

Furthermore, we hope to see a successful translocation of an ocelot from the subpopulations just south of the border in Tamaulipas, Mexico. This is a complicated process years in the making and facing technical, biological, ecological, and political challenges — but the will is there.

An even bigger dream is to see the restoration of connectivity to ocelot populations in Tamaulipas, perhaps connecting wildlife refuge land in the U.S. to a broader bi-national protected area that would benefit a diversity of species.

Closing Thoughts

I’d like to sincerely thank Dr. Shari Wilcox for participating in this Q&A, and for all she does to conserve wildlife in the borderlands!

I recommend visiting Defenders of Wildlife’s homepage to learn more about them, and to consider making a donation to support their work. Now, more than ever, we need groups like Defenders who strive to conserve wildlife on multiple fronts.

2 Thoughts

  1. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I could purchase one of these beautiful cats at a pet store. I never knew what they were until a coworker told me she had one. She came from a well to do family, so when I saw the price tag on the one I saw at the store, I wasn’t surprised I hadn’t heard of them before. It sounded exotic even though I had no clue what one looked like. I did fall in love with that beautiful cat in the store, but it somehow seemed unnatural to buy it. I supposed, knowing what I know now and if I’d had unlimited resources, I could’ve bought it and set it free. The problem though is often cats were declawed automatically in those days, especially the bigger, “wild” ones, so it would not have survived for long. They were outlawed a few years later. It was not long after I volunteered for Project Wildlife, where we cared for injured wild animals to be set free later once healed. The key is not to tame them. I was not qualified for cats though.

    Liked by 1 person

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