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Texas by Nature

Ocelots: America's Rarest Cats

The Moche civilization of ancient Peru was known for technological and cultural advancements. Ruins of Moche pyramids and aqueducts still survive, as do lavish murals depicting the worship of animals—including the ocelot. By 800 AD, Moche civilization had collapsed, doomed, anthropologists believe, by massive shortages of resources.

Today, the ocelots the Moche held in such esteem face an eerily similar fate in Texas—loss of their habitat has reduced populations in the Lone Star State to fewer than 50 cats.

One of the rarest cats in U.S., the ocelot can grow to 35 pounds and sports fur dappled with vibrant yellow and black spots. The distinctive pattern of the ocelot’s fur led in part to its dwindling numbers, as hundreds of thousands of cats throughout the Americas were killed for their hides. 

While the species enjoys wide distribution throughout the Americas, the subspecies that inhabits Texas and adjacent northeastern Mexico, Leopardus pardalis albescens, is federally endangered. The few remaining ocelots in Texas live in the southernmost section of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, amid the brush country known as the Tamaulipan Thornscrub.

Here, the last of these spectral cats prowl dense, thorny habitat that shrinks every year, hemmed in by encroaching development and farmland.

At The Nature Conservancy’s Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve, conservation and restoration efforts are helping to create and maintain important dispersal corridors for ocelots, which are believed to roam across the Rio Grande into Mexico and back.

The Nature Conservancy is working with partners to protect remaining ocelot habitat through conservation easements and restore additional acreage in order to create larger, contiguous protected lands for breeding, hunting and movement. That work is leveraged by conservation efforts underway at other Conservancy properties, on private lands and at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. 

Unfortunately, the Conservancy’s plans have been jeopardized by construction of the United States-Mexico border fence, which upon its completion will bisect Southmost Preserve and other conservation lands used by ocelots. As a result, Texas’ last remaining ocelots will be cut off from source populations in northern Mexico, making the future of this beautiful and rare species even more uncertain.

To learn more about our work, including other species we protect, visit nature.org/texas.

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