Sonoran Ocelots
Sonoran Ocelots
Ocelots are medium-sized cats native to tropical and subtropical regions of North to South America. Ocelots are famous for their beautifully distinctive markings, which consist of spots, stripes, and sometimes even dark rosettes.  Ocelots are strong, agile cats that not only climb and run well but are also good swimmers.  Like jaguars, ocelots are known to tackle large prey relative to their own body size.

Sonoran ocelots (Leopardus pardalis sonoriensis) are considered a smaller, paler and distinct subspecies of ocelot, but little is known of the ecology and habitat use of this subspecies- including its basic geographic distribution or genetic differences from other recognized subspecies. Sonoran ocelots do occur in Arizona, and thus represent the northernmost subspecies of ocelot. To date, no ecological research project has been conducted on Sonoran ocelots, except for a single effort to estimate the Sonoran population that yielded 36 modern and historic records of harvested individuals since 1898, 21 of which were animals from 1991 or later. Since 2009, five individual ocelots have been verified in Arizona.

Many basic questions regarding this cat are left unanswered: How different is the Sonoran ocelot from other ocelots? What is the distribution of the Sonoran ocelot?  How does Sonoran ocelot habitat different from ocelot habitat in other regions? What is their population status?


Ocelots were heavily exploited in the 20th century, particularly from the 1960s to the 1980s. Primarily hunted for their fur (or pelts), they were also captured and kept as exotic pets to the point that they nearly became extinct in the wild. Since ocelots became a protected species, numbers have risen but they are now threatened by deforestation and destruction of habitat from industrial mining activities.
Aside from habitat destruction, threats to endangered Sonoran ocelots in the northern periphery of their range are numerous. Direct threats include poaching and predator removal programs, highway and road collisions, and mounting border-related disturbances and barriers, including the U.S/Mexico border wall. In Mexico, despite legal protections, ocelots are still poached for their fur (one ocelot fur coat sold for over US$40,000).  Ocelots are also persecuted along with jaguars as predators of livestock, and fall victim to indiscriminate predator poisoning efforts. 

The continued existence of wildlife and wilderness is important to the quality of life of humans."
Jim Fowler 
Importance of Northern Habitats
Too little is known of the ecology of Sonoran ocelots, including their basic geographic distribution, their habitat use and genetic differences from other recognized subspecies. The lack of basic natural history data regarding this endangered subspecies makes management difficult at the northern fringe of their range, which, like many other neo-tropical mammals, may yet be expanding northward. Since ocelots are listed as an endangered species in the U.S., ecological and behavioral research is heavily warranted.

The Sierra Madres of Mexico, including the sky Islands of southeastern Arizona, may represent a significantly different ecological setting compared to where ocelots typically occur, especially in terms of cover, water, and possibly prey characteristics. Such outlying, fringe areas could become important to the conservation of the species if present rates of tropical forest conversion continue. Our long-term goal is to identify priority conservation areas for ocelots in the border region. Recovery actions include an assessment of suitable habitat to support viable populations of the ocelot in the borderlands of the United States and Mexico, and the assurance of long-term viability of ocelot conservation through international partnerships.

Conservation CATalyst's Ocelot Work

Research Initiatives

Conservation CATalyst is initiating a research project that will utilize radio telemetry to gather basic ecological information for Sonoran ocelots. We will collect data to estimate ocelot distribution, densities, daily and seasonal habitat use, and movement patterns to identify areas where ocelots are likely to enter the U.S. from Sonora. We will determine which areas should be prioritized as potential ocelot habitat in Arizona, and we will do this by taking advantage of the latest technologies in radio tracking equipment and GIS software.  Scat will be opportunistically collected for further information on prey species.   

Identifying and pinpointing appropriate habitats in southeastern Arizona using GIS is an essential next step given the apparent surge of ocelot sightings in the region in recent years. Suitable Arizona habitat will be identified and characterized according to our data to begin to assess the status, distribution, and possible management strategies of endangered ocelots in the U.S. This project will greatly assist wildlife management professionals to develop appropriate conservation strategies for the species.

A Bi-National Effort

International cooperation is essential for ocelot conservation. From a socio-political perspective, we work extensively with local ranchers to utilize local knowledge and to better understand relationships shared with predators.  Conservation CATalyst recognizes that collaboration is often the key to successful conservation action, and proves to be vital for our work on ocelots.

Project C.A.T.

Conservation CATalyst’s ocelot research is interdisciplinary. From a social perspective, we initiate educational and outreach campaign on both sides of the international border to engage school children and the general public about environmental awareness and wild cat conservation. We visit schools in both countries as guest lecturers, and we plan to launch an online multimedia-based project to engage children and adults in exciting scientific research.