“Coast to Coast” is a summer blog series highlighting some of America’s most imperiled wildlife. By using the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s new state-by-state endangered species map, we will tell stories about native plants and animals in unique landscapes where Defenders will be focusing its conservation efforts in coming years.
The next stop on our trip around the U.S. is an area in the Southwest called the Sky Islands. The “islands” are actually scattered mountain peaks that rise above the rest of the desert landscape in the region, disconnected from the much larger mountains ranges to the north (the Rockies) and the South (Sierra Madres). Because of the sharp contrast between the arid lowlands and the forested mountains, these areas often become a critical refuge for rare wildlife.
Ocelots are one such species that rely on Sky Islands in Arizona for their survival. About twice the size of a house cat, the ocelot is a solitary and nocturnal animal. With a life span of up to seven years in the wild, they hunt prey small and large. Although sticking mostly to rabbits, rodents, lizards and medium–sized amphibians, this powerful predator can also take down animals three times its size. Their distinctive leopard-like stripes and spots help them elude predators as they take cover in trees and dense brush.
Most of the ocelot’s remaining territory lies in Mexico and covers a large swath of South America, but the northern tip of their range lies in southeast Arizona and southern Texas. Sightings are rare in the U.S. Only four have been officially documented in the last 50 years in Arizona, the most recent in July of 2011. Lucky for us, however, one of these sightings included the capture of amazing photos and video of the elusive big cat, courtesy of Arizona Fish & Game.
Watch as local ranchers relive the sight of a lifetime–an ocelot on their property:
While cute and cuddly-looking, the ocelot is still having a rough time. Facing the deadly duo of habitat loss and poaching, the cute cat has been listed as endangered through its entire range. The major conservation move has been to criminalize the taking of ocelots and the selling of their fur within the U.S., while encouraging protection of their habitat. Ocelots also have international protections under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). CITES protections prohibit international trade of these animals, which helps keep them alive throughout the Americas.
Ocelots aren’t the only critters hiding out in the Sky Islands of Arizona and New Mexico. They share their alpine refuge with jaguars, gray wolves, Sonoran pronghorn and many other imperiled plants and animals, but they all benefit from efforts to conserve this unique habitat.