- The ocelot is a particularly important part of the Amazonian ecosystem because it’s a dominant species in the food chain, especially at the mesopredator level.
- Between 1960 and 1970, Peru’s population of ocelots went through a crisis known as a population bottleneck. Even today, they are sometimes kept as pets or killed for their fur.
- In addition to the hunting of ocelots, the study highlights the vulnerability of Peru’s Las Piedras District. Although it has some of the most remote forests in Peru, the district is at risk of deforestation and degradation due to the human pressures like logging.
MADRE DE DIOS, Peru — It’s opportunistic, it usually doesn’t let itself be seen, and it’s not easy prey for those who hunt it. It is famous for its appearance, and it plays an important role in Amazon ecology. It is the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), also known as the “painted leopard.” Because of its aloof behavior, it is a little-known feline within Peru. However, geographer Romina Castagnino has been able to identify the ecosystems it prefers, its diet, its role in nature, and its ecological value for tourism.
Castagnino, who is also part of Mongabay’s Latam team, was able to collect this information thanks to the use of multiple camera traps. Her study was published in the journal Espacio y Desarrollo.
The scientific study using camera traps took place between August 2012 and February 2013 in an 11,000-hectare area within the conservation and ecotourism area of the Amazon Research and Conservation Center (ARCC). The center is located in the Las Piedras District in northern Tambopata Province, in Peru’s Madre de Dios region.
The investigation was able to confirm the presence of 70 ocelots per 100 square kilometers in the area of investigation. This means that the Las Piedras District has the third-highest density of ocelots registered with camera traps in the entire world.
“The first place is Barro Colorado Island, a reserve in Panama with 100 ocelots per 100 square kilometers. The second is Manú National Park in Peru, with 80 ocelots per 100 square kilometers. However, we have to remember that the refuge where we did our study isn’t a protected area like Barro Colorado or Manú, so this really brings to the global stage the importance of its conservation,” Castagnino explained.
The ocelot is the size of a large dog, with short, soft fur that’s yellow, gold, and gray. Every ocelot has a unique and unrepeated pattern of spots. Ocelots can live in savannahs, swamps, marshes, coniferous forests, and areas with thorny shrubs, Castagnino said. The geographer added that the ocelot’s distribution spans from North America (Texas) through part of Central America, and extends all the way to northern Argentina.
The attitude of a king
Castagnino, along with University of Wisconsin-Madison ecologist Scott Lutz, used 73 Bushnell Trophy Cam camera traps to identify eight individual ocelots. They were able to determine that, although the ocelot does not occupy a specific habitat, a primary requirement for its survival is that it finds an elevation lower than 1,000 meters above sea level. Such areas include tropical and humid forests, which make up part of the area of investigation.
The investigation found that most of the ocelots in the Las Piedras refuge are mobilized by the tourist routes in the area, using trails made by humans to facilitate their travel. They also prefer alluvial plains close to riverbanks and lagoons, but they avoid marshes.
Castagnino explained that the ocelot is a particularly important part of the Amazonian ecosystem because it’s a dominant species in the food chain, especially at the meso—or “middle”—predator level.
“The ocelot feeds on everything: rodents, birds, snakes, lizards, and even small mammals like monkeys. Its presence helps balance the populations of these species. On the other hand, the ocelot is prey to pumas, jaguars, harpy eagles, and anacondas — but these species don’t catch the ocelot very often because it’s a very stealthy animal. That’s why it’s so abundant in the jungle,” Castagnino explained.
Because of the ocelot’s abundance, added Castagnino, it sometimes affects other mesopredators’ feeding habits, such as those of the jaguarundi (also called the “eyra cat”) and the margay, which both feed on rodents and small mammals.
“The ocelot is very opportunistic; it will eat whatever is easiest. If it finds lots of rodents, it will eat them, although there are also other animals that eat them. This negative effect on the feeding habits of other species even has a name in honor of the ocelot: ‘the pardalis effect’,” Castagnino said.
A species under threat
Even if the ocelot is abundant in the Las Piedras District in Madre de Dios, on a global level it’s listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Its current conservation status is listed as Least Concern.
According to the study, between 1960 and 1970, Peru’s population of ocelots went through a crisis known as a population bottleneck.
“It’s called that because the population drastically reduced due to the ocelot fur trade. Even nowadays, people sell their fur and they’re kept as pets. Sometimes they’re even killed because they attack livestock, without a doubt because [some] ranchers raise small mammals, which are what the ocelot eats,” Castagnino said.
In addition to the hunting of the ocelot, the study highlights the vulnerability of the Las Piedras District. Although it has one of the most remote forests in Peru, the district is at risk of deforestation and degradation due to the pressure that human activity puts on its ecosystems — such as logging. The researchers found that the biggest threat to the Las Piedras ocelots currently is the destruction of their habitat.
This study highlights a key aspect of the ocelot’s protection: if its behavior and travel patterns are known, it’s easier to implement better conservation programs.
“One of those programs could be animal-watching. These cats are really remarkable. It’s an incredible opportunity. It generates profit for the refuge and helps conserve the ecosystem — everyone wins,” Castagnino said.
Camera traps and their role in the study
In order to conduct the study, Castagnino collaborated with Chris Kirby, Executive Director of Fauna Forever, a non-profit organization that works with the ARCC refuge in Las Piedras.
“For eight months, we worked on putting the camera traps throughout the area. We had six workers, at best, because the rest were volunteers. There were times, especially when there were untraveled routes or when it rained, when only my teammate Lucy Dablin and I went out to install the camera traps, because then it was harder to explore. It was such an adventure,” Castagnino said.
As part of the process, before setting up the camera traps, Castagnino also developed a survey for the visitors of the ARCC refuge to learn which species most interested the tourists.
“Those who were able to see an ocelot on their trips were astonished; those who weren’t said they wish they had seen one. I really like wild cats because they’re magnificent — they make their presence known, just like the ocelot. As they say, it’s the king of the jungle,” Castagnino said.
Camera traps are ideal for studying wild cats, the study explains, because they’re equipped with an infrared sensor that is activated when an animal passes it. In that instant, the camera trap takes a photo.
The researchers set up two camera traps at each sampling point, at a distance of 20 centimeters from the ground. The cameras were placed in a converging position so they could take photos and record video over as much area as possible. In the duration of the study, the researchers made nine rounds to set up the camera traps. They set up an average of eight cameras each time.
“During our time in the field, we installed the eight cameras and left them for eight to nine days. Later, we would go collect them, transfer the information to laptops, and recharge the batteries. After that, we would go back out to the field for the next round,” Castagnino said. “What’s great is that the cameras can take photos and videos during the day and at night. The ocelot is most active during the day, but it goes out at night to hunt because it’s much easier then — the nighttime turns the ocelot into a covert hunter.”
Castagnino Vera, R. (2017). ESTUDIO ECOLÓGICO DEL OCELOTE (LEOPARDUS PARDALIS) UTILIZANDO EL MÉTODO DE CÁMARAS TRAMPA EN EL DISTRITO DE LAS PIEDRAS, MADRE DE DIOS, PERÚ. Espacio y Desarrollo, (29).
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on June 1, 2017.
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