Building Walls

Building border walls is not a new concept but the impact they have tends to focus on the human element, of how the walls or fences will be used to keep people out, rather than the toll they take on the environment and wildlife. The first time I was introduced to how fences impact wildlife was many years ago while reading Cry of the Khalahari, which touches on Botswana’s veterinary fences that were erected to “stop the spread foot and mouth disease to cattle” and to meet strict EU regulations for the beef trade. The impact these fences had on wildlife was undeniable and brutal “many wild animals including giraffe, elephant, zebra and many species of antelope, became ensnared, cut off from migratory routes and from vital resources.” In short, many species perished as a direct or indirect result of the fences.

Botswana wasn’t the only country to erect fences for the purpose of protecting livestock, Australia put up a fence in the 1950’s to keep sheep safe from predators like dingos and wild dogs. The fence didn’t work out exactly as planned and it ended up also protecting kangaroos which turned out to be more of a problem for sheep due to the fact that they competed with them for pasture.

More recently the effects of the anti-refugee wall between Slovenia and Croatia was studied. The report showed how the barrier is hurting gray wolves, Eurasian lynx as well as possibly threatening brown bears. Suggestions to help alleviate the pressure at the fences includes: using new alternative forms of high-tech monitoring methods that would allow selected sections of a border to remain unfenced while still providing security; more carefully thought out fence alignment that would reduce it effects; and, design that minimizes the chance of wildlife entanglement and death similar to border fencing that has been “retrofitted between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to enable the saiga antelope to pass between the two nations.”

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Habitat fragmentation caused by the fence interrupts gene flow and threatens the already small population of Eurasian Lynx – Image Wikipedia

While the report recognizes that many fences are permanent, it says the role of conservationists is critical and that our knowledge and understanding about border fences and their effect on wildlife needs to be improved. Interestingly it was found that in some cases the fences, “may unintentionally actually help conservation by preventing animals from roaming into countries with low degrees of law enforcement, by creating well-guarded spaces where human impact is minimal and by preventing the spread of wildlife diseases.”

Germany’s Cold War barriers of fences and walls that separated East and West later became an accidental nature preserve and is now part of a green belt that runs through central and eastern Europe. In China the Great Wall was found to have no major effect on wildlife as it was not one solid piece of construction but rather consisted of a series of different builds including mounds of pounded earth which later became degraded from use. However, in specific areas where the wall is truly solid a team of Chinese scientists, who conducted a study of plant species on both sides, confirmed that in these areas it was indeed a physical barrier to gene flow.

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Arizona section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall – Via Northern Jaguar Project – Photo by Jay J. Johnson-Castro, Sr.

Connectivity and wildlife is a hot topic these days when it come to urban planning and building roads and freeways, but it is very unlikely that an extension of a wall at at the U.S.-Mexico border would take into account concerns for wildlife, habitat fragmentation, or gene flow for endangered species like the jaguar.  While humans can and will generally find ways around walls, wildlife from snakes and frogs to jaguars, pumas, bob cats and big horn sheep will not be able to move freely. They will be forced to adapt to smaller territories which will ultimately prove deadly to them especially when their access to food, mates and water, is cut off.

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Mountain lion at border wall U.S. Border Patrol – Image Northern Jaguar Project

In 2006 the Secure Fence Act, which was responsible for the 1,000 kilometers of impenetrable barrier along the Mexico–U.S. border, had environmental laws waived for its construction. The impact of these walls on wildlife has been studied along with the effects it has had on the highly endangered ocelot. The solid metal and concrete fence further fragments ocelot habitat and kept the small population in Texas separate from the larger and more genetically diverse population in northern Mexico. Even though there were about 100 openings incorporated in the fence for wildlife they were much to small to allow larger animals like bobcats or coyotes through.

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Ocelot

Wildlife biologist Mitch Sternberg told Nature that “bobcats don’t go out looking for holes in fences as they travel back and forth through brushy habitats. Overall, wildlife connectivity does not exist in these sectors anymore.” It was also noted that there were major shifts in territory due the construction for the 20 bobcats that had been collared and studied. Some simply abandoned their home range and others became trapped on one side of the wall and were eventually killed on highways while looking for new territory.

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Bobcat at US-Mexico wall. Image via Triggerpit.com – Photo: ILCP photographer

In 2014 a report was released that stated the fence had little to no impact on human travel and most native species, however it had a great impact on pumas and coatis. While pumas had greater capability to roam farther in search of territory the fence meant there were less of them. With regards to coatis who are unable to move home ranges easily, researchers concluded that this could lead to a “possible collapse in their populations”. It also pointed to the fact that any impact the wall had on the behavior and populations of pumas and coatis could have serious implications for those species with whom they interact.

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Coati – Image The Dodo – Jamie McCallum University of Bristol – U.S. Mexico Border

It is estimated that the border wall has the potential to impact 111 endangered species, 108 species of migratory bird, four wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, and an unknown number of protected wetlands.

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Puma – Image The Dodo – Jamie McCallum University of Bristol – U.S. Mexico Border

El Jefe, the male jaguar who caused a stir of excitement when captured on trail camera in  2016 along the Arizona side of the border, would undoubtedly be cut off from any females attempting to come from Mexico. Even though a possible new jaguar has been photographed in the U.S. it is not considered enough to help re-establish the species. Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity told EcoWatch that “walls don’t stop people from crossing the border, but Trump’s plan would end any chance of recovery for endangered jaguars, ocelots and wolves in the border region.”

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El Jefe, is believed to have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border before making his home in Arizona. (Conservation CATalyst/Center for Biological Diversity)

In December 2016 a conservation plan was released for the jaguar, a species that was systematically exterminated in its former historical habitat, by the USFWS in which they hoped to work more closely with Mexico. The plan, which is supposed to “make it easier for agencies and organizations in the U.S. and Mexico to align their efforts at restoring jaguar habitat along the border” includes keeping corridors intact so the cats can move back and forth freely. The proposed wall along the entire 2,000 mile border with Mexico would essentially be the end to the jaguars recovery in America. It would also be an ecological disaster—ripping populations and fragile ecosystems apart. Louise Misztal, biologist and executive director of conservation non-profit Sky Island Alliance in Arizona tells Motherboard that “wide-ranging mammals like mountain lions, bears, jaguars, ocelots, need to be moving between these different mountain ranges to get to food resources and water.”

Saving predators like jaguars go beyond a feel good story about bringing an endangered species back from the brink – they like other apex predators are invaluable in their ability to help regulate, naturally, other species and the ecosystem in which they reside. When apex predators disappear from the landscape trophic cascades, the top-down regulation of ecosystems by predators which is an essential aspect of ecosystem function and well-being, are disrupted.

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Camera trap data from Arizona found that the wall did not prevent illegal immigrants from crossing into the United States, but wholly stopped wildlife movement. Toad looking through the metal bars of part of the existing border wall. Credit: Anonymous. Image –  Seeker by Dan Millis

A number of groups and organizations have released statements opposing the proposed wall including the National Wildlife Federation and Panthera. Jesse Lasky, an assistant professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University told Live Science that “If Trump’s wall is built, it could push endangered animals and native animals with small habitats over the edge…and If the populations on the border start disappearing, the functioning of these ecosystems could be reduced.” Bryan Bird, director of the Southwest Program for Defenders of Wildlife tells Seeker that “fences are only appropriate directly adjacent to urban areas and should not be used in wildlife corridors or other ecologically sensitive areas” and, alternative monitoring devices, which minimize the impact on wildlife, such as “virtual high-tech fencing options like unmanned aerial vehicles, motion-sensors, laser barriers and infrared cameras ” should be employed to provide security.

In addition to what the wall means for wildlife, the construction of it will have a further impact on human health and the planet as it has the potential to release about “2 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

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The U.S.-Mexico border is the largest human construction that has been made to divide two countries since the great wall of china.” US-Mexico wall arial – Image via Triggerpit.com – Photo: ILCP photographer

It is widely accepted that it is a negative prognosis for wildlife and ecosystems when man-made barriers are introduced, unfortunately even with this knowledge border walls and fences are on the rise. Wildlife at the current U.S.-Mexico border wall has been documented acting confused and stressed due to their daily routines being disrupted and, without further environmental impact studies, or incorporating designs in fences that allow animals to move through, researchers will not know the extent of damage or long-term implications. Along with undoing decades of conservation efforts and work any new fences will increase the number of species at risk by further isolating them on either side, pushing wildlife like the jaguar and ocelot even more precariously close to extinction while degrading our ecosystems in the process.

Ocelot Conservation Day

Ocelot Conservation Day was celebrated this past weekend in the U.S. – the purpose of the annual event is to raise awareness, and money, for this very beautiful and highly endangered small wild cat.

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Otto, an ocleot from Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium (Photo: Andrea Hennings) – All Images from Felid TAG on Facebook unless otherwise stated

In the U.S. Ocelots are found in South Texas, the few surviving numbers are concentrated in the shrub-lands at or near the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (LANWR), however a lone male Ocelot was spotted by camera trap in Arizona near the proposed site of the controversial Rosemont Copper mine.

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Ocelot Female OF 287 walking through the Texas thornscrub (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Ocelots can also be found in South America and Central America, Mexico and this year Argentina had its first sighting of the rare cat in 10 years.

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An Ocelot was sighted in the northeastern province of Corrientes by camera trap – Image FOX NEWS Latino

Researchers from the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research’s Sub-Tropical Biology Institute confirmed the sighting by chance while monitoring for giant anteaters. Sebastian di Martino, coordinator of Conservation Land Trust’s species-reintroduction program says that he hopes that there are more Ocelots in the area which would enable “the species to reproduce instead of being just the last Ocelot remaining from an extinct population.”

In the past Ocelots were hunted for their fur to make coats and while illegal poaching of the cats can still happen, another major factor contributing to their demise in Argentina, like elsewhere, is habitat destruction.

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Captive Ocelot – Image Wikipedia

The Caribbean Island of Trinidad, which is thought to have a very small population of Ocelots, is unique in the fact that it offers researchers the chance to study a top predator that isn’t influenced by larger cats like pumas or jaguars. It is hoped that the Ocelot can become “the face of forest conservation on the island – raising awareness and inspiring policies to protect these animals and their habitat.”

If you are interested in volunteering your time to help Ocelots, the EarthWatch Institute offers a unique volunteer experience to help monitor them on the island of Trinidad. With illegal hunting and habitat loss posing a major threat to the species researchers are trying to gather information to help better protect them and the tropical rain forests they inhabit.

Cat Crossings

There are less than 50 Ocelots estimated remaining in the US, concentrated primarily around Laguna Atascosa and on private lands in Texas, however the combination of vehicles and urban development have become one of the greatest threats to this endangered cat.

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Ocelots, a species precariously close to being extinct in the US – Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Creative

The death of any of these rare cats is considered devastating and when one was killed by a vehicle on a Texas state Highway south of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grand Valley in November 2013, it was taken very seriously. The cat was identified as Ocelot Male 276 and had been “watched with trepidation as he crisscrossed a patchwork of cotton fields and convenience stores, culverts and roadways, seeking to establish a territory and find a mate.

Ocelots are so beautiful and so rare, and to lose so many of these animals to vehicular collision just seems senseless.” said refuge manager Boyd Blihovde in an article published by National Geographic. “The number one cause of Ocelot deaths in the US today is vehicular. Six of the 14 cats tracked with radio telemetry by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Laguna Atascosa biologists have been killed by vehicles. As Blihovde puts it, “Wildcats and highways don’t mix.” While vehicles aren’t solely responsible for the damage they are helping to deliver a deadly blow to the species when coupled with other factors like habitat loss and fragmentation.

Some 95 percent of the cats native habitat in the US has been converted to agriculture or become urban sprawl.” 

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Humans have rapidly created a deadly maze in which Ocelots must try to navigate to survive  – Photo Nature.org

The space requirements needed for these cats to recover properly is estimated to be one million acres and while the US Fish and Wildlife Service has taken steps to help the Ocelot it has fallen short in its promise to secure land to create habitats and corridors for the cat. Ultimately this means that the responsibility has and will fall with the people as 95% of land in Texas is privately owned. “Landowner incentives will be required and may offer the best hope to conserve the species.”

Cat Crossings

The news for Ocelots seems rather grim but wildlife crossings, like the one pictured below, are scheduled to be built in 2016 and will help the cats avoid vehicles, busy highways and importantly connect them safely to new territory.

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Conserving and connecting habitat for ocelots is critical to minimizing mortality risk and improving the species ability to flourish. – Photo USFWS

New Blood

When the images of a kitten appeared on the trail camera in the Laguna Atascosa Refuge last March the photos brought hope and relief as each new kitten means the species has a chance. The kitten who is thought to be female, will hopefully breed successfully giving a much-needed boost to the US Ocelot population.

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A new Ocelot kitten takes a selfie at the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge – Photo  US Fish & Wildlife

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The black-and-white trail camera image of the 2 month-old baby ocelot at the Wildlife Refuge, which houses one of only two breeding populations of the mid-sized wild cats in the US – Photo US Fish & Wildlife

How you can help

In honor of Ocelot Conservation Day today, please ask the US Fish and Wildlife Service to do more for these cats by signing and sharing this Care2 petition. Ocelots desperately need our help and by giving them the protection and habitat to roam, we can ensure they are around for many years to come.

Lily The Ocelot

On a trip to Costa Rica I had an opportunity to visit the Osa Wildlife Sanctuary, a “local enterprise wholly committed to providing wildlife rescue and rehabilitation for orphaned, injured and displaced animals indigenous to the southern zone of Costa Rica.” About 70 or so animals reside there including monkeys, wild cats, birds, and sloths.

On the day I visited I was lucky to get a one on one tour from Earl Crews, who founded the sanctuary in 1996. Earl and his wife Carol run the sanctuary and stress an important part of their work is being able to rehabilitate animals so that they can be released back into the wild whenever possible. This includes animals taken in who have been rescued from the exotic pet trade or freed from being exploited as attractions in hotels or clubs.

On my tour I was given a rare glimpse of Lily the Ocelot, she was in an enclosure off the tour circuit and off limits to the public. We kept a good distance and I relied on my zoom to snap a picture of her. Lily had been brought in as a baby “found” wandering alone at 6 days old. Earl explains in the video below that her mother was more than likely shot for her fur and Lily was doomed to be sold into the exotic pet market where in the US she would have fetched approximately US $10,000.00. Luckily for Lily she found her way to the sanctuary where she was given a chance to be free.

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Lily the Ocelot rehabilitated and scheduled to be released back to the wild. – Photo taken in 2010

 The video of Lily’s 2011 release

If you travel to Costa Rica be sure to visit the sanctuary for a tour, or for a longer period as a volunteer.  While they receive help from US and Canadian Universities who send researchers, they still face financial threats during tough times, so if you are able donations are always needed to help them continue their work.

These cats are considered tolerant of changes to their environment however, like their US counterparts Ocelots in Costa Rica face similar challenges and threats like:

  • Habitat loss and deforestation
  • Human encroachment and urban areas
  • Illegal trade in their pelts
  • Illegal pet trade
  • Retaliatory killings by farmers and ranchers for livestock loss

Little Cat vs Big Mine

When a photograph of a lone male Ocelot was snapped south of Tucson Arizona, in the Santa Rita Mountains last year it was cause for celebration and controversy. It turns out that this protected and endangered wildcat was photographed in an area where a Canadian based mining company had planned to build the US 3rd largest open-pit copper mine.

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The male ocelot, photographed on May 14, is the fifth to be documented in Arizona over the past five years.Source Tuscon.com

The Ocelot was photographed twice in 2014 with a remote-sensor camera operated by the University of Arizona, the same camera that had also taken pictures of an adult male Jaguar near the mine site.

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The Santa Rita jaguar…the only known jaguar in the US roams the Santa Rita mountains, a large portion of which would be destroyed by the Rosemont Copper project.Source Rosemont Mine Truth

The discovery of the Ocelot in April prompted the US Fish and Wildlife Service to reexamine its 2013 biological opinion that the Rosemont Copper mine would not unduly harm habitat for endangered species in the area, including the only known Jaguar in the USsource LA Times

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Conservationists fear a proposed copper mine would destroy important habitat for this endangered ocelot, jaguar in southern Arizona. (US Fish and Wildlife Service / University of Arizona) – Source LA Times

In the article published by the LA Times conservationists led by the Center for Biological Diversity based in Tucson said they have their minds made up. “The science is clear,” said Randy Serraglio, a spokesman for the center. “The Rosemont mine cannot coexist with Jaguars, Ocelots and other endangered wildlife whose survival is on the line. Beyond that, we may be witnessing the results of the good work the USFWS has done by making it illegal to kill jaguars and Ocelots,” he said. “Why would we want to turn our backs on that?”

A final decision has not been made, but the Rosemont copper mine faces obvious opposition for the devastating impacts it would have on wildlife, the water, air and the economy. A Facebook community called Rosemont Mine Truth was established and aims to provide the facts, source documents and truth behind this project.

Only time will tell if this Ocelot will be able to help put a stop to the Rosemont mine project and in a story of little cat vs big mine, I know exactly who I’m rooting for.

The Dwarf Leopard

In honor of the upcoming Ocelot Conservation Day, which is celebrated in the US on March 7, I will be dedicating this weeks posts to the beautiful little wild cat which is also known as The Dwarf Leopard.

The Ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) is part of the genus Leopardus, which also includes the  Margay, and is twice the size of the average house cat.

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All of the cats in Leopardus genus are spotted, lithe, and small, with the Ocelot being the biggest.

The fur of a Ocelot resembles that of a clouded leopard or jaguar and was once regarded as particularly valuable. As a result, in the 1970’s and 80’s hundreds of thousands of Ocelot were killed for their fur.

Appearance

  • Coat pattern can be cream, reddish-brown or grayish marked with black rosettes
  • The chain like blotches are bordered with black but have a lighter colored center and run the entire length of the cat
  • The underside is white and single and white spots, called ocelli, appear on the backs of the ears
  • Two black stripes line both sides of the face, and the long tail is banded by black

Behavior

  • Mostly nocturnal and very territorial, Ocelots sometimes fight to the death for territory which they mark with urine
  • They are solitary, usually only coming together to mate but may occasionally share a spot during the day with another Ocelot of the same-sex as they rest in trees or other dense foliage
  • The Ocelot hunts during the night and eats mostly small animals including lizards, frogs, crabs and birds. Fish along with rodents, rabbits, and opossums form the largest part of the diet
  • Studies suggest that Ocelots follow and find prey via odor trails
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The ocelot also has very good vision, including night vision

Breeding and Babies

  • Ocelots typically breed only once every other year but mating can occur at any time of year
  • After mating, the female will find a den in a cave in a rocky bluff, a hollow tree, or a dense (preferably thorny) thicket
  • Usually a single kitten is born, after about 79 to 82 days, with its eyes closed and a thin covering of hair
  • Ocelot kittens grow quite slowly and do not open their eyes for 15 to 18 days and begin to leave the den at three months
  • They can remain with their mother for up to two years, before leaving to establish their own territory
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Small litter size and relative infrequency of breeding make the Ocelot particularly vulnerable to population loss – ImageUSFWS Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge

Territory and Range

  • They are found in tropical forest, thorn forest, mangrove swamps and savanna
  • The Ocelot is distributed over South and Central America (It is thought to be extinct in Uruguay) and Mexico, but have been reported as far north as Texas and in Trinidad, in the Caribbean
  • The Ocelot once inhabited areas of the Gulf Coast of south and eastern Texas, and could be found in Arizona, Louisiana, and Arkansas
  • In the United States, it currently ranges only in several small areas of dense thicket in South Texas and is rarely sighted in Arizona
  • An Ocelot was photographed in the mountains of  Arizona in 2009, the first evidence of the felines presence in the state

Challenges and Threats  – Small litter size, high infant mortality, deforestation and habitat destruction

  • In the US most surviving Texas Ocelots are in the shrub-lands at or near the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge where only 30-35 are estimated to remain
  • The Ocelots continued presence in the US is questionable, as a result largely of the introduction of dogs, being shot by ranchers, the loss of habitat, and the introduction of highways
  • Young male Ocelots are frequently killed by cars during their search for a territory

Listed in 1982 as endangered, the Ocelot is protected by the Endangered Species Act and is also listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Commercial trade of CITES Appendix I species is strictly prohibited – source USFWS

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Ocelots can live for up to 20 years in captivity

Pets

  • Sadly like many wildcats, Ocelots had been, and may still likely be, kept as pets
  • Salvador Dalí frequently traveled with his pet ocelot Babou, even bringing the cat aboard the luxury ocean liner SS France
  • Musician Gram Parsons kept an ocelot as a pet in the back yard swimming pool area of his family’s Winter Haven Florida home in the mid 60’s

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Fun Fact: The Moche people of ancient Peru worshipped animals and often depicted the ocelot in their art

Source – Feline Conservation Federation