Published: November 2005


Ocelot In Tree

Following the Stealth Hunter

Six months on the trail of ocelots yields just six quick sightings. Why are these shy predators so tough to spot?

By Chris Carroll
National Geographic Staff
Photograph by Christian Ziegler

It's the end of the dry season in Panama, and the jungle is parched. On a forest floor thickly littered with dead leaves, photographer Christian Ziegler stands perfectly still, listening intently to the beeping of the radio-tracking device his assistant is operating.

Nearby, perhaps only 30 feet away, an ocelot is on the move, according to the receiver's constantly shifting pattern of beeps. Yet despite the crackling ground cover and the fact that this feline predator can be as large as a medium-size dog, Ziegler can't see it or hear its steps. His human senses have been foiled by the cat, whose spotted coat helps it blend into the dappled light of the forest. The receiver gradually goes quiet as the ocelot departs, unseen and unheard.

Ziegler later comments, with mixed frustration and awe, "In six months I probably saw them with my own eyes only six times usually for a split second as they flitted away."

The stealth of this species (Leopardus pardalis) and the heavy forest cover in which it often lives its range spanning the Americas from south of the Amazon Basin north to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas make it tough on scientists trying to observe ocelots in the wild. "You can' sit in the Land Rover with binoculars like you're watching a lion stalk on a savanna," says Roland Kays, curator of mammals at the New York State Museum. He is studying interactions between the ocelots of Panama's Barro Colorado Island (BCI) and the cat's favorite prey a seven-pound rodent called the agouti.

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