Roger Funston

© Copyright 2024 by Roger Funston

Image by Ronald Plett from Pixabay
Image by Ronald Plett from Pixabay

We walk a six mile transect through dry tropical rainforest, over hills, valleys, steep canyons, setting and baiting live traps in late afternoon, January 2001. It is the dry season and the vegetation has a droughty look that doesnít look at all tropical. In the morning, we will check the traps, trying to solve the puzzle of where ocelots prefer to prowl.

Live traps are buried along transects, with only the opening exposed. The traps have two compartments, one for the chicken used as live bait to attract the ocelot and the other for holding the trapped ocelot.

Ocelots are medium-sized cats weighing between 18 and 35 pounds. They prefer areas of dense vegetative cover with a high density of prey such as small mammals, birds, lizards and snakes. They prowl from dusk until dawn, using their sharp vision and hearing to hunt. Ocelots are agile climbers and leapers that escape their predators by climbing into trees. During the day they rest in trees, in dens below large trees and in other cool, sheltered sites on the ground. This is why the live traps are buried in the ground beside trees using live chickens as bait.

Most days, the traps are empty but some mornings we are lucky. Excited to see you but saddened that it must be through a cage. You are a magnificent creature. When we approach you are agitated and growl. We push a big stick with a syringe at the end into the cage, inject you with a tranquilizer and wait for you to slumber.

We touch your fur as you slumber. You have a beautiful, soft, multi-layered tawny colored fur. The spots on your head and legs are small. The markings on your back, cheeks and flanks are larger closed circles and stripes. A few black stripes run from back of your neck to the tail. The front of your neck and undersides are white. Your ears are rounded, with a large white spot. This camouflage helps you blend into the forest while you hunt and helps protect you during the the day when you are sleeping. You have a distinct wild animal odor and release this scent to mark territory.

We record your measurements and health and document your spotting pattern, unique for each of you. We put a radio collar on you to track your movement, wait for the tranquilizer to wear off, and watch you groggily awaken. After we open the cage, you stagger off at first but soon regain your senses. Wildlife cameras have been set up across the project area. We hope to be able to identify you later from the photos we have taken of your spotting pattern as you roam.

Ocelots are solitary animals that do not migrate but rather maintain a fixed territory. The size of the territory depends on the availability of prey. In areas with less rainfall and further from the equator the territories are larger.

The study area is the Chamela Cuixmala Bioregional Preserve (the preserve), a UNESCO world heritage site on the Pacific Ocean coast about 100 miles south of Puerto Vallarta in the Mexican state of Jalisco. It was established in 1993 by Presidential decree. The preserve is located in a dry tropical rainforest. There are only remnants of dry tropical rainforests on the Mexican Pacific coast, which is highly fragmented due to human activity.

The Jalisco dry tropical rainforest is located at latitude 19.5 degrees north. The dry season is between November and June, with virtually all of the 30 inches of average annual precipitation falling during the wet season. Dry tropical rainforests have mostly broad-leaf trees with canopies less dense than equatorial tropical rainforests. The trees lose their leaves during the dry season. These extreme rainfall conditions impose much stress on the flora and fauna.

There was not much information on the size of territories or distribution of ocelots within the preserve. This area of isolated, beautiful Pacific coastline was also beginning to attract tourists and there was commercial interest in developing more resorts to cater to these tourists. To address these issues, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) was tasked by the Mexican government with identifying which areas within the 32,000 acre preserve are the most important habitats for sustaining the ocelot population. Iím one in a long line of American scientists assisting UNAM with this study. Our Co-Principal Investigators are late twenty something PhD researchers educated in the United States, who have returned to Mexico to study ocelots.

We settle into the Latin American work rhythm, checking the traps after a quick breakfast, and usually finish up around noon. Then we have a few hours to relax before the big meal of the day around 2pm. Siesta time until 4pm and then into the field to set and bait traps until dark.

We live in a hostel by the ocean. Some days, I walk along the beach between 12 and 2 pm. There are small beverage stands along the beach that sell Pacifico. I sip beer and watch the waves. On days when it is my turn, I feed the chickens and clean out the coops. A local women comes in to prepare the main meal, always fabulous authentic Mexican food such as tamales, mole chicken, posole and menudo. She leaves a small supper for us when we return in the evening.

The preserve is an important refugia for tropical biodiversity. Endemic species, adapted to these extreme rainfall conditions are threatened by habitat destruction due to logging, illegal hunting, tourist infrastructure and wildlife trafficking, primarily parrots. Twenty-three years later, the preserve is still faces these threats. But scientific studies continue, with an ever evolving Management Plan that has an intensive conservation focus.

For millennia you and your ancestors have lived and died in this dry tropical rainforestSurely we can take the time to understand your harsh but fragile world, help you survive into the future and leave the best spots for you before taking the rest to carve up for roads and resorts.

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