As I have said more than once, one of the things I love about doing this blog is that I can contact experts in all sorts of fields and ask them all kinds of questions. I am very excited to present this Q&A with Dr. Arturo Caso, the world’s leading expert on the jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi). However, as you’ll soon find out, Arturo has worked with cats of all sizes and in several different countries. Thank you, Arturo, for taking the time to do this Q&A and for all the work you do for wildlife and wild lands!
How did you become interested in wildlife and felids in particular?
My father was a hunter and he used to buy all kind of books and mags about wild animals, so I grow up reading this material. I did hunt myself, but my feeling always was that every animal I hunted it was one less of the population, so I stopped hunting when I was 18 and turned to wildlife photography instead. Honestly, at the beginning I wanted to study birds of prey since I used to do falconry, but I met Mike Tewes in a trip to Texas and he was really interested in the area where my family had a ranch on the Tamaulipan coast. Mike asked me about ocelots and jaguarundis and when I told him that we used to spot jaguarundis frequently in the Ranch, he offered me to enter the M.S. wildlife program at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. I was hooked with cats as soon as I saw a captured ocelot at Yturria Ranch in Texas when I was getting trained by a researcher from Spain who was doing a post doc. Also, I read the books “Jaguar” by Alan Rabinowitz and “Cry of the Kalahari” by Delia and Mark Owens, who I think influenced my interest on doing research and conservation on cats.
Can you discuss your work with ocelots in Mexico and Texas?
In May of1991, I started my field work in Tamaulipas as a part of my M.S. program. I did a complete year in the field where I radio-collared 8 ocelots but just 3 jaguarundis. This capture success with jaguarundis wasn’t a real surprise because in the only other study about jgauraundis that was done in Belize, with similar methodologies, just 4 individuals where captured in a 2 year field period. After I finished my Masters I continued doing field work in different areas of Tamaulipas, Veracruz, and Nuevo Leon states and after about 20 years of field work I’ve captured more than 50 different ocelots and 22 jaguarundis. Most of the data I’ve obtained was used on my PhD dissertation and on scientific publications. The main objective was to find if ocelots and jaguarundis may coexist in the same area to try to explain the “ocelot effect” that I’ll explain in one of the next questions.
Has the construction of the border wall had a negative impact on ocelots in Texas?.
Any barrier that stops the free movement of wildlife for sure will affect, however I have to say that because there’s not much habitat available on the Mexican side, there are not recent reports of ocelots close to the border. Besides, there are also no confirmed recent reports of ocelots close to the border in the Texan side. Santa Ana NWF refuge used to have a female in the 90’s but after her collar stopped working there are no recent reports of ocelots there even that the USFWS has set remote sensing cameras frequently at the refuge and along the border. The northernmost records of ocelots in Tamaulipas are about 100 mi south of the border, so it will be almost impossible for an ocelot to reach the border that’s why translocation could be an option.
Is that option [translocating ocelots] still on the table and what is your opinion of it?
Yes it is, however some considerations should be taken. I think first the ocelot population in Texas should be studied deeply because really researchers and the USFWS do not have a clear idea of how many ocelots are there. This is mostly because of lack of access into private lands of Texas that ocelots may inhabit. Also, it is important that before any translocation of ocelots into Texas, the problem of road-kills should be minimized; creating wildlife underpasses or set even speed bumps on highways in areas where ocelots have been road-killed. Another issue is ocelot habitat restoration- at this time there are not efforts to restore ocelot habitat in Texas. All the efforts are to restore habitat for other wildlife species, however ocelots need a different (thick) structure and today there is not one acre of ocelot habitat restored. Therefore, attempts to move ocelots from Mexico into Texas should not happen until these issues have been corrected.
Switching to another small cat, can you tell us about your work with jaguarundis in Mexico?
There are just three studies in the world about jaguarundis, one in Belize, one in Brazil, and mine in Mexico, so there is not much information about the species. I started my field study in May 1991 as a parts of my M.S. field work. After 1 year I captured just 3 individuals. It took me around 20 yrs of intermittent field work to capture 21 jaguarundis.
In a couple of your papers you mention that jaguarundis are very difficult to trap. Do you have any ideas as to why that is?
Yes, they are very difficult to capture and I think this is because jaguarundis are very wary (nervous) cats. Even in captivity they are rarely calm.
Aside from the obvious difference in color, are there any differences between the red and gray morphs of the jaguarundi?
No, they are the same animal and actually in one same litter you can see animals of both color phases. However, the grayish phase is the most common. I ran a test of trying to find if jaguarundis of different color used the habitat in a different way, but I couldn’t find and significant differences.
Can you explain “the ocelot effect” in relation to jaguarundis? Is it a case of avoidance or do the two species come into direct conflict?
Brazilian researcher Tadeu D Oliveira, came with a publication that said that in areas with ocelot high density other small cats such as margays, tigrinas and jaguarundis were found in lower densities. For my PhD analysis I tested locations of both ocelots and jaguarundis that I tracked at the same time and found that there were local avoidance between ocelots and jaguarundis, especially with male ocelots. The mean distance that jaguarundis kept from ocelots was 2 km. Also, I did a study on margays at El Cielo biosphere reserve in Tamaulipas, Mexico and in the areas where we found margays, ocelots were not present. More research should be done on this issue, but I can say now that yes “the ocelot effect” exists.
Due in part to their diurnal nature, jaguarundis were thought to be quite common throughout their range. Recent research has led the IUCN to state “it is likely that no conservation units, with the probable exception of the mega-reserves of the Amazon basin could sustain long-tern viable populations of jaguarundis.” Can you talk about this?
Yes, I’m reviewing those statements with Tadeu De Oliveira who is a Brazilian with experience with jaguarundis and other species and is the one who made that statement. To tell you the truth there is not enough information now to establish what is really the situation of jaguarundis in their range and it is better to say that, that to say that their populations are stable everywhere. Honestly, there is not enough information.
During your research did you find any difference in the attitude of a trapped ocelots and jaguarundis? Was one species more difficult to anesthetize and process?
Yes, ocelots are calmer when captured, especially on re-captures, seems that they remember that it wasn’t such a bad deal. With jaguarundis, things are different since when they saw us approaching the trap site they reacted very nervously.
Of the small felids you have studied, do you have a favorite species?
Yes, the jaguarundi because they are rare and different in every way.
What about a favorite or memorable individual that you came to know?
The first jaguarundi I captured and tracked was my favorite. It was an old female but I had the opportunity to track her when she had a litter and loved to watch her cubs. I tracked her for almost one year until I found her dead of apparently natural causes. It was a very sad moment when I found her like that.
You have done research in Africa on lions and leopards. What sort of research did you do?.
Yes, I did my research in East Central Tanzania, where no one had done cat studies. In Tanzania most of the time research is done in the north where the big national parks such as Serengeti and Tarangeri are. I did first a research on leopards from 2001-2003 and I was the first one that set a GPS collar on a leopard, with all kinds of problems because collars were big and they tend to fail all the time, but at least I got some scientific information. In 2012, I went back and did a study on lion and leopard but using non-invasive techniques such as call-in stations and remote-sensing cameras. The objective of both studies was to evaluate the population density of these species in game reserves.
How do you respond to people who don’t see the value of predators?
Most people like wild cats. Conflict arises when there is cattle predation caused by jaguars or cougars, that is when people start to think that they should get rid of them. My thoughts are always that cattle are not native and if this kind of “prey” is left unattended and there are big predators around, they will take advantage of it.
What are your future research goals? What else do you want to learn about?
At this time, I work for the Mexican federal government and I’m trying to develop programs that will support cats and other wildlife species. In Mexico, I have colleagues that are doing great work, especially with jaguars. What I would like to do in the future is to return to Tanzania, to get more data on lion and leopard since I still need more data to have a better study.
For readers who would like to support felid conservation, do you have any groups or programs you would suggest?
I think that for cat studies in Mexico the Comision of Areas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP) would be the best option since they support all the endangered wildlife studies in Mexico. Their web page is http://www.conanp.gob.mx.