Saturday, December 16, 2017

Ocelot makes a comeback


THRILLED: Scientist and zoology curator at the Department of Life Sciences, UWI, Mike Rutherford. —Photo courtesy Mike Rutherford

Mark Fraser

IN the early hours of one morning in the closing days of May a very special visitor stalked the grounds off the Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC). Camera images would prove that what looked like an oversized cat with beautiful spotted fur was none other than an ocelot.

In one particularly eerie yet mesmerising shot a juvenile ocelot stands motionless on top a rock, its eyes which look like two bright flourescent white dots are fixed straight ahead — his perfect night vision has found something and he’s ready to pounce. At first glance one might assume that the picture was taken somewhere in the Amazon maybe even on an African safari, actually the shot and several others like it were taken in the Arima Valley and in the protected grounds of the AWNC.

Cameras had been set up on the trails at the Asa Wright Nature Centre since October 2013 and the idea was to try and capture images of as many different animals as possible and try to get some idea of how common or abundant they are, explained scientist and zoology curator at the Department of Life Sciences at The University of the West Indies (UWI) Mike Rutherford. The cameras were originally bought by the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists’ Club (TTFNC) using funds from the Arima Valley Bioblitz 2013 (funding came from First Citizens bank), he added.

“After the bioblitz was over I decided that we might as well keep using them and the grounds at AWNC seemed an ideal place,”said Rutherford.

The initiative is a joint project between the AWNC, the TTFNC and The UWI Zoology Museum.

Rutherford uses five fairly basic cameras, two cameras are normally set up at each site. Sometimes Rutherford sets up one to take pictures and the other to take video clips. They are checked every six to eight weeks to retrieve the images and replace batteries if necessary. After eight weeks, one camera alone will yield as many as 3,000 shots and sorting through that many images takes a while but the rewards are worth it, said Rutherford.

“It is always a thrill to sit and go through the photos from the cameras as you never know what you are going to get,” he said.

When Rutherford first set eyes on that picture of the juvenile ocelot in plain view, he was sitting on the verandah at AWNC with fellow board members and was able to share the shots with them and other guests.

“If there had only been one sighting in all the time the cameras have been out I would call it lucky but now that we have had several separate sightings over several weeks I think that the ocelots are possibly more abundant than I first thought,” he said.

Ocelots are mostly nocturnal and they aren’t known to hunt in packs, in fact according to Rutherford, they tend to be solitary animals.

“They do seem to be very elusive and wary of humans. One of the guides who worked up at Asa Wright for the last 25 years has only seen them three times (twice on the road at night) and he is out in the forest a lot. With their excellent hearing and eyesight they would be aware of nearby humans or dogs long before we would be aware of them and they would have ample time to hide away or climb a tree to safety,”said Rutherford.

The ocelot went from being worshipped by the Moche people of ancient Peru, according to Wikipedia, to being hunted and poached for its fur. But unlike its counterparts — tigers and lions whose populations are rapidly decreasing as a result of wanton poaching, the ocelot is the comeback cat.

The ocelot was classified as a vulnerable endangered species from 1972 to 1996 but by 2008 it was rated under ‘least concern’ by the IUCN Red list. There is still so very little information about ocelots but given the habitat that’s available to them, Rutherford suspects their population in Trinidad is in the low hundreds.

The Wikipedia article states that historical records indicate that ocelots once existed in Tobago but were rooted out.

The information available to experts like Rutherford may be scarce, still the ocelot sightings in the Northern Range are very encouraging, he said.

“It is dangerous to read too much into such a few sightings but we can say that they are obviously breeding, that they are not afraid of using human-made trails and that in safe places like the AWNC they have established territories,”he noted.

“Other people with trail cameras have recorded ocelots from near Brasso Seco, the Aripo Savanna and the Victoria-Mayaro forests and I have also got a record of a dead ocelot from Tucker Valley in Chaguaramas so they are widespread throughout the island and in different habitats.”

This news, while encouraging, should not be used to justify going out into our forests and hunting everything in sight.

“These cameras have been getting a few images over a period of many months from a small protected area so it would be foolish to say that all the forests are like this all over the country,” Rutherford cautioned.

“Also neither the deer nor the quenk were seen in any photos and these are the species that are under the most hunting pressure and if they aren’t to be found in a protected area then it is even less likely they will be found in the more accessible forests. We also don’t have any historical records taken in the same way to allow a comparison.”

So let’s continue to protect our wildlife and the forests they call home. But for now, it’s a big hooray for the comeback cat — the elusive and remarkable ocelot.