Arizona’s Last Ocelot Faces A Life in Isolation

an ocelot looks out from between two rocks
Earth Island Journal
Arizona, United States
Arizona’s Last Ocelot Faces A Life in Isolation

On January 7, barely two weeks before the inauguration of Joe Biden and the day after the assault on the Capitol by his predecessors’ supporters, over 2,000 miles away, wildlife ecologist Dr. Aletris Neils was scrolling through photos she’d retrieved from a trail camera in the Huachuca Mountains in southeastern Arizona. At home in Tucson, she and her husband, Chris Bugbee, an experienced ecologist as well, grew increasingly anxious as she scrolled.

Their anxiety grew with each passing empty time-lapsed photo. Sometimes the wind would trigger the camera sensors, sometimes it was rain, most times it was nothing at all. All they could see was just a branch, some rocks and stillness. Neils and Bugbee forced themselves not to think of the possibility of another victim of the Trump administration’s interventions at the border. Hope was fleeting until the end of the footage when a rare cat crept into focus. It was looking warily at the camera, traversing up a rocky slope to a pool of melting ice from a recent storm. The couple screamed with excitement.

an ocelot caught on camera
Ecologists Aletris Neils and Chris Bugbee had little hope of a sighting, but at the end of the camera trap footage, a rare cat crept into focus / Credit: Conservation Catalyst.

It was the ocelot they had been anxiously looking for, the one they affectionately called “Lil’ Jefe.” Their two kids, still up way past their bedtime, put on their spotted cat outfits and homemade ocelot masks and the whole family danced around their living room.

Lil’ Jefe, or “Little Boss,” was given the name by Manzo Elementary students in Tucson as part of a contest in 2019. Four years prior to that, a Tucson middle school won a nationwide naming contest for a lone jaguar living in Arizona’s Santa Rita mountains. They had named him El Jefe, or “The Boss,” a nod to his apex predator status and Mexican heritage.

two kids in masks
After Lil’ Jefe showed up on the screen, Neils’ and Bugbee’s kids, who were up way past their bedtime, put on their spotted cat outfits and homemade ocelot masks and the whole family danced around their living room / Credit: Aletris Neils. 

The word “ocelot” itself reflects the cat’s long presence in the region: it comes from the Aztec word tlalocelot or “field tiger.” Images of the ocelot can be discerned in many of the Aztec glyphs in Mexico, as can their fellow, significantly larger cat, the jaguar.

Lil’ Jefe, estimated to be 12-years-old, is well-adapted to this dense terrain. The lean, medium-sized cat moves unnoticed through pointleaf manzanita, confusing potential predators with its snake-like ringed tail that’s a third of his body length. His coat is a balanced mix of gold and white with rosette prints evenly distributed throughout his back and shoulders. Adding to this camouflage are the two charcoal racing stripes running from eyes to round ears and splattered raindrop sized blotches in between. These unique marks are Lil Jefe’s signature.

The ocelot population, once abundant in the high Sonora desert, has plummeted as hunters sought their fur and housing expanded into their territory. In 1982, they were designated an endangered species.

Now they face a new threat: Lil’ Jefe is likely one of the last ocelots in Arizona, cut off from his fellow cats by what Donald Trump trumpeted as his major achievement as president — the construction of a border wall between the US and Mexico. The wall has bisected almost perfectly what has long been the terrain of male ocelots — southern Arizona and New Mexico — from the terrain of female ocelots, most of them concentrated about 40 miles south, on the other side of the border.

Researchers found an ocelot breeding ground in El Aribabi Conservation Ranch located just over 40 miles southeast of the Nogales Port of Entry into Mexico. The 10,000-acre ranch is nestled in the Sierra Azul mountains with the Río Cocóspera running through it. In an effort to maintain the bioregion in its natural state, the property owner, Carlos Robles Elias, removed most of his cows and converted his ranch into a protected refuge. He often hosts scientists, researchers, and group retreats to offset costs. The El Aribabi terrain and vegetation is similar to those found in Lil’ Jefe’s territory, thorn scrub with oak and pine-oak woodlands in the mountains.

The researchers used data from eight years of camera trapping at the ranch to detect 18 ocelots, both males and females. The study suggests Rancho El Aribabi is the northernmost known breeding ground for female ocelots, and a likely source of the ocelots that move into southeastern Arizona, Lil’ Jefe’s territory. Neils thinks so too. The continuity of landscape from the breeding ground to the Huachuca Mountains is important for the small wildcat’s survival. The similar dense vegetation that provides cover to ambush prey also offers it cover from predators.

The Trump administration's $15 billion wall construction was touted as covering 453 miles of the border. Most of the construction, though, was upgrading existing vehicle and pedestrian barriers. In parts, though, as in the Huachuca Mountains, where the ocelot roams, the construction is an actual wall: a 30-foot-high steel bollard style barrier. The diameter of the bollards are approximately 6” x 6” with four-inch gaps, too small to allow animals like the ocelot through.

This wall stretches quarter mile at the south end of the Huachuca segment of the border. Before, the boundary used to be delineated by a pedestrian barrier. The area, where migrants almost never crossed due to the rough and remote terrain, has now been cleared of brush, leaving animals like Lil’ Jefe without cover, out in the open.

Neils says that among ocelots, migratory routes are passed down for generations. When there are obstacles, the cats do not instinctively walk along the wall to an opening — say one-fourth of a mile to the right or left — but simply turn back. In addition, the clearing of brush from the land has taken away ocelots’ ability to blend in with the landscape, and thus they are more vulnerable to predators, like the mountain lion and jaguar. “It’s very dangerous,” Neils’ says, “and extremely unlikely that Lil’ Jefe would come across these vast open areas, without any cover.”

Ocelot habitat
In the Huachuca Mountains, where the ocelot roams, the border wall is a 30-foot-high steel bollard style barrier with gaps too small to allow animals like the ocelot through / Credit: Wild Trees via Flickr.

Given this is one of the most biodiverse regions in the US southwest — home to jaguars, bears, mountain lions, coyotes, and smaller mammals — many other species’ migratory patterns have also been disrupted by the wall. A previous barrier of fenceposts and barbed wire at least permitted small animals to migrate back and forth through its gaps. But with the new wall’s increased height and barely four-inch gaps, that’s not possible any longer.

“The only animal that is NOT stopped by the wall are humans,” Neils says. “The wall stops everything else.”

Neils remembers checking the trail camera in the fall of 2020, and hearing border patrol, blasting, and seeing heavy machinery in the footage. By the end of November, when Trump lost the election, Neils said border wall construction increased to a 24-hour operation. Heavy machinery rattled the earth. “I can’t imagine what it was like to Lil’ Jefe’s ears. We know cats can detect that infrasound.”

The pandemic also contributed to the accelerated construction, Neils says. “If anything, they were able to get away with so much more, because there weren’t any monitoring groups.” The lack of accountability and oversight is evident throughout the construction zones. On a recent trip along the perimeter of the wall, there was litter everywhere: severed cacti, steel piles, plastic and wire used for explosives, and trash left behind by construction crews.

Instead of transporting water from outside sources to mix concrete for the wall, construction crews pumped water from Quitobaquito Springs in July 2020. The springs are sacred to the Tohono O’odham tribe and home to three endangered species, the sonoyta pupfish, Sonoran mud turtles, and the Quitobaquito spring snail. Protesters and activists tried to stop the crews on many occasions but were met with force by Border Patrol agents, local sheriffs, and park police.

The springs are drying up and at the lowest level in at least a decade. The wall works in both directions: Now animals from the south can no longer get access to a critical water source to their north — a factor becoming ever more critical as climate change delivers hotter temperatures and more extreme drought periods to the region.

Arizona already averages more than 50 dangerous heat days a year, the second highest in the nation. By 2050, the state is projected to see almost 80 such days a year. Additionally, the severity of widespread summer drought is projected to more than triple. These conditions will increase the intensity and frequency of wildfires. The border wall will trap animals trying to escape fires from the Arizona side and stop parched animals desperate for cooler temperatures and water access from Mexico.

Neils admits that she had given up hope in finding Lil’ Jefe. Then he showed up in that photo on that January day. “He showed up exactly when we needed him to. He showed us how little we know and made us humble again.” She can’t help but get emotional.

On April 30, President Biden announced the cancellation of all DoD funded border wall contracts. This means wall construction has stopped across Arizona. It’s too late, however, for Lil’ Jefe who remains stranded on the Arizona side.

Lil’ Jefe is an elder statesman with robust jowls. Though his territory has shrunk, fragmented by the wall, Neils says he will likely live out his remaining days in Arizona. She is unsure of his offspring; she hopes he fathered kittens with females in Sonora prior to the wall’s construction.

Neils plans to work with other Mexican researchers to collar a couple of ocelots with tracking devices to gain a deeper understanding of how constraints created by the wall have impacted ocelot behavior and migratory patterns. Meanwhile, her trail cameras remain in place on the Arizona side. She and her family were thrilled when Lil Jefe made another appearance in early April. Following their new tradition, the family danced together when they saw him on camera.


This story was produced as part of the Earth Journalism Scholars program, an ongoing collaboration between Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. It was originally published in the Earth Island Journal on 8 July 2021. 

Banner image: A captive ocelot at the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson. Once abundant in the high Sonora desert, ocelot populations plummeted as hunters sought their fur and housing expanded into their territory. In 1982, they were designated an endangered species / Credit: Frank Camp via Flickr.

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