Rewilding a Rescued Ocelot in Peru

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

While doing field research in Peru a few months ago, SEFS doctoral student Samantha Zwicker helped rescue a young male ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) in the remote community of Lucerna along the Piedras River.

Khan, rescued at a little more than a month old.

Khan, rescued at a little more than a month old.

Ocelots, also known as dwarf leopards, are elusive wild cats that are found in the jungle throughout South America, and even up through Mexico and the southern edge of Texas. This particular ocelot, named Khan, is now about 4.5 months old. He had been removed from his mother at about one month and was living in a box, malnourished and dehydrated. Once rescued, he immediately bonded with one of Sam’s research partners, Harry Turner, a herpetologist and photographer from the United Kingdom (and also a former soldier who served in Afghanistan). Harry has since made the rather incredible decision to spend the next year rewilding Khan and getting him ready for reintroduction back into the Amazon ecosystem on his own.

That task is daunting on multiple levels. First, an ocelot has never before been successfully reintroduced to the wild. Then there’s the fact that ocelots are nocturnal, which means Harry will be living alone in the jungle for a year (or longer), walking every night with Khan without light, and sleeping during the day. It’s a huge commitment, which might explain why all of the other ocelot experts Sam contacted passed on the challenge. But it also presents a tremendous opportunity to expand our knowledge of ocelot behavior, as well as a chance to assist future efforts to reintroduce South American cats at a larger scale.

As Khan’s “mom” for the past couple months, Harry has been slowly teaching him about the jungle, and about being an ocelot. Khan is already navigating the jungle and streams, swimming, prowling and catching prey, and becoming aware of the dangers the jungle can pose—including humans. In the next year, he will become fierce and agile, taking on prey in the trees and on the ground his size and larger.

Khan, now 4.5 months old, already growing and developing skills quickly.

Khan, now 4.5 months old, already growing and developing skills quickly.

One of Sam’s advisors, Renata Pitman, is a cat specialist and veterinarian who has been working in the region since 2000. She is advising the reintroduction project along with Miryam Quevedo and Jesus Lescano, two veterinarians with San Marcos University who will be teaching students in the field and monitoring Khan’s health. They’ve already secured permits to reintroduce Khan, and the plan is to release him eventually at a location that will be surrounded by conservation lands and away from any settlements.

In order to cover the costs of this unprecedented rewilding project, Sam has launched a crowdfunding page to support Harry through his year with Khan, from permits, veterinary and basic food needs to other equipment and resources to assist his “mothering” (such as bite-resistant gloves and sleeves). The baseline goal of $13,490 is designed to cover essentials for Harry and Khan, and there are higher-end goals, as well, if they raise enough money.

It’s a fascinating project, with potential to impact conservation and reintroduction efforts across the region, and we’ll be following their progress closely.

So good luck, Harry, for what will certainly be an unforgettable year for you and Khan!

Photos of Khan © Harry Turner; photo of Harry and Khan © Sam Zwicker.

Khan with his "mother," Harry Turner.

Khan with his “mother,” Harry Turner.

Grad Student Spotlight: Samantha Zwicker

by Karl Wirsing/SEFS

As the rest of Seattle hunkers down for the darkest days and months of the year, first-year doctoral student Samantha Zwicker has been gearing up for a far more tropical experience as she preps for her winter field season in the Peruvian Amazon.

Zwicker originally came to the University of Washington to study zoology, but she eventually tapped into her interest in ecosystem ecology with Program on the Environment and SEFS.

Zwicker originally came to the University of Washington to study zoology, but she eventually tapped into her interest in ecosystem ecology with Program on the Environment and SEFS.

Zwicker, who grew up nearby on Bainbridge Island, has been working with Professor Kristiina Vogt since her time as an undergrad at the University of Washington. She has explored various angles of ecosystem ecology, conservation and human impacts on the environment, and she earned her master’s last spring with a project in the same region of the Amazon.

Now, for her doctoral work, she has begun a large-scale study assessing the impact of roads on big cats—primarily jaguar (Panthera onca)—in the Las Piedras River basin, wedged roughly between Peru’s southeastern borders with Brazil and Bolivia.

New settlements and a growing population along the river have resulted in an influx of roads and other stresses on the ecosystem, from selective logging to the clearing of forestland for farming. Despite these land-use pressures, though, the rainforest is surrounded by several national parks and reserves, and it continues to foster an incredible diversity of flora and fauna, from giant anteaters and armadillos, to bush dogs and lowland tapirs, to jaguars and even the rare pacarana. “It’s the last intact tropical forest left in the Amazon, and it’s not protected right now,” says Zwicker.

A crucial part of preserving this habitat involves proving its ecological significance, but she says researchers don’t yet have the animal data to support a conservation strategy. So Zwicker has designed her doctoral program to see how roads are affecting animal movements—and in the process gather as much data as possible about the wildlife communities in the Las Piedras River basin.

Caught on Camera
Zwicker’s research team includes field assistants Harry Turner and Danielle Bogardus, and she also coordinates with several other organizations in the region, including ARCAmazon and Wild Forests and Fauna.

“One time while we were floating down the central stream on a pack raft, we saw a jaguar lying out in the sun on a log,” says Zwicker. “That was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Not all of her jaguar sightings come via camera trap, like this shot here.  “One time while we were floating down the central stream on a pack raft, we saw a jaguar lying out in the sun on a log,” says Zwicker. “That was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Her study area covers about 450 square kilometers, and the heart of her project involves setting up an extensive network of camera-traps along secondary road networks. These motion-sensitive cameras snap an image of animals that cross in front of their infrared sensors, which detect changes in heat energy. With 100 cameras currently placed, this non-invasive technique allows her to capture a cross-section of species in the jungle and also explore several variables, including tracking how, where and when animals are moving—using roads, streams, etc.—and how those movements relate to habitat qualities—forest density, proximity to human activity, illegal logging. (Check out the video below for a sample of the camera-trap footage of a jaguar!)

More broadly, Zwicker hopes the cameras will help her establish baseline population numbers for some of these secretive and largely unstudied animals. “This place is important and rich in biodiversity,” she says, “and I really want to contribute and show this using mammal frequencies and density estimates.”

One of the biggest challenges in setting up her study, actually, has been concealing the cameras well enough to make sure no one discovers and walks off with them, which was a real problem during her master’s research. This time she expanded her outreach in local communities to explain the work she’s doing, and she says she’s gotten a lot sneakier in placing the cameras. “We hid them well.”

It’s still early, but the camera-traps are already yielding exciting results. “It’s incredibly rare to see a pacarana,” says Zwicker. “The last known camera-trap photo was in 2004, but I’ve recently caught three different individuals.”

It’s still early, but the camera-traps are already yielding exciting results. “It’s incredibly rare to see a pacarana,” says Zwicker. “The last known camera-trap photo was in 2004, but I’ve recently caught three different individuals.”

As she continues to build her data set, Zwicker anticipates at least another three years of field work. She’s traveling to Peru twice a year, including three months in the summer and then almost two months in the winter (she’ll be heading down this January for most of the Winter Quarter). It’s no easy trek to reach this part of the Amazon, either. She flies into Puerto Maldonado, the entrance city to the jungle, and then has to take an eight-hour boat ride to haul her equipment up the river to her base site near the community of Lucerna—where, incredibly, her doctoral research covers only half of the work she’s doing in Peru.

Double Duty
Lucerna, after all, is also home to Hoja Nueva, a nonprofit that Zwicker cofounded a year ago to help local communities along the Las Piedras River develop more sustainable agricultural practices.

In addition to spurring new road development, population growth in the region has put increasing pressure on converting forests to farm land. And when the soil gets exhausted after three to five years, the cycle continues and accelerates the loss of forest habitat. So working with her partner Melanie Desch, who lives on site in Peru, Zwicker says they are promoting strategies to help these communities maintain their food production and healthy forest ecosystems.

As a master’s student, Zwicker earned the College of the Environment Graduate Dean’s Medalist Award and the SEFS Graduate Student of the Year Award. She’s also President of the Xi Sigma Pi Forestry Honor Society.

As a master’s student, Zwicker earned the College of the Environment Graduate Dean’s Medalist Award and the SEFS Graduate Student of the Year Award. She’s also President of the Xi Sigma Pi Forestry Honor Society.

Hoja Nueva now owns 30 hectares in the jungle, and they use part of that plot as an experimental farm, or chakra, to demonstrate permaculture practices, such as using biochar to prolong soil productivity. They’re currently growing 2,000 cacao trees, lime, lemon, mango, avocado, cotton, copazu, maracuya, yucca and uncucha, among many other trees, herbs and vegetables. Their goal is to provide a practical framework for communities to follow along the Las Piedras River, as well as in other lowland rainforest environments. “We’re hoping the Piedras will become a larger, protected area,” says Zwicker, “and we’re working with the communities because they can make the largest impact on the ground.”

When she’s not down in Peru, Zwicker takes the lead on fundraising in the Seattle area—including hosting a benefit in November that raised about $4,000, which they’ll use to build a more permanent lodge. Right now, their accommodations are fairly basic, and they’re hoping to add a composting toilet and water tower and generally build out infrastructure that could potentially house future SEFS students.

In short, there is plenty of work to do, and between her ambitious long-term goals and all the projects she’s managing year-round in Peru, Zwicker has committed just about every free minute she has. But if you’re lucky enough to steal a moment with her, make sure to ask about jaguars, or Hoja Nueva, or really anything related to her work in Peru. She has great stories to tell, and watching her beam with excitement and energy will have you ready to sign up as her field assistant next season!

Photos and video © Sam Zwicker.

Sam Zwicker: Camera Trap Video