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.