How far we’ve come. Sadly.

When I revisited ocelot conservation in Texas recently, five years after my initial article, my first reaction was “has it come to this?” I didn’t just mean for ocelots. I meant for wildlife conservation in general.

That’s because back in the day, when I started my career, biodiversity protection focused on creating protected areas and saving habitat. Habitat loss had supplanted indiscriminate killing as the main threat to wild flora and fauna (at least on land), the effects of climate change were still mostly in the future (although much closer than anyone realized), and the Amazon rainforest remained largely intact.

Today, as my recent article on ocelot conservation in Scientific American illustrates, we’ve moved on to desperate measures to save species. If the U.S. Endangered Species Act is the emergency room for creatures otherwise headed for extinction, assisted reproduction is the intensive care unit – the place where the most invasive techniques are applied to individual animals to save a population or an entire species. And assisted reproduction is where we have landed to save ocelots in America.

I won’t recount the details here  – you can read them in the article (and hopefully future articles as I continue to follow this story). But in general, assisted reproduction refers to applying technologies such as artificial insemination, embryo transplants, cloning and more to help endangered wildlife produce more offspring in a way that reduces the loss of genetic diversity within species, thus increasing their chances for long term survival.

Road sign outside Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Cars are the top cause of ocelot deaths in Texas. Photo credit Amy Mathews Amos.

Visionary scientists such as Kurt Benirschke at the San Diego Zoo and Michael Soule‘, the founder of conservation biology, predicted the need for such desperate measures back in the 1970’s and 80’s, even before many of those technologies existed. But they certainly weren’t on my radar. Instead, I watched conservation science progress from the so-called hook and bullet focus when I was in college (determining how many deer to shoot and fish to catch before populations of these animals declined), to the science of conservation biology (examining what we need to do to protect vulnerable species beyond game animals). As threats to the global biosphere intensified, conservation biology focused not just on maintaining protected areas and protected habitat, but on creating corridors – slivers of habitat connecting one protected area or population of species to others across crowded, human-dominated landscapes. Perhaps this way, the thinking went, species could migrate to better climes as the planet warmed, and isolated islands of wildlife could maintain their genetic heartiness by finding mates in diverse locales.

But it seems the planet has become too crowded for even corridors in many (most?) places. And human priorities clearly lie elsewhere. Translocation of actual endangered animals became the next step: if wildlife can’t move themselves across hostile landscapes to maintain viable populations, biologists will move them instead. Intervention became key to saving species, tranquilizing animals, checking their health, and moving them to new locations hoping they would thrive (they didn’t always). Captive breeding programs and reintroduction to the wild went hand-in-hand with this approach (think black-footed ferrets and Mexican wolves). In short, saving species began to involve a lot of manhandling.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists examine a Mexican wolf before transferring her for future breeding. Photo credit Amy Mathews Amos.

Most biologists seem to assume that the conservation benefits of these interventions are worth the cost to individual animals; the stress of a move, the constraints of captivity, the invasiveness of insemination, and even, sometimes, death.

Environmental writer Emma Marris questioned this assumption in her award-winning 2021 book Wild Souls. With meticulous research and thoughtful honesty, she probes what humans owe individual sentient animals (with brains and emotions similar to your dog or cat) from an ethical standpoint as we pursue our own desires to preserve species. I’ve always struggled with philosophy, and confess I found this a circular read. Not surprisingly, she fails to reach any clean, clear-cut conclusions. But she does reiterate perhaps the most obvious answer; the place where this all started:

By simply reducing the human footprint and creating more space for other species, we can let them sort out many conflicts and solve many problems on their own rather than having to intensively manage them…Simply put, the more room animals have, the less micromanaging we will have to do and the easier our ethical decision-making will be.”

Creating more spaces doesn’t just mean more protected areas or public land, although those remain essential. In fact, protecting biodiversity can’t and shouldn’t rely only on these places. People are a part of nature, Marris reminds us. The more Western societies learn about Indigenous cultures, the more we appreciate how integrated humans have been in shaping landscapes and wildlife for millennia – often in positive ways. And, I will add, with eight billion human mouths to feed, we must make working landscapes – farms, ranches, yards, even parking lots – work for biodiversity as well.

With ocelots, that’s what the East Foundation is trying to do: make a working cattle ranch, work for an endangered wild cat. Unfortunately, corridors to the ranch from wildlife refuges and larger ocelot populations in Mexico increasingly look infeasible. And so it has come to this; artificial insemination of zoo ocelots with sperm from wild Texas ocelots. Philosophical questions aside, I’m hoping for kittens. I’ll keep you posted.

Wild ocelot kitten born on Yturria ranchland donated by Frank Yturria for ocelot conservation. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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