MEXICO CITY – They call him “El Jefe”, he’s at least 12 years old and his crossing of the heavily guarded US-Mexico border sparked celebrations on both sides.
“El Jefe” – or “The Boss” – is one of the oldest recorded jaguars along the border, one of the few known to have crossed a border partially bordered by a wall and other infrastructure to stop the drug traffickers and migrants, and the one believed to have traveled the furthest, say conservationists from the Borderlands Linkages Initiative, a binational collaboration of eight conservation groups.
This assessment is based on photographs taken over the years. Jaguars can be identified by their spots, which serve as a sort of unique fingerprint.
The rare northern jaguar’s ability to cross the border suggests that despite increased barriers, there are still open corridors and if they are kept open “it is possible (to conserve) the jaguar population for the long term”, said Juan Carlos Bravo of Wildlands. Network, one of these groups in the initiative.
But some fear for the future of the jaguars. Although it was President Donald Trump’s administration that strengthened and expanded the border wall with Mexico, the Biden administration has announced plans to close four gaps between the US state of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora – the two states crossed by jaguars.
Conservationists don’t know how many jaguars there are in the Sierra Madre Occidental, but of the 176 that have been identified over two decades by the Northern Jaguar Project – another initiative group – only two others in more “El Jefe” are known to have crossed the border, Bravo said. In one case, conservationists do not know if the jaguar crossed the border alive or dead since only its skin was found.
The first photograph of “El Jefe” was taken by a hunter southeast of Tucson, Arizona in 2011, Bravo said. The jaguar became famous in Arizona and a local school named it “El Jefe”. Motion-sensor cameras installed in staging areas again photographed the jaguar in Arizona in 2012 and 2015.
Conservationists were stunned when they confirmed that a photograph taken by fellow coalition member Profauna last November in central Sonora was “El Jefe”. The discovery not only meant that the jaguars could still cross the border, but that other jaguars they had lost track of could also still be alive, the initiative said in a statement.
Hunted in the southwestern United States for rewards offered by the government to promote cattle ranching, they were thought to have disappeared from the United States by the end of the 20th century. Jaguar populations are currently concentrated on the Pacific coast of Mexico, southeastern Mexico, Central America, and central South America.
A sighting of jaguars in the United States in 1996 prompted studies that found a breeding ground in central Sonora.
NGOs have banded together to operate on both sides of the border to track the cats, create sanctuaries, understand where they have traveled and seek support from landowners in the United States and Mexico to protect them, Bravo said.
Besides the difficulty of determining where to place the cameras to record the animals and the subsequent analysis of the images, conservationists in Mexico face another problem: drug cartels.
“There is a presence of armed groups and drug traffickers” crossing the same isolated areas as the jaguars, Bravo said by telephone from Sonora. “It’s important to act carefully, to work with the people in the communities who tell us where not to go. … All of this makes things very, very complicated.
The border is the main challenge for hopes of repopulating the American Southwest with jaguars, with walls preventing the movement of these animals as well as the American antelope, black bear and Mexican wolf, Bravo said. . Light towers and roads used by Border Patrol are also a problem, he added.
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