Animal Conservation

Rare ‘El Jefe’ jaguar that roamed Arizona spotted across the border

A famous jaguar that roamed the mountains of southern Arizona for several years before disappearing in 2015 has appeared more than 100 miles (160 km) south of Mexico, conservation biologists say.

Mexican non-profit group Profauna said this week that the big cat known as El Jefe was photographed at an undisclosed mountainous location in central Sonora as part of the Borderlands Linkages initiative. This program, involving multiple groups on both sides of the border and led by the Wildlands Network, monitors more than 150 motion-sensing wildlife cameras in the area.

El Jefe, or “The Boss”, named by Tucson middle schoolers, was photographed numerous times in the mountains south of Tucson at a time when he was the only jaguar confirmed to be in the wild in the United States. Two other males have since been photographed in Arizona, although both later disappeared, with one ending up poached in Mexico.

El Jefe’s long run north of the border has made him a star among those yearning for the species’ return to its northernmost historic range, and his apparent good health in Sonora has encouraged advocates. of the big cat environment.

“It’s like an old friend you haven’t heard from in a long time,” said Aletris Neils, who leads Tucson-based Conservation CATalyst, a group dedicated to saving the world’s 38 wild cat species. “Just knowing they’re okay warms your heart.”

In early 2016, Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity released video of the last known sighting of El Jefe, from the previous fall in the Santa Rita Mountains.

This still image from the first publicly released video of the jaguar known as El Jefe, shows the big cat roaming a mountain range just south of Tucson more than six years ago.

The images captured in Sonora were the first confirmed sightings since then. Northern Jaguar Project researcher Carmina Gutiérrez-González confirmed the cat’s identity by its spotted pattern after software first identified a match.

“There is no doubt that this is the same animal photographed in Arizona that many feared was dead when it stopped showing up on surveillance cameras nearly seven years ago,” he said. Gutiérrez-González said in a Wildlands Network press release.

A spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Game and Fisheries confirmed that department biologists had reviewed the photos and agreed they were the same as the jaguar repeatedly documented in the Santa Rita and Whetstone ranges from 2011 to 2015.

Parts of Arizona, including the forests of the Sky Islands, include the northernmost historical habitat for jaguars, which range south across the Americas. The only jaguars known to have roamed the state during this century were males, and they are believed to have sought out their own territories. They were ultimately unable to find mates.

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The Northern Jaguar Project maintains a reserve in the Sierra Madre Occidental, a relatively wetter mountainous landscape than that of Arizona about 120 miles south of the border, where a breeding population thrives. There, conservationists team up with ranchers in an effort to maintain a population base that could repopulate areas where predators have disappeared.

The full-time return of the species to Arizona faces a number of obstacles, including a border wall that left only a few lanes, such as the Patagonian Mountains and the San Rafael Valley. Conservationists also fear that a proposed copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains – the former territory of El Jefe – could deter settlement.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service initially determined that Hudbay’s Rosemont mine would not destroy critical habitat for the endangered jaguar, but a federal judge overturned that decision and ordered a new review. The company appealed the judgment.

“I love knowing that a massive, beautiful cat like El Jefe has traveled hundreds of miles, crossed the border at least twice, and gone virtually undetected for the past seven years,” said Russ McSpadden, conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. in a written statement.

The fact that he apparently did this without first triggering a camera in the region’s substantial network shows how difficult these creatures can be to track, Neils said. His physical condition at age 12 suggests that he has remained in good health, which she takes as a sign that the habitat he has passed through, particularly in Arizona, has supported him well.

US conservationists collected DNA from El Jefe’s feces as he roamed Arizona. One day, Neils says, she hopes biologists will match the genes of a younger jaguar, confirming that mixing El Jefe with the base population led to successful breeding.

Brandon Loomis covers environmental and climate issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @brandonloomis.

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in the Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic’s environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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