A famous jaguar that roamed the mountains of southern Arizona for several years before disappearing in 2015 has made it more than 100 miles south in Mexico, conservation biologists say.
Mexican non-profit group Profauna said this week that the big cat known as El Jefe was photographed in an unknown mountain location in central Sonora as part of the Borderlands Linkages initiative. That program, which involves several groups on both sides of the border and led by the Wildlands Network, monitors more than 150 motion-sensing wildlife cameras in the region.
El Jefe, or “The Boss,” called by Tucson middle school students, was photographed numerous times in the mountains south of Tucson at a time when he was the only confirmed jaguar roaming the wild in the United States. Two other males have since been photographed in Arizona, though both have since disappeared, one of whom was found poached in Mexico.
El Jefe’s long run north of the border has made it a star among those craving a return of the species to its northernmost historic range, and its apparent continued good health in Sonora has cheered big cat conservationists.
“He’s like an old friend you haven’t heard of in a long time,” said Aletris Neils, who heads the Tucson-based Conservation CATalyst, a group dedicated to saving the word’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.
The images captured in Sonora were the first confirmed sightings since then. Northern Jaguar Project researcher Carmina Gutiérrez-González confirmed the cat’s identity from her spotted pattern after the software first identified a match.
“There is no question that this is the same animal photographed in Arizona that many feared might have died when it stopped appearing on track cameras nearly seven years ago,” Gutiérrez-González said in a Wildlands Network press release.
A spokesperson for the Arizona Game and Fish Department confirmed that biologists in the department examined the photos and agreed that they are the same as the jaguar repeatedly documented in the Santa Rita and Whetstone ranges from 2011 to 2015.
Parts of Arizona, including the sky islands forests, comprise the northernmost historical habitat for jaguars, which extend south across the Americas. The only jaguars known to have wandered the state this century were males and it is thought that they were looking for their own territories. Eventually they were unable to find mates.
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The Northern Jaguar Project maintains a reserve in the Sierra Madre Occidental, a relatively wetter mountain landscape than that of Arizona, about 120 miles south of the border, where a breeding population thrives. There, conservationists collaborate with ranchers in an effort to maintain a central population capable of repopulating areas where predators have been eradicated.
The full-time return of the species to Arizona faces a number of obstacles, not least a border wall that has left only a few trails, such as the Patagonian Mountains and the San Rafael Valley. Conservationists also fear that a proposed copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains – the old El Jefe turf – could discourage colonization.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service initially ruled that Hudbay’s Rosemont mine would not destroy the critical habitat for the endangered jaguar, but a federal judge overturned that decision and imposed a new overhaul. The company appealed the sentence.
“I like to know that a huge, beautiful cat like El Jefe has traveled hundreds of miles, crossed the border at least twice and has gone virtually unnoticed 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 so without first snapping a camera into the region’s substantial network shows how difficult it can be to track down these creatures, Neils said. His physical condition of him at age 12 suggests that he remained healthy, indicating that the habitat he passed through, including Arizona, supported him well.
US environmentalists collected DNA from El Jefe’s scat when he wandered around Arizona. One day, Neils said, he hopes biologists will match the genes in a younger jaguar, confirming that El Jefe’s mixing with the central population has led to successful breeding.
Brandon Loomis is responsible for environmental and climate issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Reach him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @brandonloomis.
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