A celebrated jaguar that roamed southern Arizona’s mountains for several years before disappearing in 2015 has turned up more than 100 miles south in Mexico, conservation biologists say.
The Mexican nonprofit group Profauna said this week that the big cat known as El Jefe had been photographed in an undisclosed mountain location of central Sonora as part of the Borderlands Linkages Initiative. That program, involving 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,” named by Tucson middle schoolers, was photographed numerous times in the mountains south of Tucson at a time when he was the only confirmed jaguar roaming wild in the United States. Two other males have since been photographed in Arizona, although both later disappeared, one of them turning up poached in Mexico.
El Jefe’s long run north of the border made him a star among those yearning for a return of the species to its northernmost historic range, and his apparent continued good health in Sonora cheered big cat conservationists.
“It’s like an old friend that you haven’t heard from in a long time,” said Aletris Neils, who directs Tucson-based Conservation CATalyst, a group dedicated to saving the world’s 38 wild cat species. “Just knowing that they’re OK warms your heart.”
In early 2016, Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity released video of El Jefe’s last known sighting, from the previous fall in the Santa Rita Mountains.
The images captured in Sonora were the first confirmed sightings since then. A researcher for the Northern Jaguar Project, Carmina Gutiérrez-González, confirmed the cat’s identity by its spotted pattern after software first identified a match.
“There is no doubt this is the same animal photographed in Arizona that many feared could have died when he stopped showing up in trail cameras almost seven years ago,” Gutiérrez-González said in a Wildlands Network news release.
A spokesperson for the Arizona Game and Fish Department confirmed that department biologists had reviewed the photos and concurred 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 island forests, comprise the northernmost historic habitat for jaguars, which range south through the Americas. The only jaguars known to have roamed the state in this century have been males, and are thought to have been seeking 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 mountain landscape than Arizona’s some 120 miles south of the border, where a breeding population thrives. There, conservationists partner with ranchers in an effort to maintain a core population that could repopulate zones where the predators have been extirpated.
The species’ full-time return to Arizona faces a number of obstacles, not least a border wall that has left only a few pathways, such as the Patagonia Mountains and the San Rafael Valley. Conservationists also fear a proposed copper mine in the Santa Rita mountains — El Jefe’s old turf — could deter colonization.
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 mandated a new review. The company has appealed the ruling.
“I love knowing that a massive, beautiful cat like El Jefe traveled hundreds of miles, crossed the border at least twice, and went virtually undetected for the last seven years,” Russ McSpadden, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a written statement.
The fact that he apparently did so without previously tripping a camera in the region’s substantial network shows how hard these creatures can be to track, Neils said. His physical condition at age 12 suggests he has remained healthy, which she takes as a sign that the habitat he has traversed, including in Arizona, supported him well.
US conservationists collected DNA from El Jefe’s scat when he roamed Arizona. Some day, Neils said, she hopes biologists will match genes in a younger jaguar, confirming El Jefe’s mingling with the core population has led to successful breeding.
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