It’s said that of all the world’s big cats, jaguars are the only ones that can’t be tamed. They have thick, muscular bodies, stocky limbs and massive skulls. Yellow eyes ringed with black peer out from gorgeously spotted coats. In the shifting, dappled light of the high mountains and impenetrable jungles they call home, they are all but invisible — the ghosts of the Americas, enigmatic, elusive and alone.
“If there’s one defining characteristic that distinguishes it from the other big cats, it’s that you never know what a jaguar is thinking,” Alan Rabinowitz, a big cat expert, once told National Geographic. “… That’s why you don’t see them in circus acts. You don’t even often see them in zoos, because they’re not a good exhibition animal. They’re a lone, solitary, almost moody type of species.”
But there is solitary, and then there is utterly alone. El Jefe, an adult male jaguar thought to be the only one of his kind in the entire United States, is the latter.
The big cat, who stars in a short video released Wednesday by the Center for Biological Diversity, doesn’t look lonely. In the footage researchers spent three years trying to collect (jaguars are nothing if not masters of stealth), El Jefe stalks through scrubby grass and dense forest in the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson, Ariz. It is the first time anyone has seen a jaguar in motion in the United States in more than six years.
But what El Jefe doesn’t know is that he’s a relic, not a sign of resurgence.
Jaguars have lived in the Americas since the Pleistocene and once ranged across most of the western United States. But they were hunted out of existence in 1965, when the last known member of the wild U.S. population was shot and killed by a deer hunter in the Patagonia Mountains near Tucson, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Arizona outlawed jaguar hunting four years later, and jaguars worldwide are now considered “near threatened” and protected by the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
But the cats that have popped up in the past half century — probably visitors from a population in Sonora, Mexico — have not fared well.
“They turn around and come back to Mexico or they get shot,” Rabinowitz told The Washington Post in 2014. “They don’t establish themselves [in Arizona].”
Only two jaguars were spotted in the United States over the next quarter century — both were killed, according to the Arizona Fish and Game Department. Then, in 1996, a rancher named Warner Glenn discovered and photographed an adult male perched on a ledge in Arizona’s Peloncillo Mountains. That same year, Tucson hunter Jack Childs came upon a second jaguar up in a tree, heavy and groggy after a recent feeding.
The 150-pound cat allowed himself to be filmed for an hour. By the end of it, the hunter had become a jaguar researcher, Childs told ABC News. He traveled to Brazil’s Pantanal wilderness to study the creatures, and in 1999 he began setting up remote cameras around Arizona in hopes of catching the elusive cat.
It took four and a half years of snapping photos before another jaguar turned up.
“We’ve got pictures of everything that lives in this country,” he told ABC. “Wild pigs, mountain lions, black bears, bobcats, a gray fox, and even illegal immigrants, dope smugglers and backpackers.”
But in 2003 he finally found what he’d been looking for: a male that Childs named Macho A.
A few years later, the cameras picked up another male, Macho B. But like so many jaguars who dared venture north from Mexico, this one was ill-fated. After getting “accidentally” snared and collared by Arizona Game and Fish Department employees in 2009, the jaguar fell ill with what’s called “capture trauma” and had to be euthanized.
A subsequent investigation by the Arizona Republic revealed that Macho B had actually been lured with scat from a female jaguar in an unauthorized capture, and that wildlife officials had used questionable methods to collar and treat the cat and then tried to cover up their mistakes.
That was the last time anyone saw another jaguar in the United States until late 2012, when remote cameras operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service captured another male slinking through the Santa Rita Mountains, according to the Arizona Daily Star. Students from nearby Felizardo Valencia Middle School in Tucson christened him “El Jefe” after a naming contest in 2015. The name, which means “the boss,” is appropriate for a cat who seems to be the only of his kind roaming 764,207 acres of Arizona and New Mexico that have been set aside as critical jaguar habitat.
“He’s typical of the extreme toehold that this species maintains in the U.S.,” Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer for the wild cat conservation organization Panthera, told National Geographic.
In a reminder that El Jefe’s presence is only a toehold, the Center for Biological Diversity devoted much of its statement about the El Jefe video to protesting a proposed copper mine in the Santa Ritas.
“The Rosemont Mine would destroy El Jefe’s home and severely hamstring recovery of jaguars in the United States,” said Randy Serraglio, the center’s southwest conservation advocate.
Yet even without the mine, the outlook for El Jefe and his species in the United States is so poor that Rabinowitz — a leading advocate for a protected “Jaguar corridor” that would extend across the animal’s range — doesn’t think it’s worthwhile to try and restore the population here.
“It’s been given some protected habitat and endangered species status, which is the right thing to have happened,” he told National Geographic in 2014. “But I don’t think it’s a good idea [to reintroduce it]. This part of jaguar range has long since changed and been degraded. And we desperately need those resources in other parts of jaguar range.”
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