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‘El Jefe,’ famed Arizona jaguar feared dead, spotted in Mexico

A jaguar known as “El Jefe” is seen in the central area of Sonora, Mexico, in November 2021. (AP)

“El Jefe,” a jaguar last seen in Arizona nearly seven years ago, was spotted in the Mexican state of Sonora last year, researchers confirmed recently, reviving hopes that the species can thwart the border wall that bisects its natural habitat.

El Jefe — “the boss” in Spanish — was seen in photos captured in November by a Mexican nonprofit organization, Profauna, which uses more than 150 motion-sensor cameras to track wildlife. With such a large volume of photos, it took researchers until this summer to make the discovery.

The researchers cross-checked the images with previous photos of El Jefe using photo-analyzing software and found a 100 percent match, identifying the feline by his unique markings. At first, “I was skeptical,” said Carmina Gutiérrez-González, a research coordinator for the Northern Jaguar Project.

“But after making a detailed visual revision, skepticism gave way to surprise and then excitement,” she said in a statement, adding that “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.”

El Jefe became famous after he was first photographed in 2011 in the mountains near Tucson, one of the few jaguars to be seen on the northern side of the border since the species was “all but extirpated” from the Southwest more than a half-century ago, the Wildlands Network, which is part of an initiative that aims to protect wildlife near the border, said in a statement.

The jaguar — who, with a swaggering walk, was given the name by Tucson schoolchildren — is thought to have lived mostly in the Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona. For a time, he appeared to be the only one of his species in the United States, until another male was spotted nearby. El Jefe was about 2 years old when he was first spotted, making him at least 12 years old now — one of the oldest male jaguars ever recorded in Sonora, the Wildlands Network said.

The recent sighting is “a sign that large-scale habitat connectivity persists between Arizona and Sonora, despite growing threats by development, mining and the border wall,” said Juan Carlos Bravo, Wildlands Network’s conservation programs director.

Environmentalists have long raised concerns that border walls — including the one that stands along parts of the border between the United States and Mexico — are bad for wildlife, as they obstruct natural migration paths and break up natural habitats.

Border walls are bad for wildlife

Parts of the border wall erected during the Trump administration were put in “extremely rugged mountainous terrain that includes some of the remaining corridors jaguars use to move back and forth between the United States and the core of a small, vulnerable breeding population” of jaguars in Sonora, the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit organization that focuses on conserving endangered species, said in a statement following El Jefe’s sighting.

The jaguar, whose scientific name is Panthera onca, is protected in the United States under the Endangered Species Act. The animals historically inhabited wide swaths of the Southwest, from California to Louisiana, but were hunted to near extinction.

Conservationists have also criticized plans for a proposed mine, the Rosemont Copper Mine, in southern Arizona, which conservationists say would disrupt prime jaguar habitat in the area.

‘El Jefe’ is one step closer to sharing its habitat with a massive copper mine

“We can’t allow El Jefe’s territory to be carved up for a copper mine,” Russ McSpadden of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement. “Arizona’s Sky Islands, including the Santa Ritas, are critical habitat for jaguars and key to their survival in the U.S.”