TUCSON, Ariz.— News that the beloved jaguar El Jefe has been spotted alive and well in Sonora, Mexico, is tempered by concerns that his potential pathway back to the United States could be blocked by the border wall and his last known territory in Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains is threatened by the construction of a copper mine.
El Jefe’s fate had been unknown for seven years, but today several Mexican nonprofits, including the Wildlands Network, PROFAUNA and the Northern Jaguar Project, announced that he’d been spotted in central Sonora, 120 miles south of his last recorded sighting in Arizona.
“We still know so little about jaguars, especially in the northern portion of their range,” said Dr. Aletris Neils, executive director of Conservation CATalyst. “But with hundreds of detections and data points for El Jefe, we know more about him than any other jaguar in the U.S. Every new piece of information is essential for conserving northern jaguars, and we still have much to learn from this magnificent cat.”
A lot has changed since El Jefe left Arizona seven years ago.
The Trump administration built border wall segments 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 northern jaguars in Sonora, Mexico. Two other jaguars have recently had their northward journey thwarted by the border wall, failing to arrive in Arizona where it appeared they had been headed.
The Santa Rita Mountains are now ground zero for the proposed Rosemont Copper Mine. El Jefe has already lost part of his former home range through significant habitat destruction in the northern Santa Ritas from Hudbay’s Copper World mine, an extension of the proposed Rosemont Mine.
“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,” said Russ McSpadden, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We can’t allow El Jefe’s territory to be carved up for a copper mine. Arizona’s Sky Islands, including the Santa Ritas, are critical habitat for jaguars and key to their survival in the U.S.”
El Jefe was born sometime around 2010, which makes him at least 12 years old today. He still appears to be in great condition.
“We know he’ll need to leave the breeding population eventually, and when he does it’s reasonable to expect him to head back home to Arizona,” said Chris Bugbee, a scientist with the Conservation CATalyst and the Center who collected data on the iconic cat for years. “Perhaps he’ll return to live out his golden years in the Santa Rita Mountains.”
El Jefe had been photographed repeatedly by remote sensor cameras in the Santa Rita Mountains for more than three years. He was one of only five verified jaguars to be photographed in the United States, or immediately south of the border, since 2015.
This latest detection of El Jefe in Sonora highlights the vital importance of international collaboration.
“We’re collaborating with some of the best scientists to examine the northward expansion of Sonoran jaguars, ocelots, javelina, coatis and other neo-tropical species in Arizona,” said Dr. Neils. “I expect to see jaguars continue to arrive in Arizona. If we protect the integrity of their habitat and maintain connectivity with Sonora, these cats have the capacity to once again naturally recolonize this region.”
In 2016 Conservation CATalyst and the Center released the first video footage of El Jefe, the only known wild jaguar in the United States at the time. The footage provided the first glimpse into the secretive life of one of nature’s most majestic and charismatic creatures.
This was the first publicly released video of a jaguar in the Unites States. The video went viral and was seen by hundreds of millions of people, bringing much needed recognition to their conservation.
As with most large carnivores, young male jaguars are typically forced to disperse away from core breeding populations because they can’t yet compete with dominant territorial males.
“We have documented this pattern with many species, including black bears,” said Neils. “We saw this behavior with the jaguar Macho B in Arizona, and we hypothesized El Jefe was doing the same thing.”
The future is still uncertain for northern jaguars, but El Jefe has become a beacon of hope for conservationists.
“El Jefe has once again shown us that it isn’t too late to restore these magnificent, endangered cats to the U.S.,” said Neils. “We don’t want to see him poached like the jaguar Yo’oko, or impeded by the border wall like jaguars El Bonito and Valero. We hope El Jefe can still find his way back home.”
Video and photos available on the Conservation CATalyst Facebook page and for download here.
Jaguars — the third-largest cats in the world after tigers and lions — once lived throughout the American Southwest, with historical reports on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the mountains of Southern California and as far east as Louisiana.
Jaguars disappeared from their U.S. range over the past 150 years, primarily because of habitat loss and historic government predator-control programs intended to protect the livestock industry. The last verified female jaguar in the country was shot by a hunter in 1963 in Arizona’s Mogollon Rim.
Jaguars are protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and now have a federal recovery plan, as well as more than 750,000 acres of protected habitat north of the border.
Conservation CATalyst researched El Jefe, which means “the boss” in Spanish, for more than four years, until he disappeared from his home in the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona in late 2015.
The Center has been working for decades to save jaguars in the United States, with the vision that jaguars will naturally repopulate the Southwest, if they’re allowed to do so.