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El Jefe: Jaguar missing in action?

El Jefe, Tucson’s lone male jaguar, caught the attention of Arizonans while residing in a tree in Southeastern Arizona.

For three years, pictures from trail cameras flooded conservationists’ computers and proved that El Jefe had created his home in the Santa Rita Mountains.

But it’s been a year since trail cameras caught footage of the wandering jaguar, and the news is not good. El Jefe is missing.

It began in 2011 when hunting guide Donnie Fenn and his hunting dogs spotted and captured a picture of a jaguar while searching for mountain lions. Since then, conservationists and volunteers have been working to conserve El Jefe and his habitat in hopes of repopulating the species in the United States.

A government-funded research project held by the University of Arizona placed trail cameras in remote locations in the mountains and accepted trained volunteers to monitor them.

Fenn remains the only person to have seen the jaguar in person.

El Jefe was born in Mexico and crossed the Mexican border into the United States and created his new home in the Santa Rita Mountains.

Since the discovery of El Jefe, pictures were released in effort to make Arizonans aware that jaguars belong in the Southern Arizona climate and encouraged them to help conserve their habitat.

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At the end of 2016, Chris Bugbee, volunteer for the UA project and member of Conservation CATalyst released a 40-second video of El Jefe roaming the Santa Ritas in three locations. Bugbee, with the help of his specially trained dog, Mayke, tracked El Jefe by finding jaguar scat and footprints.

Bugbee was the most successful in tracking El Jefe and was dismissed from his volunteer work for violating a permit that restricted releasing information about the jaguar unless it had been approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Since Bugbee’s dismissal, El Jefe has yet to show up on any trail cameras in the Santa Rita Mountains, leaving an unsolved mystery: Where is El Jefe?

“El Jefe caused quite a sensation in 2016 after the video was released that showed him moving around,” said Mark Hart, a spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. “We haven’t seen him since. He could have had a mishap with nature. He could be back in Mexico.”

According to the Center of Biological Diversity, the last female jaguar in the U.S. was shot in 1963. It wasn’t until 1969 that Arizona made it illegal to hunt jaguars, and even after the law was passed, the last two male jaguars in the U.S. were shot.

“We have an animal whose primary threat is shooting and trapping. How do we augment the public perception of jaguars so we are actually encouraged to conserve them?” asked Jeff Humphrey, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Since all the jaguars in the United States were hunted, jaguars have only been found in Mexico, with the exception of El Jefe and a newly discovered male jaguar captured in pictures in the Fort Huachuca Mountains.

El Jefe’s natural instinct, like most other animals, is to breed, said Randy Serraglio, Southwest conservation advocate for Tucson’s Center for Biological Diversity.

“(El Jefe) came up here as a young male and he made his territory in the Santa Rita Mountains for over three years. It’s a great habitat. He grew into a great, big, mature, robust adult,” Serraglio said. “I think he most likely went back to wherever the females are back in Mexico.”

With El Jefe on the loose, conservationists are left to wonder when or if he will return. And if he does, will he bring other jaguars with him? This is the ultimate goal of  jaguar conservationists in Arizona.

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“People love jaguars it’s like this mystical creature that throws you back thousands of years to a prehistoric time,” Serraglio said. “They’ve been here for thousands of years. The only reason they aren’t here is because people shot them all. It’s an easily correctable situation.”

After the Center for Biological Diversity sued the federal government for not recognizing the jaguar as an endangered species and conserving him, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service created a recovery plan. The plan is being edited to help create a suitable habitat condition to aid in the repopulation of jaguars in the U.S. in case El Jefe decides to bring back any friends.

“Everybody loves El Jefe once they find out about him; he’s pretty amazing,” Seraglio said. “I love him. You don’t see him, but he may see you. I think that speaks something deep inside the average person. It’s somehow reassuring.”

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A male jaguar, 'El Jefe,' photographed by motion-detection wildlife cameras in the Santa Rita Mountains on June 4, 2015, as part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Department of Homeland Security-funded jaguar survey conducted by University of Arizona. This is the same jaguar that has been repeatedly photographed in the Santa Rita Mountains.

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