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Famed jaguar 'El Jefe' spotted in northern Mexico
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Famed jaguar 'El Jefe' spotted in northern Mexico

Elusive for 7 years, big cat reappears south of border

  • The famed jaguar 'El Jefe' was observed by remote trail cameras in central Mexico last year.
    PROFAUNA/Wildlands NetworkThe famed jaguar 'El Jefe' was observed by remote trail cameras in central Mexico last year.

A rare northern jaguar known for roaming Arizona's Santa Rita Mountains was recently observed central Sonora, Mexico, evidence of continued cross-border migration for the species.

Dubbed "El Jefe" — the Boss — the adult male is one of a handful of northern jaguars observed north of the U.S.-Mexico border since the species was all but eliminated from the southwestern United States more than 50 years ago. While ecologists celebrated the discovery, this was "tempered by concerns" the cat may not return to Arizona because his pathway is blocked by the border wall, and his territory in the state may include a massive open-pit copper mine.

The big cat was photographed by remote trail cameras from 2011 to 2015 to the thrill of ecologists, but El Jefe has been elusive and didn't appear again on camera for nearly seven years.  However, last November, cameras managed by the Mexican conservation group PROFAUNA finally captured El Jefe sauntering through the wilderness of central Sonora, about 120 miles south of his last recorded sighting, the group said last week.

PROFAUNA—or Protección de la Fauna Mexicana A.C.—is part of the part of the Borderlands Linkages Initiative. Led by the international conservation nonprofit Wildlands Network, the project involves eight organizations from Mexico and the U.S., who work with landowners to protect habitat for jaguars.

Conservationists with PROFAUNA deployed more than 150 motion-sensitive trail cameras to track wildlife and better understand the movements of El Jefe and other jaguars. El Jefe was captured by cameras in November, the group said, but because of the large number of cameras and their remote locations, it took months to confirm that the jaguar spotted in images was indeed El Jefe.

"When our software showed a 100 percent match with El Jefe I was skeptical, but after making a detailed visual revision, skepticism gave way to surprise and then excitement," said Dr. Carmina Gutiérrez-González, research coordinator for the Northern Jaguar Project. Gutiérrez-González is the lead researcher tasked with analyzing all jaguar photos for the project. "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."

Conservationists estimated El Jefe was at least two years old when he was first photographed in 2011 in the Whetstone Mountains southeast of Tucson. This would mean he at least 12 now, the group said, adding this would make the stately jaguar, "the third-longest-living male jaguar ever recorded in Sonora."

"We are very excited to have obtained a picture of El Jefe," said Mario Cirett-Galán, an ecologist and coordinator of priority ecosystems at PROFAUNA. "It’s great news that jaguars can survive this long and gives us hope for the many individuals that have stopped showing in our monitoring. The work we’ve conducted with the Borderlands Linkages Initiative and with other partners such as Greater Good Charities, has allowed us to identify more accurately the routes used by jaguars in places few people imagined they’d be recorded."

A 41-second video published by the Center for Biological Diversity shows the big cat making his way through the brush in an undisclosed location in Sonora, Mexico.

El Jefe is one of five jaguars photographed in either the U.S., or immediately south of the border since 2015, said the Center for Biological Diversity.

Another jaguar was observed by in March 2017 by a Bureau of Land Management trail camera in the Dos Cabezas Mountains, about 60 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border and named Sombra. Months later, Sombra was picked up in remote video cameras in the Chiricahua Mountains.

Two other jaguars, El Bonito and Valero, have also been confirmed roaming the Madrean Sky Islands— the metaphorical name for 55 mountain "islands" surrounded by a grassland "seas." The region, which rambles through four states, including northern Sonora and Southern Arizona, is known for its biodiversity created by the isolation of one mountain from another.

The last known female jaguar in Arizona was shot and killed in 1963 in Arizona's Mogollon Rim, hundreds of miles north of the border.

And, Yo'ko, a jaguar repeatedly photographed over the winter of 2016-2017, was killed by a hunter in Sonora sometime this year, the Arizona Daily Star reported.

Ecologists celebrate photos, but worry about El Jefe's future

"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, the 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."

In 2015, the Center for Biological Diversity held a contest to name El Jefe after he was repeatedly observed by trail cameras in Southern Arizona. Students at Valencia Middle School — which has a jaguar for a mascot — won the contest and were able to announce the big cat's name.

"We still know so little about jaguars, especially in the northern portion of their range," said Dr. Aletris Neils, executive director of Conservation CATalyst—a group dedicated to tracking and protecting 38 wild cat species. Along with northern jaguars, Conservation CATalyst also tracks ocelots, including Lil Jefe, the "boss-elot, named by students at Tucson's Manzo Elementary. "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," said Neils.

"The reappearance of El Jefe, more than 120 miles south of where he was last recorded in Arizona, is a sign that large-scale, habitat connectivity persists between Arizona and Sonora, despite growing threats by development, mining and the border wall," added Juan Carlos Bravo, conservation programs director at Wildlands Network. "Our Borderlands Linkages Initiative demonstrates that only through international collaboration can we understand and protect wide ranging species like the jaguar." 

However, as the Center for Biological Diversity wrote, "a lot has changed since El Jefe left Arizona seven years ago."

During the Trump administration, U.S. Customs and Border Protection built hundreds of miles of new border wall, raising concrete-filled steel bollards 30 feet high. This included a massive project in the Peloncillo Mountains near Douglas, Ariz., which hemmed in much of Guadalupe Canyon, a natural corridor for jaguars.

The Center for Biological Diversity launched multiple lawsuits against the Trump administration, arguing construction of the border wall would harm the environment, and challenging the ex-president's move to siphon millions slated for military construction projects and equipment upgrades after Congress refused to fund the border wall.

The group said two other jaguars "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 also "ground zero" for a proposed copper mine, said the group. For the last 15 years environmental groups have successfully thwarted an effort to build the Rosemont Copper mine, a half-mile wide, open-pit copper mine across 2,500 acres. While the mine has been halted by a federal judge, Toronto-based Hudbay Minerals pivoted to a project on the west slopes of the Santa Rita Mountains.

"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," the center said.

While Southern Arizona may be a difficult place for jaguars, a study published last year in Oryx, the International Journal of Conservation, found the central mountains of Arizona and New Mexico could become a recovery zone for the jaguar.

In 2019, U.S. Fish and Wildlife said the potential habitat for jaguars, bounded to the north of Interstate 10 in Arizona and New Mexico, could carry just six jaguars. So, the agency focused recovery efforts on areas south of the U.S.-Mexico border. However, researchers considered habitat to the north, and based on FWS own models as well as several others, the researchers said the two states could support 90 to 150 jaguars spread across nearly 20 million acres.

Bi-national efforts to protect habitat

The Borderlands Linkages Initiative relies on willing landowners who partner with conservationists in monitoring wildlife and protecting habitat. "Collaborating with ranchers in ways that can protect wildlife and while simultaneously improving their land management is instrumental for preserving viable wildlife habitat cores and open corridors for their dispersal," said Wildlands Network.

"None of the groups involved could have done this on its own but together we can not only provide evidence of El Jefe’s individual feat, we can also help secure the habitat jaguars need, such as the Sierra Azul-El Pinito corridor, a bottleneck for connectivity between our two countries," said Bravo.

Near the U.S.-Mexico border, just south of Douglas, Ariz., the jaguar's migration corridor narrows, forcing the big cat to navigate Mexico's Highway 2, where animals are often killed by cars and trucks. As Bravo and other researchers noted in a report, there are dozens of drainage ways animals use to cross under the highway, but the discovery of El Jefe's travels may help create special corridors to protect the jaguar and other animals, including bears and badgers.

Young male jaguars will need to seek out new territory, and it's possible El Jefe will head back north.

As the Center for Biological Diversity noted, 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."

And, El Jefe may attempt to head back to Arizona to effectively retire — like much of the state's human population.

"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."

"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." 

"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."

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