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The Fate of the North American Jaguar

Updated: Jan 23

After being nearly eradicated, conservationists are trying to bring jaguars back to the United States.

Jaguars are beautifully elusive creatures, which might be why many don’t know that they used to inhabit the United States. Jaguars, also known as panthera onca, once roamed as far north as the Grand Canyon. Although, presently, they have been limited to the southwest and primarily spotted at the U.S. and Mexican border.

During the 20th century, the species was nearly eradicated by the U.S. government which held hunting campaigns for these wild cats. Although there have been a few sightings of male jaguars over the past couple of decades, there has yet to be a sighting of a female jaguar in the U.S. since the 1960s. Jaguars are now fully protected under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Every time a jaguar is sighted, conservationists are filled with hope that they are able to bring back this species that humans nearly brought to extinction.

Most notably, a male jaguar nicknamed El Jefe has caught the attention of wildlife experts. El Jefe was first captured on camera in 2011, he was estimated to have been about two years old at that point. He was spotted again in 2015 in the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona, but after this sighting, he disappeared for an extended period of time. Conservationists worried for him, but after more than six years, El Jefe was spotted again on a trail camera in Sonora, Mexico.

Each jaguar has a unique set of spots called rosettes. Much like human fingerprints, no two jaguars have the same pattern of rosettes. This helped conservationists identify El Jefe even after a long period of time. According to Wildlands Network, a conservation organization, El Jefe holds the title of the third oldest jaguar sighted in Sonora at an estimated 12 years old. He is just behind Zapatos who is estimated to be 13+ years old and Macho B who is estimated to be 14+ years old.

Re-creation of a jaguar sighting. Photo taken by Ximena Zepeda.

Conservation groups from both sides of the border are fighting to bring back the jaguars. Groups like the Northern Jaguar Reserve, located in Sonora, strive to protect jaguars from habitat loss and poaching. They spotted a cub with the mother on the reserve just last year. This is a massive step for the species, considering how rare those types of sightings are. Also, Wildlands Network makes extensive efforts in the U.S. and Mexico to help preserve the species through wildlife connectivity initiatives. Doctor Aletris Neils, founder of conservation organization, Conservation CATalyst, says, “This sighting [El Jefe] confirms and verifies beyond a shadow of a doubt that jaguars in Arizona are part of one contingent population that spans both sides of the international border.”

Recently there has been a new problem concerning habitat connectivity, the border wall. While the border wall was meant to separate the U.S. and Mexico, it also inhibits wildlife from roaming in their natural habitat. Very few known corridors allow these big cats to roam freely. Many jaguars travel long distances in search of a female to mate with. Other issues such as development and hunting also pose a threat to this species. Some are proposing removing parts of the border to allow animals to travel safer.

Neils mentions, “If we just do these simple things, our grandchildren will grow up in a country that has jaguars.” It also takes cooperation from humans to be able to reintroduce this species that once dominated the land. It is important to preserve wildlife, and the restoration of the jaguars will possibly reverse the negative effects humans have left behind.

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