On the Prowl | Science | Smithsonian
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(Cheryl Carlin)

On the Prowl

Rare jaguar sightings have sparked a debate about how to ensure the cats' survival in the American West

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Imperial saguaro cactuses embrace the Arizona sky with thorn-studded limbs, presiding over a realm of spiny ocotillos, prickly pear, cat's-claw and all manner of skin-shredding brush. Halfway up a rock-strewn trail, a young wildlife biologist named Emil McCain kneels next to a metal box affixed to a gnarled oak. The box was designed to thwart the errant curiosity of wandering bears, but McCain has found it stands up equally well to wandering humans. The box houses a digital camera equipped with a heat and motion sensor that snaps photographs of whatever moves on the trail; the camera has taken 26 shots since McCain last checked it a month ago. Viewing them, he scrolls through a veritable catalog of local wildlife: jack rabbit, white-tailed deer, rock squirrel, javelina (a sort of wild boar), coyote, bobcat, a woman in hiking boots. Suddenly, he looks up, an impish grin spreading across his face. "Hey, you guys, you wanna see a jaguar?"

The jaguar is not supposed to be here. Not in the United States. Not in 2007. And certainly not in the desert thorn scrub that wildlife biologists said was too harsh and too dry to contain enough prey for a jaguar to live on. But here he is nonetheless, his golden hide adorned with large black rosettes and his muscular, feline form unmistakable in the images captured by McCain's camera.

This jaguar is one of four that have been documented in the United States over the past decade. Some think that others live undetected in the wilds of Arizona and New Mexico. Once thought to have vanished from the United States, the cats' presence has set off an intense debate about how to ensure their survival in the American landscape. Along the way, encounters with the jaguar have transformed an unlikely group of cattle ranchers and hunters into avowed conservationists. And the animal has become ensnared in many of the West's thorniest political fights: the battles over grazing rights, development, mining and efforts to seal the U.S. border with Mexico.

The jaguar is the Western hemisphere's largest feline and the third largest cat in the world; only lions and tigers are bigger. It's also the only cat in the hemisphere that roars (although the noise is often likened to a cough). It once ranged widely through much of the Americas, from the pampas of Argentina to the rain forests of the Amazon and Central America and up through the mountains of Mexico into present-day Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. But the growth of cattle ranches, logging and mining operations, combined with extensive trapping and hunting, brought the cat to the brink of extinction in much of its range. By 1900, jaguars were fairly uncommon in the United States and sightings became rarer still as the decades progressed. In 1963, a female jaguar was killed by a hunter in Arizona's White Mountains. As far as anyone knows, no other female has been seen since in this country. In 1969, Arizona outlawed the killing of jaguars. But over the next 25 years only two animals, both males, were documented in the United States—and both were shot by hunters.

Then, in 1996, something remarkable happened. In two separate incidents, mountain lion hunters stumbled upon jaguars in Arizona and New Mexico—and reached for cameras rather than rifles. Warner Glenn, whose hounds bayed a jaguar on a cliff in the Peloncillo Mountains of southern New Mexico in March of that year, says the thought of shooting the animal never crossed his mind. "I tell you, it would have had to be a terrible situation for me to kill one, because why would you? They are so doggone rare, and that's the first one I ever saw," says Glenn. So he snapped away with his camera, edging ever closer to the cat as he tried to retrieve his hounds. He got a little too close. The jaguar charged him. In a split second, Glenn's hounds leapt between him and the cat, thwarting its attack. The jaguar slunk away, and Glenn rode out of the canyon with the first photos ever taken of a living, wild jaguar in the United States. Almost six months later and 150 miles to the west, Jack Childs and Matt Colvin, two mountain lion hunters, treed a large male jaguar. They, too, photographed the animal and called off the hounds. These two meetings of man and cat would have lasting personal and political consequences.

For Jack Childs, a retired land surveyor, his encounter with el tigre—as the jaguar is known in Mexico—launched him on a second career as a researcher. He traveled to Brazil's Pantanal to study the cat in the heart of its range, later publishing a field guide on how to differentiate the signs—such as tracks, scat (fecal matter) and kill remains—of various cats native to the Southwest. Childs went on to found the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to investigating jaguars along the border between Arizona and Mexico. In March 2001, he began putting trail cameras in areas where jaguars had historically been sighted; in December of that year, his cameras captured images of a jaguar.

A jaguar's spot pattern is unique, a bit like human fingerprints or the fluke patterns of humpback whales. This enables scientists to identify individual cats. But because a jaguar's left and right patterns are different, a positive ID from a photograph requires a researcher to be looking at the same side of the animal. Sex determination from trail camera photos can also be tricky: male and female jaguars look a lot alike, and not even male genitalia can always be seen in photographs. In this case, Childs was certain he was looking at a male, and that it was a different animal than either of the ones he or Glenn had run across in 1996. He dubbed this new jaguar Macho A, using the Spanish for male.

In 2004, Emil McCain joined Childs' Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project. McCain, who is studying for a master's degree in wildlife management at Humboldt State University in California, had worked on jaguar studies in Costa Rica and Mexico. With his neatly trimmed red beard and mustache, he bears an odd resemblance to Vincent van Gogh. A skilled traditional bowhunter and falconer, the 29-year-old McCain and the 65-year-old Childs immediately connected. McCain helped find funding for more trail cameras and increased the number of locations he and Childs were surveying. This paid off: not only did McCain and Childs capture an additional photograph of Macho A, but they soon found a second jaguar in the Coronado National Forest, whom they called Macho B. Remarkably, when McCain analyzed Macho B's spots, he discovered that this was the same jaguar that Childs and Colvin had treed eight years earlier.

McCain also uncovered something else: a possible third jaguar, photographed twice in September 2004 and again in December 2004. The images may simply show the left side of Macho A (who was photographed only from the right and who has not been sighted since 2004). McCain, however, thinks this is a different individual—for one thing, the tail markings don't seem to match. Unless the cat is photographed again, however, there's no way to know for sure.

Over the past two years, McCain and Childs have tracked Macho B year-round. They know he moves across an enormous territory, covering at least 525 square miles. They once documented him in the course of a single night traveling 13 miles over extremely rugged terrain and have trailed him across the Mexican border. The project's camera studies also have yielded information about species from mountain lions to the raccoon-like coati. But besides Macho A, Macho B and the possible third cat, they have not captured photos of any other jaguars. McCain wonders if there's a female out there. "Would a mature male like Macho B stick around if there weren't a female somewhere nearby?" he asks. A female could be evidence of a breeding population—something some biologists doubt exists in the United States—and would increase pressure on the government to do more for jaguar conservation.

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