On the Prowl

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

(Cheryl Carlin)
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In the Patagonia and the Santa Rita mountains, home to rare birds such as the spotted owl and the Apache Goshawk—and a place where large numbers of jaguars were once killed by hunters—conservationists and ranchers have joined together to fight a proposed open-pit copper mine. "This is a critical area of potential prey base for the jaguar," McCain says. Unlike ranching, which does not have much impact on wildlife when carried out responsibly, mining is noisy, industrial work that can frighten off animals and alter an entire landscape. Many conservationists hope that if McCain can succeed in documenting a jaguar in these mountains, it will provide a basis to stop the mining.

So far, McCain has photographed plenty of bears and mountain lions, coatis and gray fox. But no jaguar has crossed his viewfinders in the Patagonias. McCain did, however, find some claw scrapes that he doesn't think were made by a mountain lion. "I suspect that there's one out here," McCain says. But he needs proof. Eventually, he hopes DNA analysis of scat or hair samples collected in the field will confirm his hunch.

Ultimately, the fate of the jaguar in the United States is bound to its fate in Mexico. And there the cat is in trouble. Killing jaguars is illegal in Mexico, but the law is not well enforced. The jaguar population in Sonora, home of the confirmed breeding population closest to the border, is estimated to be no more than 150 individuals. Conservationists say they have reports of as many as 30 jaguars killed in Sonora within the past five years.

A number of U.S. conservation groups have stepped in to try to save the Sonoran jaguars, with the hope that a healthy population there will eventually spread into the United States. In 2003, the Tucson-based Northern Jaguar Project helped the Mexican conservation group Naturalia purchase Rancho Los Pavos, a 10,000-acre spread near the junction of the Aros and Bavispe rivers, to serve as a jaguar reserve. Now the Northern Jaguar Project is trying to raise $1.7 million to purchase an adjacent 35,000-acre ranch. The project, along with Defenders of Wildlife, has also launched an innovative program in which it provides trail cameras to Mexican ranchers and pays them for photographs of wild cats: $300 for a jaguar, $150 for an ocelot and $100 for a mountain lion—all significant sums in impoverished Sonora. The idea is to give ranchers a financial incentive to let rare predators live on their land.

Some biologists, however, think that maintaining the Sonoran population will hardly ensure the jaguar's return to the United States. "You can sit around and wait for a female to show up from 120 miles away, but it is a pretty outside chance," says Arizona State University's David Brown. "If you are really serious about managing the jaguar population, you have to introduce a female or two and see what happens." Though conservation groups such as Defenders of Wildlife and the Center for Biological Diversity support the idea, state and federal authorities have so far refused to consider a reintroduction.

In the meantime, conservationists in the United States have been working to protect those jaguars that do make it over the border. In an effort to get ranchers to view the cats as less of a threat, the Malpai Borderlands Group has pledged to reimburse them for any livestock the animals kill. The group made the first such payment—$500—to a rancher who lost a calf earlier this year. Ranchers are also being encouraged to use simple techniques—such as birthing all their cows at the same time and keeping calves away from areas where predators are known to be active—to minimize losses. In July, Arizona congressman Raúl Grijalva introduced a bill to set aside 83,400 acres of mountains and rolling grassland northwest of Nogales as the Tumacacori Highlands Wilderness Area. The land would be off-limits to mining, development and recreational use by motorized vehicles.

Eco-friendly tourism may help, as well. The town of Ruby, located between Nogales and Arivaca, is a remnant of Arizona's mining past. Despite attempts to reclaim its sandy, white mine tailings and a brief stint as a hippie colony in the late 1960s, Ruby functions today only as a ghost town frequented by occasional tourists. Howard Frederick, an animal nutritionist whose family owns Ruby, plans to turn the place into a biological reserve. And he is excited that McCain and Childs have documented the jaguar in the surrounding canyons. "If they wanted to make Ruby a home, that would be great," Frederick says.

One night back at the remote ranch house that McCain uses as a field base, he lectures on the borderland jaguars to members of the socially prestigious Tucson Rodeo Parade Committee. The group consists mostly of city slickers, but they are clearly captivated by his presentation. After McCain concludes, several people approach him and offer to work as volunteers for the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project. One man asks why Arizona Game and Fish has not done more to publicize the presence of the cat. "It's just amazing to think this animal is out there," he tells McCain.

That seems to be the way it goes with the jaguar. To a lot of people, the idea that such a majestic and mysterious creature stalks the high desert touches something primal within, inspiring an appreciation for all that is still wild and unfettered by man. And if the jaguar disappears again, a victim of development or mining or a belief that a wall can prevent supply from meeting demand, then it won't be just the great spotted cat that suffers. For with the jaguar will go another piece of what little remains of the untamed soul of the American West.

Writer Jeremy Kahn, based in New Delhi, India, reports frequently on the environment, politics and foreign affairs.


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