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Return of the Jaguar?

Novel camera traps have documented the elusive cat in Arizona, suggesting it may not be gone from the United States after all

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Experts disagree about what the photographs signify. Alan Rabinowitz of the Wildlife Conservation Society says the animals may merely be dispersing from a dwindling population in Sonora, Mexico, about 130 miles south of Douglas, Arizona. "I think that the [Sonora] population is in serious trouble, and we're almost seeing it act like an organism reaching out and trying its hardest to survive in any way possible." But some of the photographs suggest otherwise. Macho B's canine teeth are yellow and worn, indicating that the cat is 4 to 6 years old, well past the age when he would leave his home turf, McCain says. And if the third camera-trap sighting is of a female jaguar, there's a chance the animals are mating. Craig Miller, a conservationist at Defenders of Wildlife, is hopeful that the U.S. population might recover. "For every one of those jaguars photographed, it could represent two or three more in adjacent habitat," he says.

In March 2003, a Mexico City-based conservation organization called Naturalia purchased a 10,000-acre ranch in Sonora to serve as the core of a private jaguar reserve. Mexican president Vicente Fox proclaimed 2005 the year of the jaguar, and an international convention was held in October on management of the cat.

One rainy day back in the 100-square-mile study area in southeastern Arizona, McCain and I journey to the largest canyon in the mountains. The cameras here have generated 12 photographs of Macho A and Macho B. Two elegant trogons, parrot-like birds whose range is similar to that of the jaguar, call from steep walls. "This site changed the way we think about jaguars in the Southwest," McCain says as he changes the batteries in a camera. "More jaguar photographs have been taken at this spot than in all of the Southwest since the 1950s. This site alone shows these animals are not transients."

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