They say that one is the loneliest number, and in the case of a jaguar nicknamed “El Jefe,” it might be true—a resident of the mountains outside Tucson, Arizona, he’s the only wild jaguar known to live in the United States. Now, after three years of tracking and preparing, conservationists have released a new video of the elusive cat.
Jaguars once ranged all the way from Argentina to parts of Louisiana and California. However, during the last 100 years the big cats almost completely vanished from the continental U.S. thanks to habitat loss and federal programs aimed at protecting livestock, Marina Koren writes for The Atlantic. All in all, there are only about 15,000 jaguars living in the wild today, and El Jefe is the only one believed to be left in the U.S.
“Just knowing that this amazing cat is right out there, just 25 miles from downtown Tucson, is a big thrill,” Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “El Jefe has been living more or less in our backyard for more than three years now. It’s our job to make sure that his home is protected and he can get what he needs to survive.”
Researchers have been trying to track El Jefe in his territory in Arizona’s Santa Rita mountains since 2013, but the sneaky jaguar hasn’t made it easy. To catch the big cat on tape, researchers had to constantly tinker with the locations of the cameras hidden in the mountains, and even relied on a specially-trained dog to sniff out the jaguar’s feces to make sure they had the best set-ups, Cara Giamo writes for Atlas Obscura.
“He's typical of the extreme toehold that this species maintains in the U.S.,” Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer for conservation group Panthera tells Brian Handwerk for National Geographic. “Since 1996 there has been evidence of a jaguar in New Mexico or Arizona every year. But I think it has been a total of four or five individuals and they've all been adult males.”
El Jefe and his predecessors most likely ventured north into the Arizona mountains from Sonora, Mexico, where the closest jaguar breeding population is based. While male jaguars tend to range far from their birthplaces, females often stick closer to home, making it unlikely that a female would trek the 125-mile-long journey into the U.S. to re-establish a breeding population, Handwerk writes.
“For a female cat to naturally colonize the United States again from that Sonora population would be really difficult,” Hunter tells Handwerk.
For now, researchers hope the new video will help them learn more about El Jefe and any other jaguars that might eventually make their way into the U.S.
“These glimpses into his behavior offer the keys to unlocking the mysteries of these cryptic cats,” Aletris Neils, executive director of Conservation CATalyst, said in a statement. “Every new piece of information is important for conserving northern jaguars and we look forward to building upon on these data so that we can collectively make better decisions on how to manage these fascinating and endangered cats."