When he’s sighted, local news stations go wild and scientists pull out their notebooks. He’s so beloved that schoolchildren gave him a name and a beer has been brewed in his honor. He’s “El Jefe,” a male jaguar that’s long been thought to be the only of his kind in the United States.
But the charismatic cat may no longer be alone: As Karin Brulliard reports for The Washington Post, officials think they’ve spotted a second male jaguar in the wilds of the Huachuca Mountains in Arizona. If the sighting was indeed legitimate—and the animal isn’t El Jefe himself—the animal would be the second wild jaguar in the United States.
Though a sad statement, it’s actually better than how things stood in 2009 when “Macho B,” a 16-year-old jaguar who was the last in the United States, was unlawfully snared. The animal died from injuries sustained while trying to escape the illegal trap. As Dennis Wagner reports for The Arizona Republic, the animal’s death was shrouded in mystery. Federal wildlife officials apparently covered up key details of its death in the criminal probe that resulted and participated in a “web of intrigue” that also involved complex politics over a U.S./Mexico border fence in Arizona. The name of the federal official who covered up that information has since been sealed by a U.S. District Court.
Things looked grim after Macho B’s death. Jaguars, which were hunted out of existence in the United States, had taken decades to come back, and now they were gone. But the 2011 sighting of El Jefe changed everything. As Richard Grant reported for Smithsonian Magazine in October, El Jefe heralded a new era for an American jaguar rebound.
Back in the day, jaguars were common in the southern United States. But westward expansion and human settlement, bounties for killing the predatory creatures and farming eventually wiped them out. The species was listed as endangered in 1972.
The new sighting could show that the species is in fact recovering. But as Brulliard notes, it’s not all good news. Since the cat appears to be male, that means it can’t mate with El Jefe or jaguars in Mexico and spread the species. The last time a female jaguar was spotted was in 1963—when she was shot and killed by a man who mistook it for a bobcat. And scientists still aren’t positive this latest sighting wasn’t of El Jefe himself.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service “thoroughly vetting the evidence,” an official said in a press release. Perhaps life for the U.S.’ only jaguar won’t be so lonely in the future.