The big cat sits in front of you, his head turned gracefully to one side as if posing for a portrait. You are close enough to see his whiskers and eyelashes catch the light. His tongue darts out, sweeping up across his nose, as his ears twitch. Then he turns forward abruptly and stands, lumbering forward, the bright speckles on his fur awash in the moonlight. His spots are darkest on his front legs and in a broad swatch down his spine. The tip of his tail, curved upward, looks as if it has been dipped in a pot of ink. As he strolls through a small clearing, he turns his body to show off the true size of his massive head.
This is a jaguar, the third largest big cat in the world. This is up to 250 pounds of muscle, compacted into a slim body, broad head and powerful jaws. This is El Jefe, named by Arizona schoolchildren and the only known jaguar roaming the United States. And you are sitting just 25 miles from downtown Tucson, Arizona, in the Santa Rita Mountains. Conservationists and wildlife biologists have tracked El Jefe in the Santa Rita Mountains for over three years, capturing his image on trail cameras. Jaguars are comfortable in a wide variety of habitats, from Argentina to the Grand Canyon. In February of this year Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity released the first recorded video of the cat – 46 impressive seconds of El Jefe prowling his territory. Watching the big cat stalk through the jungle is a powerful experience in itself. The cat is graceful and beautiful. He has a clear sense of belonging to his environment.
Like many other animals, the jaguar has had meanings projected onto it by humans for millennia. The Olmec, Aztec and Maya peoples all associated the cat with military prowess and social status. A Yucatec Maya phrase for warfare translates to “spreading the jaguar skin”. The magical rituals of Aztec sorcerers used jaguar claws, pelts and hearts. These ancient Mesoamerican societies saw in the jaguar a reflection of their own values. And although we have now amassed a great deal of scientific knowledge about the species, modern viewers of the cat still conjure their own value associations. We see the cat as a symbol of the need for conservation, or of the resilience of nature, or of the danger posed to our livestock by formerly extirpated predators.
Arizona’s last legally hunted jaguars were killed in the 1960s, and sightings in the United States have been extremely rare since the 1940s as these big cats were pushed out of their historic range by ranchers and settlers and hunted for their spotted coats. El Jefe is believed to have started his life in a breeding population of jaguars near Sonora, Mexico, 125 miles south of his current territory in the Northern Jaguar Preserve. Best estimates from the Northern Jaguar Project place between 80 and 120 jaguars in the 1,500 square mile preserve, located in the area surround the Rio Aros and the Rio Bavispe.
The jaguar is a solitary cat. A male’s territory can span up to 53 square miles, overlapping with the territories of more than one female cat with whom they will meet in winter to mate. Young male jaguars leave their birth range when they are about a year old and travel great distances to establish their own territory. El Jefe is not the first jaguar to make a northward migration into the United States. Before him there was Macho B – who lived to be the oldest known jaguar in the wild. Biologists estimated his age at fifteen to sixteen years old.
For thirteen years, from 1996 to 2009, Macho B’s image was captured on trail cameras in Arizona. Then on February 18, 2009, he stepped into a snare set near Peñasco Canyon in the Atascosa Mountains just north of Mexico. There are no witnesses to the cat’s reaction to the trap, and no trail camera recorded it. But when he was recovered, Macho B had severe cuts on his leg, a tooth broken off at the root and a javelina tooth embedded his tail. Game and Fish biologists knocked the cat out with the hallucinogenic drug Telazol, collected scat and DNA samples, recorded the cat’s statistics and collared him. For a few days data from the tracking collar revealed Macho B’s movements, but twelve days after his capture he stopped moving. Game and Fish officials recaptured the cat and transported him to the Phoenix Zoo, where veterinarians attributed his decline to kidney failure and recommended he be euthanized. He was.
The official story of the Arizona Game and Fish Department is that the snare was set as part of a black bear and mountain lion research study, the capture of a jaguar was incidental and he was put out his misery upon discovery of severe kidney failure on recapture. But other reports dispute this version of events, and Macho B’s death induced public outcry. The most widely reported alternative account came from field biologists Janay Brun and Emil McCain of the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project. Brun and McCain worked under contract for the Game and Fish Department. Brun maintains that she and McCain set the trap and baited it with feces from a female jaguar in heat at the direction of the Game and Fish Department. Both say that the agency wanted the jaguar collared and was willing to act outside the law to accomplish it knowing that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was unlikely to grant the required permit for the capture of an endangered species. State officials dispute McCain and Brun’s version of events, and claim the two biologists had gone rogue and acted beyond the authorization of the Game and Fish Department.
The Department of the Interior Office of the Inspector General, working with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, concluded that the capture was intentional. The Department of the Interior’s investigation resulted in five criminal referrals to the US Attorney’s Office, including employees of the Game and Fish Department. Ultimately only two people were prosecuted for criminal wrongdoing in connection with Macho B’s capture – McCain and Brun.
El Jefe is coming towards you, surfacing out of the shadows where his patterned coat had kept him hidden in the dappled sunlight. His head is low, his ears are back, and for a moment your eyes meet his – two pale glows in his shadowy face. Does he see you? Just as quickly as it came, the moment passes; he stalks past you.
As the first known jaguar to come into the United States since Macho B’s death, El Jefe will be a powerful test of his predecessor’s legacy. In 2006 the Fish and Wildlife Service took the position that designation of critical habitat, which brings increased protection to areas essential to the survival of an endangered species, was not prudent for the jaguar. In the aftermath of Macho B’s death, the Service was pressured by advocacy groups and a 2010 court order to make a critical habitat designation. But although the Service is supposed to have developed a full recovery plan for the jaguar, in the past six years all it has done is release a Recovery Outline meant to be temporary.
Less than adequate conservation and recovery efforts by the Fish and Wildlife Service are not the only challenge to El Jefe’s existence. HudBay Minerals has proposed, and applied for the permits for, a 955-acre open pit copper mine in the middle of his range. The Rosemont Copper mine would be a mile wide, a mile and a half long and over 3,000 feet deep. To accomplish such a feat, billions of tons of dirt and toxic mining waste will be excavated from the pit and dumped on the surrounding land. The Center for Biological Diversity has been fighting the mine since 2007.
Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity are hoping that the public will watch the video and become invested in the story of El Jefe. Those of use watching at home are seeing the same glimpses of the cat that the researchers have seen. The cat is elusive, and years of tracking have yet to result in an in-person sighting. The hope is that El Jefe will become a face for preservation of habitat and environmental conservation. The hope is that El Jefe will not suffer the same fate as Macho B, that by getting to know this cat, we will act with greater respect for him and for his home. So please, go watch the video of El Jefe. Not just to say that you too have seen the only glimpses of the United States; only living wild jaguar, but because of what awareness and advocacy for this cat could do for conservation in the American Southwest.
Walking away from us in a narrow stream, El Jefe blends into the rocks and trees except for his forward motion. If you froze time, looked away and looked back, you might never know he was there. He steps carefully from rock to rock, trotting up the water flow away from you. His tail swings as he pads across the rocks and disappears back into the leafy shadows.