Finally Caught on Camera - The Last Member of Its Species in the Wild

Story at-a-glance -

  • El Jefe, the one and only known wild jaguar living in the U.S., has been captured on camera in Arizona
  • Jaguars once freely roamed the American Southwest, but habitat loss, fragmented habitat and hunting (often by livestock farmers) caused the cats to disappear over the last 150 years
  • There are only about 15,000 jaguars left in the wild, and the “last hope for recovery in the United States” is a small population of up to 120 cats in the mountains of Sonora, Mexico, which borders Arizona

By Dr. Becker

After years spent traipsing through the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson, Arizona, researchers with Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity have made a remarkable discovery. They've caught El Jefe, the one and only known jaguar living in the U.S., on camera.

The accomplishment was a coordinated effort that involved data collection, refining camera sites and the help of a dog trained in scat detection. Finally, the animal was located and now he's been photographed multiple times by the remote-sensor cameras. It's clear he's made his home in the Santa Ritas.

Randy Serraglio, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Discovery News:1

"Just knowing that this amazing cat is right out there, just 25 miles from downtown Tucson, is a big thrill … 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."

Jaguars Were Once Common in the U.S.

Jaguars once freely roamed the American Southwest, with a range that spread from Southern California to Louisiana to the Grand Canyon. Habitat loss, fragmented habitat and hunting (often by livestock farmers) caused the cats to disappear over the last 150 years.

There are only about 15,000 jaguars left in the wild, and the "last hope for recovery in the United States," according to Defenders of Wildlife, is a small population of 80 to 120 cats in the mountains of Sonora, Mexico, which borders Arizona.2

Jaguars are solitary animals. Males have a home range that can span more than 50 square miles (and sometimes up to 500 miles), which they mark with urination and waste and by clawing on trees. Males defend their home ranges and the females that live within it from other males.

It's hoped that the glimpses into the behavior of El Jefe in Arizona will provide more information about how and where these magnificent cats live. Scientists hope El Jefe will be joined by more jaguars coming up from Mexico, but there are hurdles standing in the way.

Copper Mine Proposed for Arizona's Jaguar Country

Conservations are hopeful that the video of El Jefe will increase rallying efforts against the Rosemont Mine, a copper mine being proposed for Arizona by a company in Canada. Opponents stress that the mine would have a detrimental impact on jaguar habitat. Serraglio explained:3

"The Rosemont Mine would destroy El Jefe's home and severely hamstring recovery of jaguars in the United States. At ground zero for the mine is the intersection of three major wildlife corridors that are essential for jaguars moving back into the U.S. to reclaim lost territory.

The Santa Rita Mountains are critically important to jaguar recovery in this country, and they must be protected."

Already, the Center for Biological Diversity has helped to gain more than 750,000 acres of federally protected land for U.S. jaguar recovery.4

The cats, which are the third largest feline species after tigers and lions, are listed as an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; they're also protected by state law in Arizona and New Mexico. According to the Arizona Game and Fish Department:5

"For jaguars to thrive or even to persist in Arizona, a few modest needs must be met. They must be protected from being killed. They must have an adequate prey base.

And they must have movement corridors to connect with source populations in northern Mexico. Abundance of available prey, and suitable resting sites, are more important than any particular vegetation type to this wide-ranging species."

Jaguars Love Water and Other Fascinating Facts

Jaguars remain one of the most elusive and mysterious of big cats, but there are some intriguing facts known about the species. Unlike many other cats, jaguars swim and seem to enjoy the water. They count fish among their prey, and it's even said that they will attract them by using their tails as a fishing lure.

Jaguars are not picky when it comes to diet, however. In addition to fish, jaguars will eat turtles, deer, peccaries (pig-like animals), tapirs and much more. While they mostly hunt on the ground, jaguars are known to climb trees and pounce on their prey from above. They have incredibly strong jaws and typically kill prey via a single bite to the head. According to National Geographic:

"These beautiful and powerful beasts were prominent in ancient Native American cultures. In some traditions the Jaguar God of the Night was the formidable lord of the underworld. The name jaguar is derived from the Native American word yaguar, which means "he who kills with one leap."6

Prior to El Jefe, the last known jaguar living in the U.S. was Macho B, a male that was euthanized in 2009 due to injuries caused by an attempt to trap and radio-collar him. A typical jaguar lifespan is thought to be about 12 to 15 years in the wild. Macho B lived to be 15 or 16 years old and is thought to be the oldest known jaguar in the wild. Live Science reported:7

"The death of Macho B was a major scandal for Arizona's Fish and Game Department and led to a criminal investigation for the killing of an endangered species."