Watch: Arizona Jaguar

Recent photos of a jaguar in the American Southwest aren’t all that surprising to researchers.

The Center for Biological Diversity released a video last week of a jaguar named El Jefe — “The Chief” or “The Boss.” The big cat was captured on several trail cameras in Arizona’s Santa Rita Moutains, 25 miles or so outside Tucson, and provides what the CBD calls the first-ever publically released video of a jaguar. El Jefe is credited as the only known wild jaguar in the United States, making the recordings that much more important.

What many viewers don’t know is that jaguars have been seen in Arizona and other areas of the United States before. Jaguars are primarily Central and South American animals, but they once ranged as far north as Arizona and New Mexico. Multiple cats have been reported in California since then, with two reports — one in 1814 and one in 1826 — in the city of Monterey. In 1843 explorer Rufus Sage reported the presence of at least one jaguar in Colorado.

Moving forward to the modern day, an Arizona hunter shot a female jaguar in 1963. Two males were spotted in the state between then and 1996; that year, hunting guide Warner Glenn caught site of one and began using trail cameras to take photos of it. He subsequently photographed four individual males.

A 200-pound jaguar was photographed in 2011 near Cochise, Arizona. The cat was treed by a mountain lion hunter who couldn’t believe his eyes as he looked into the tree overhead. He snapped pictures as proof and to aid in research efforts.

El Jefe has been spotted by Tucson residents for several years, beginning in September 2012. He became the only confirmed jaguar remaining in the U.S. when another cat, Macho B, was euthanized in 2009. Researchers believe these jaguars have dispersed from a breeding population south of the border in Sonora, so while the animal’s presence is terrific, it’s not unexpected. In fact, at least one jaguar has been spotted in southeastern Arizona every year since 1997.

What does make the video so informative and engrossing is its look at the private lives of the big cats. Much like leopards and mountain lions, jaguars live solitary lives except when mating or raising cubs. They are especially secretive around humans, rarely being spotted, much less documented.

“These glimpses into his behavior offer the keys to unlocking the mysteries of these cryptic cats,” said Aletris Neils, executive director of Conservation CATalyst. “We are able to determine he is an adult male jaguar, currently in prime condition. 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.”

The jaguar is the largest cat in the Americas and smaller than only the tiger and lion globally. While they have been documented in desert areas like that of Tucson, their preferred habitat is the dense rainforest jungles of South America.

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