ARIZONA, USA — Rumors that El Jefe, the only known jaguar living in the United States, has been spotted and is alive and well in Mexico are true, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
The nonprofit said Thursday El Jefe’s fate had been unknown for seven years, but Thursday, several Mexican nonprofits announced that he’d been spotted in central Sonora, 120 miles south of his last sighting in Arizona.
While El Jefe's return is promising, the nonprofit said there are concerns the animal's journey back to the United States could be blocked by the border wall. Experts are also concerned that the jaguar's last known territory, Arizona's Santa Rita Mountains, is threatened by the construction of a copper mine.
Center officials said two other jaguars have recently had their journey thwarted by the border wall, failing to arrive in Arizona where it appeared they had been headed.
Experts said El Jefe was born sometime around 2010, which makes him at least 12 years old. Those who spotted him said he still appears to be in great condition.
“We know he’ll need to leave the breeding population eventually, and when he does it’s reasonable to expect him to head back home to Arizona,” said Chris Bugbee, a scientist with the Conservation CATalyst and the Center. “Perhaps he’ll return to live out his golden years in the Santa Rita Mountains.”
Center officials said El Jefe had been photographed repeatedly by remote cameras in the Santa Rita Mountains for over three years. He was one of only five verified jaguars to be photographed in the United States, or immediately south of the border, since 2015.
In 2016 Conservation CATalyst and the Center released the first video footage of El Jefe, the only known wild jaguar in the United States at the time.
Experts said northern jaguars' future is still uncertain, but El Jefe has given conservationists hope.
“El Jefe has once again shown us that it isn’t too late to restore these magnificent, endangered cats to the U.S.,” said Dr. Aletris Neils. “We don’t want to see him poached like the jaguar Yo’oko, or impeded by the border wall like jaguars El Bonito and Valero. We hope El Jefe can still find his way back home.”
Jaguars, the third-largest cats in the world after tigers and lions, once lived throughout the American Southwest, with historical reports on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the mountains of Southern California and as far east as Louisiana, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
Jaguars disappeared from their U.S. range over the past 150 years, primarily because of habitat loss and government predator-control programs intended to protect livestock. The last verified female jaguar in the country was shot by a hunter in 1963 in Arizona’s Mogollon Rim.
El Jefe, which means “the boss” in Spanish, disappeared from his home in the Santa Rita Mountains of Arizona in late 2015.
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