They call him “El Jefe”, he is at least 12 years old, and his crossing of the heavily guarded US-Mexico border has sparked celebrations on both sides.
“El Jefe” – or “The Boss” –along the border, one of the few known to have crossed a border partially surrounded by a wall and other infrastructure to stop drug smugglers and migrants, and the one believed to have traveled the farthest, say ecologists from the Borderlands Linkages Initiative, a bi-national collaboration between eight protection groups.
That assessment is based on photographs taken over the years. Jaguars can be identified by the spots, which act as a kind of unique fingerprint.
The rare northern jaguar’s ability to cross the border suggests that despite increased obstacles, there are still open corridors and if they are kept open, “it is possible (to preserve) the jaguar population in the long term,” said Juan Carlos Bravo of the Wildlands Network , one of these groups in the initiative.
But some fear for the jaguars’ future. Although it was the administration of President Donald Trump that strengthened and expanded the border wall with Mexico, the Biden administration has announced plans to close four gaps between the US state of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora – the two states the jaguars cross.
Conservationists don’t know how many jaguars there are in the Sierra Madre Occidental, but of the 176 that have been identified over two decades by the Northern Jaguar Project – another group in the initiative – only two others besides “El Jefe” are known for crossing the border, Bravo said. In one case, conservationists are not sure whether the jaguar crossed the border alive or dead, since only the skin was found.
The first photograph of “El Jefe” was taken by a hunter southeast of Tucson, Arizona, in 2011, Bravo said. The jaguar became famous in Arizona and a local school called him “El Jefe.” Motion sensor cameras installed in transit areas photographed the jaguar in Arizona again in 2012 and in 2015.
Conservationists were stunned when they confirmed that a photograph taken by another member of the coalition, Profauna, in November in central Sonora was “El Jefe”. The discovery meant not only that jaguars could still cross the border, but that other jaguars they had lost track of could also still be alive, the initiative said in a statement.
Hunted in the southwestern United States for rewards offered by the government to promote cattle ranching, they were thought to have disappeared from the United States in the late 1900s. Jaguar populations are currently concentrated on Mexico’s Pacific coast, southeastern Mexico, Central America, and central South America.
An observation of jaguars in the United States in 1996 led to studies that found a reproductive point in central Sonora.
The nonprofits teamed up to operate on both sides of the border to track the cats, create sanctuaries, understand where they moved and seek support from landowners in the U.S. and Mexico to protect them, Bravo said.
Besides the difficulty of figuring out where to place cameras to record the animals and the subsequent analysis of the images, conservationists in Mexico face another problem: drug cartels.
“There is a presence of armed groups and drug traffickers” who pass through the same isolated areas as the jaguars, Bravo said by phone from Sonora. “It’s important to move carefully, work with the people in the communities who are telling us where not to go … All of that makes it very, very complicated.”
The border is the main challenge to hopes of repopulating the American Southwest with jaguars, with walls impeding the movement of those animals as well as the American antelope, black bear and Mexican wolf, Bravo said. Light towers and the roads used by the Border Patrol are also a problem, he added.