El Jefe the jaguar may be the loneliest wild animal in the world. But since he’s a jaguar, and the big cats don’t even like to hang out with each other, he probably prefers it that way.
El Jefe was recently filmed slinking through the woods and along a river only 25 miles away from downtown Tucson, Arizona. This footage is remarkable, because it marks the first time human eyes have seen a wild jaguar in the U.S. in six years, the Washington Post reported.
“El Jefe has been living more or less in our backyard for more than three years now,” said Randy Serraglio with the Center for Biological Diversity, which released the video. “It’s our job to make sure that his home is protected and he can get what he needs to survive.”
The big cat was given his name back in 2015 by a group of middle school students, three years after he was first spotted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. El Jefe name means “the boss” in Spanish, and today, that title seems very fitting.
El Jefe roams a 764,207-acre stretch of Arizona and New Mexico (and was filmed prowling the Santa Rita Mountains) set aside for him by the federal government. Right now, he is its only resident jaguar.
“He’s managed to find what a male jaguar really wants—space and a good habitat with lots of prey like white-tailed deer,” Luke Hunter, the president and chief conservation officer for the wild cat conservation group Panthera, told National Geographic.
But no jaguar friends. And he likely will never have any.
That’s because El Jefe may very well be the last of his kind, and there is little hope that the country’s wild jaguar population will have a resurgence. Signs of the cat have only emerged every year or so since 1996; all have been males and represent probably only five individuals.
Conservationists think El Jefe’s male predecessors left a breeding population 125 miles to the south to be on their own, which is typical of male jaguars. Their mothers “kick them out” of their birth range; the females usually stay at home. This nature means natural population growth is unlikely.
Human interference is much to blame for the jaguar’s descent into near extinction. They’ve lived in the Americas, and ranged in the western U.S., since the Pleistocene. By the 19th century, they made a home in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas but were pushed out by ranchers and farmers settling the West. In 1965, the last known wild jaguar in the U.S. was killed near Tucson by a deer hunter. By that time, no known females remained. Today, they’re “near-threatened” and protected.
The rare jaguar that does turn up often doesn’t last for long. In 2009, a male called Macho B was snared and collared by Arizona Game and Fish officials, and then had to be euthanized after he became sick with a syndrome called “capture trauma.” It was later revealed that the officials had illegally lured the jaguar, used “questionable methods” to collar and treat it, and then tried to cover up the blunder.
Let’s hope El Jefe has a better life. After all, roaming solo across thousands of acres is a pretty ideal situation for him. The cats are elusive, solitary, “cryptic,” and don’t even like meeting up with females to reproduce. Big cat expert Alan Rabinowitz has called them moody.
“If there’s one defining characteristic that distinguishes it from the other big cats, it’s that you never know what a jaguar is thinking. You don’t even often see them in zoos, because they’re not a good exhibition animal. They’re a lone, solitary, almost moody type of species.”
El Jefe has been captured on camera over a hundred times in three years. To capture him this time, researchers used dogs trained to detect the animal’s scat and spent three years tracking him, collecting data, and perfecting camera locations.
Now, humankind has unprecedented footage of a creature that may disappear from the American West, forever.
[Image via AppStock/Shutterstock]