“El Jefe,” a northern jaguar last spotted in Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains in 2015, has been spotted again, this time in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in Mexico’s Sonora state.
New pictures from Mexican nonprofit PROFAUNA were released last week, showing El Jefe in Sonora in November 2021. Over 150 motion-sensitives cameras were used in the field, and sifting through the large volume of data to identify El Jefe has taken time.
El Jefe, whose moniker was given to him by Tucson middle schoolers in 2011 and means “the boss” in Spanish, was at one point the only confirmed wild jaguar in the U.S., according to the Arizona Republic.
Conservation groups are able to track and identify jaguars by their spots, which are uniquely patterned in each individual. When El Jefe stopped appearing on trail cameras, many researchers feared him dead.
“There is no doubt this is the same animal photographed in Arizona that many feared could have died when he stopped showing up in trail cameras almost seven years ago,” Carmina Gutierrez-Gonzalez of the Northern Jaguar Project said in a press release from fellow nonprofit group Wildlands Network.
A spokesman for Arizona’s Game and Fish Department confirmed that their biologists corroborated the recent pictures as being El Jefe, according to the Arizona Republic.
At 12 years old, El Jefe is the third-longest living male jaguar ever recorded in Sonora, according to the Wildlands Network.
Researchers were particularly interested in his ability to cross a Mexico-U.S. border that is closing tighter.
“The reappearance of El Jefe, more than 120 miles south of where he was last recorded in Arizona, is a sign that large-scale, habitat connectivity persists between Arizona and Sonora, despite growing threats,” said Juan Carlos Bravo of the Wildlands Network in its press release.
The border wall, meant to impede drug trafficking, has also impeded the movement of young male jaguars moving to and from the population’s breeding nexus in Sonora.
Two male jaguars, Valero and El Bonito were recently prevented from crossing back into the U.S. by the wall, according to the Arizona nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. Another jaguar, Yo’oko, was poached and his pelt was exhibited on social media in 2018.
There have been no female jaguars, obviously necessary to maintain a breeding population, verified north of the U.S. border in decades. The last verified female jaguar in America was shot in Arizona in 1963.
There are also plans for the Rosemont Copper Mine to be built in the Santa Rita Mountains, which would disrupt El Jefe’s natural habitat and impede his ability to move freely.
“I love knowing that a massive, beautiful cat like El Jefe traveled hundreds of miles, crossed the border at least twice, and went virtually undetected for the last seven years. We can’t allow El Jefe’s territory to be carved up for a copper mine,” said Russ McSpadden of the Center for Biological Diversity in its press release.
Environmental groups are still holding out hope that the northern jaguar can eventually recolonize its former range.
“I expect to see jaguars continue to arrive in Arizona. If we protect the integrity of their habitat and maintain connectivity with Sonora, these cats have the capacity to once again naturally recolonize this region,” Aletris Neils of the Conservation Catalyst said in the joint press release.