Signs of a mysterious beast are popping up across the American Southwest: a tail captured on a trail-cam, a blur seen in the wilderness. Jaguars, according to legend, are shape-shifters. Mayans considered them envoys of the underworld, a symbol of the unknown. You know that feeling you get when you’re alone in the woods, like you’re being watched? For Arizonans, that could be El Jefe.
El Jefe is the first of these “ghost cats” to be spotted in the United States since 2009.
Jaguars, the biggest, baddest felines in the Western Hemisphere, are typically associated with the rainforests of South and Central America, but they once romped from California all the way to Louisiana. Americans systematically eradicated them from the country in the 1800s, when it was thought the only good predator was a dead one. As late as 1913, you could still earn $5 (about $123 in today’s dollars) from the government for turning in a jaguar pelt.
Despite some 200 years of persecution, fragmented habitat, and more humans per square mile than this continent has ever seen, our nation is still home to at least one of the most elusive animals on earth. Earlier this month, Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity released 41 seconds of video depicting an adult male jaguar hotfooting it through the Santa Rita Mountains just outside Tucson. El Jefe, which is Spanish for “The Boss,” may be the only one of his kind this side of the Mexican border.
I have to say, this video shocked me. I write about animals for a living, and I had no idea that jaguars ever ranged this far north—let alone that there’s one traipsing through our lower left corner this very minute. I mean, we’re talking about an apex predator here. This animal can weigh more than 200 pounds and is armed to the nines with claws built for taking down tapirs and jaws strong enough to crunch through sea turtle shells. It’s also the only cat in the Americas that can roar.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting a jaguar is going to kill you in your sleep. They’re actually quite shy. But they’re also magnificent, charismatic, exotic megafauna. And all this makes me wonder: Why aren’t we making a bigger deal of it?
Sure there have been various media reports, mostly local or in environmental publications, but for perspective, consider this: Animal Planet has produced nine seasons of Finding Bigfoot. In 2015, the History Channel aired a two-hour special called “Breaking History: Bigfoot Captured” (though he obviously wasn’t). There’s even a “Bigfoot Cam” that broadcasts a lifeless field devoid of sasquatches 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Spike TV is offering $10 million to anyone who can prove that Harry from Harry and the Hendersons exists.
Do you have any idea how much jaguar science and conservation $10 million could buy? “You could basically lock up the survival of the jaguar indefinitely,” says Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, CEO of Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization. And yet the Arizona feline—our very own living, breathing jungle cat—doesn’t even have a Facebook page. (Yes, big cats can have Facebook pages.)
Although jaguars are only slightly more plentiful than sasquatches in the United States, Rabinowitz says their numbers are likely in the tens of thousands between Mexico and northern Argentina. In all, the species spans 18 nations and two continents and enjoys the best genetic diversity of any large carnivore on earth. But its continued existence is very much up in the air. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists Panthera onca as near threatened and believes its total population is decreasing. Though the cats are extremely good at avoiding humans, they’re still hunted for their meat and hides in many areas. More often, they’re killed as retribution for eating livestock. And habitat loss remains an ever-present threat.
Jaguars have been protected in the United States under the Endangered Species Conservation Act (now the Endangered Species Act) since 1972, but the legislation came wayyyy too late. It went into effect almost 10 years after an Arizona hunter shot the last known female. According to Marit Alanen, a government biologist with the Arizona Ecological Services Office, a draft recovery plan for the cat is in the works and may be available to the public this spring. But Rabinowitz, one of the scientists who pushed for the jaguars’ original listing, thinks the battle for the species’ existence ultimately lies elsewhere.
It comes down to logistics. The only American jaguars to be seen in recent years have been young males—before El Jefe, there was Macho A and Macho B, both of which are now dead—and the reason is simple. Young males strike out to conquer new lands and to avoid aggression from larger males. Reproductive females require less territory and stay closer to home. According to Alanen, the closest breeding population of jaguars is thought to be about 130 miles south of the U.S.–Mexico border, a long way off.
This dispersal behavior, which is similar to that of the mountain lion, is why Rabinowitz thinks it unlikely that a breeding population of jaguars will ever again establish itself stateside. “It’s not impossible,” he says, but it’s about as likely as the mountain lion reestablishing itself in the Northeast—not very. You can’t set up a self-sustaining population on Y chromosomes alone.
What we can do is ensure the species continues to exist elsewhere. Organizations like Panthera do that by supporting conflict mitigation programs that teach locals how to prevent jaguars from preying on livestock. They also facilitate corridor initiatives that provide the animals room to run, hunt, and breed.
Here at home, I don’t expect everyone to trade their Gone Squatchin’ T-shirts for Gone Jaggin’ merchandise. But wouldn’t it be cool if we gave the mysterious animals that are disappearing before our very eyes the same attention we give those that almost certainly don’t exist?
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.