As recently as the nineteenth century, the distribution of the Jaguar extended from southern Argentina all the way up through South and Central America, Mexico and into the United States in Texas, New Mexico, Florida and Arizona. Today the big cat's range is dramatically smaller and its main populations are found in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Belize.
While throughout the 1900s various sightings of lone juvenile males were made in Arizona and New Mexico, it was generally accepted that the species had become entirely extinct in the United States.
First USA Sightings
In 1996, however, all that changed when two separate sightings of the big cat in the USA led to the onset of location-specific Jaguar research that would, ultimately, affect the fortunes of the species.
In 1996 in New Mexico, a mountain lion hunter called Warner Glenn followed his dogs’ calls to find them facing up to a wild Jaguar. Glenn says the thought of shooting such a rare and beautiful animal was unthinkable, so instead he shot a number of photographs rather than bullets. Although the big cat did leap at him, his dogs were just as fast in their defence, and Warner escaped with his life and the first ever pictures of one of the big cats living wild in the USA.
Six months later, in Arizona, another mountain lion hunter, Jack Childs, was also out shooting. Again, his dogs led him to a magnificent, unexpected quarry, this time up a tree. Again, instead of shooting with a rifle he was able to capture the big cat on film.
According to Childs, that chance encounter was to change his life forever and it led him into the fascinating world of Jaguar research. He went on to become one of the most renowned experts in the field, not only in the USA but also in projects in the Brazilian Pantanal, which supports the highest density of the animal in the world. Childs has devoted many years to Jaguar research, studying the finest details of the animal's existence and publishing a definitive field guide on tracking and identifying various native cats by their kill carcasses, scat (faecal matter) and unique paw and claw prints.
Trapped by a Camera
In 2001 Childs and his wife, Anne, founded the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project. The pair set up what were then amongst the first “camera traps" in strategic positions along the USA/Mexico border.
The infrared sensors in camera traps are set off by movement and heat and are designed to capture still images of wildlife in a non-invasive way. Jack and Anna Childs did indeed succeed in capturing the first camera trap images of the big cat in the USA, but even they could not have foreseen how important their amateur project would become beyond Jaguar research. Because, as well as resulting in some intimate portraits of the incredibly elusive big cat going about its daily (and night) life, the cameras also recorded a raft of other wildlife behaviour that encompassed the entire eco-system.
The borderlands habitat is home to nearly two dozen other large mammal species, including mountain lions, black bears, bobcats and coyotes, and the resultant images and subsequent data gathered has proved invaluable to researchers.
Old Friends Reunited
Because a Jaguar's spots are unique to each animal, Childs’ cameras were able to determine that the animal in his images, which he named Macho A, was not either of the ones he and Glenn had photographed earlier. In 2004, Childs and his associate Emil McCain procured extra funding and extended the range of their camera traps. This time, not only did they capture more images of Macho A, the presence of a second big cat was discovered, which they named Macho B.
But the most exciting results of the analysis were yet to come: Macho B was, in fact, the same animal Jack Childs’ had photographed up the tree eight years previously – bringing his experience full circle.
The Journey Continues
Childs and McCain continue to track Macho B and have determined that his vast range extends over 500 square miles, crossing the border and encompassing rough, wild terrain. Although their cameras have gained unsubstantiated evidence of one more big cat aside from Macho A and Macho B, Childs believes it's feasible there may be a female out there (which is what may be keeping them interested in the area), or even a breeding population.
While most experts doubt the existence of an undiscovered breeding population in the USA, Jack Childs’ persistence and dedication continues to put pressure on the government to fund further Jaguar research and conservation initiatives.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar research. As a passionate lover of big cats Marissa chooses the expert-led itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.