Able to survive in a diverse variety of habitats, the Jaguar's domain once stretched from Argentina, in the far south of the Americas, right up to Arizona in the USA. With vast tracts of habitat decimated or fragmented due to deforestation, today, although Panthera onca is still king, it's a realm that's much reduced. For those who want a personal encounter with the magnificent big cat, Jaguar watching tours to the Brazilian Pantanal are really the only way to do so.
Panthera onca in the USA
Up to as recently as the 19th century, the big cat was still found in parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Texas, but it's been considered, for all intents and purposes, non-existent in the USA since the 1960s. There have, however, been isolated sightings of lone adult males at various locations in Arizona and New Mexico since 1996, although they have been rare and, in some cases, unconfirmed.
El Jefe – The Boss
In recent years conservationists have been keen to gather solid proof that any of these big cats really do exist in the USA – if only in isolation – and multiple reported sightings in the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson, Arizona, led researchers to the animal that's been dubbed ‘El Jefe’ – the Boss. Estimated to be about seven years of age, sightings of El Jefe began when he would have been around three.
Using sniffer dogs to track scat (faeces) camera traps were installed at various points in order to gather images of the elusive animal. Over a period of three years, El Jefe was captured in still photographs more than 100 times and, recently, with the use of innovative video imaging, he's become a movie star – with the release of unprecedented video footage by the Centre for Biological Diversity and not-for-profit organisation the Conservation CATalyst.
Roaming Far from Home
El Jefe and his predecessors are assumed to have originated from Sonora, in New Mexico. Around 250kms to the south of Tucson, this is the closest breeding population of the big cat. Young males are renowned for their propensity to roam great distances in order to establish their own home range once they leave their mothers, and El Jefe's boldness means he has staked his claim to a huge area of land encompassing both New Mexico and Arizona.
The vast 309,263-hectare tract has been designated critical habitat for the big cat, although, to date, El Jefe appears to be enjoying the semi-protected status on his own. Experts say that despite an abundance of smaller prey species and plenty of space (which the animals love), the natural tendency for females to remain closer to established ranges means that the likelihood of population growth is quite remote.
A spokesperson from the Centre for Biological Diversity said that many people had no idea the big cat once existed naturally in great numbers in parts of the USA. He said that by bringing awareness to the work of conservationists through the promotion of the video of El Jefe, they hope to inspire people in the USA and around the globe “to care more about the animal and support protection for their habitat”.
Jaguar Watching: Promoting Conservation Through Responsible Tourism
By supporting Jaguar watching tours to key habitat in the Brazilian Pantanal, responsible operators are also helping to raise the profile of the big cat. In providing a safe and accessible way for wildlife lovers to observe the animal in its natural environment, more and more people will be alerted to the importance and urgency of its preservation.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in Jaguar watching in the Brazilian Pantanal region. Being passionate about her subject, Marissa chooses the expert-led wildlife holidays organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.