Moving Towards a Future for the Jaguar in the United States
June 11 is World Jaguar Day and Defenders is celebrating this charismatic wild cat as we work to secure a future for this highly imperiled species. The border wall under construction in Arizona threatens to put an end to natural recolonization of the jaguar’s northernmost range in the U.S., but Defenders remains hopeful that this big cat can once again join the native fauna of the southwestern U.S.
Meet the American Jaguar
Jaguars are the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere, and the only one of the world’s five big cats that resides in the Americas. These distinctively spotted, solidly built cats thrive in a variety of environments, from the tropical forests to landscapes as varied as the open grasslands of the Argentinian Pampas to the arid, rugged terrain of Arizona and New Mexico.
Many people are surprised to learn that jaguars once roamed portions of Arizona, California, Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas. While colonizers drove jaguars from most of this range in the 19th century, the cats managed to hold on in remote corners of Arizona and New Mexico. By the 1920s, the jaguar’s waning presence on these landscapes led celebrated naturalist and New Mexico resident Ernest Thompson Seton to note,
Man is, of course, the implacable enemy of the Jaguar. It is only a question of time now, and maybe very little time, so far as the United States is concerned, before man sends his masterpiece of creation the way of the Dodo, the Auk, the Antelope, and the Sea-cow (1925).
Around this same time, another resident of New Mexico and early ecological thinker, Aldo Leopold, took a trip to the Colorado River delta seeking the fabled cat. He later reflected,
We saw neither hide nor hair of him, but his personality pervaded the wilderness; no living beast forgot his potential presence, for the price of unwariness was death. No deer rounded a bush, or stopped to nibble pods under a mesquite tree, without a premonitory sniff for el tigre. No campfire died without talk of him (1947).
These men wrote at a time when the loss of the jaguar seemed a foregone conclusion, a casualty of widespread predator eradication efforts. While sporadic reports of jaguars in the region arose throughout the 20th century, the cats were all but forgotten, lost to the growing human populations of these western states.
It was not until the 1990s when two ranchers, one in New Mexico and one in Arizona, encountered two different jaguars and made the decision to capture the cats on film rather than kill them, that an interest in conservation was rekindled.
Since that time, remote camera traps have documented jaguars in the early 2000s and again with more regularity from 2011 to 2017. First, a jaguar named “Macho B” left a record of trail camera photos in his wake that stirred public interest, and more recently cats named “El Jefe” and “Sombra” (each named by school children in Tucson, AZ) have fascinated the public, with images and video from their annual treks into Arizona shared by millions on social media.
Notably, the jaguars documented in the past 20 years in the U.S. are all males. Male jaguars have very large ranges, and these fellows represent the northernmost residents of their kind. The source population for these jaguars is believed to be in northern Sonora, Mexico, where a patchwork of protected federal reserves and private lands create pathways for these transboundary wanderings.
While jaguars have reclaimed a toehold north of the U.S.-Mexico border, they face many challenges to their survival. Defenders of Wildlife staff and scientists are working at local, regional and international levels to protect these cats in the southwest United States and throughout their range.
Threats to Survival
One of the most significant threats jaguars face is the fragmentation and loss of their natural habitat. From the Amazon to the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, human alteration of lands for extractive industries like cattle ranching, forestry and mining, encroaching urban development and an ever-expanding network of roads. This loss of habitat limits prey availability, prevents individuals from finding mates (with serious implications for the genetic health of the species), and exposes the cats to hazards like vehicular strikes and conflict with ranchers.
In the northernmost extent of their range, one of the most significant threats to jaguar survival is loss of connectivity, blocking transboundary movements and migrations. Perhaps most notably, the proposed replacement of vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border with 30-foot-high concrete and steel bollard walls surrounded with 150 foot-wide, brightly lit “enforcement zones” along an increasingly militarized political border would severely impede jaguar movement. Further, the proposed alteration of habitat in the region by mining interests have threatened key habitat preferred, and occupied, by jaguars in the U.S. in recent years.
Retaliatory killing by ranchers also remains a considerable problem for jaguars, particularly where jaguars take cattle and other livestock or come into conflict with working dogs.
While jaguars have long been killed for their distinctive pelts, increasingly, jaguars are being hunted for their teeth and bones. A recent rise in poaching is concerning, as jaguars have become tiger-substitutes in these traditional Chinese medicine practices, putting these cats at the forefront of conservation concern. With just 64,000 jaguars left in the wild, these loses have significant impacts on the survival of the species.
Hope for Jaguar Futures
Alongside our partners, Defenders is working at the international level to address threats from illegal wildlife trade to border wall construction that impede recovery of this great cat. While jaguars face many challenges to survival, Defenders is working with partner organizations in the U.S. Southwest to revive recovery efforts; Our goal is to see these awe-inspiring big cats repatriated to their natural range in Arizona and New Mexico for future generations to marvel.
As Representative for Texas, Shari focuses on wildlife habitat connectivity and restoration; private landowner outreach; ocelot and jaguarundi conservation; and threatened and imperiled species including bears, raptors, bats, reptiles and amphibians. She also serves as a member of Defenders’ borderlands jaguar conservation team.
Southwest Program Director
Bryan Bird directs Defenders’ efforts to protect imperiled wildlife and their habitats across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.