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Rare find: Only known U.S. jaguar caught on video in AZ mountains

He’s been living in these mountains, about 25 miles south of downtown Tucson for more than three years, the Center for Biological Diversity reports.

This beautiful, spotted cat is about seven years old, The Associated Press reports. He’s one of only four or five jaguars that have been observed in the U.S. in the past 20 years, and he’s the only wild jaguar that’s been officially documented in the country.

“A lot of people have no idea that we have jaguars in the United States or that they belong here,” said Randy Serraglio, of the Center, which is based in Tucson. “In bringing this video, we hope to inspire people to care about these animals and support protection for their homes.”

Conservation CATalyst, an organization focused on cat conservation, works with the Center and captured the videos of El Jefe. There are a dozen or so cameras in the area where El Jefe lives, and plans are in the works to add more, Serraglio said.

Chris Bugbee, a biologist with Conservation CATalyst said they have spent three years in the mountains tracking the big cat, USA Today reports.

Because jaguars are so elusive, studying them anywhere is challenging, but following the only known jaguar in the U.S. is even more challenging, he said.

“These videos represent the peak of our efforts,” he said.

Jaguars were once found throughout the Southwest, but they have vanished over the past 150 years due to habitat loss and predator control programs that protected livestock. The very last verified female jaguar was shot and killed by a hunter in northern Arizona in 1963, The Associated Press reports.

As the largest of South America’s big cats, jaguars (Panthera onca) once roamed from the continent’s southern tip all the way north to the region surround the U.S.-Mexico border, National Geographic reports. Now, the only places where jaguars are found in significant numbers occur only in remote regions of South and Central America; especially in the Amazon Basin.

These majestic cats were revered by ancient Native American cultures. Some traditions told of the Jaguar God of the Night, lord of the underworld. The name jaguar comes from the Mayan word yaguar, which means “he who kills with one leap.”

In Europe, the jaguar Panthera gombaszoegensis roamed Germany, Spain, Italy, France, the Netherlands and England 1.5 million years ago. In North America, the jaguar Panthera onca augusta, known as the Pleistocene North American jaguar ranged all the way up into Washington. Fossils of the great cat have also been found in Chile, and Piaui, Brazil, and it lived from 1.8 million years ago to 11,000 years ago.

Now, El Jefe perhaps walks the paths of his ancestors, but there is concern for his future. A Canadian mining company wants to develop a huge open-pit copper mine in the middle of his territory. The Center claims that the mile-wide open pit and accompanying 800-foot-high piles of toxic mine waste would forever destroy thousands of acres of jaguar habitat that is federally protected.

“Clearly, the Santa Rita Mountains are a vital part of this cat’s home range,” Bugbee said, per the Center. “This jaguar has been photographed in every month of the year in these mountains — there are more than 100 detections of him in the Santa Ritas since 2013 — how could anyone argue the importance of these mountains?”

But Patrick Merrin, vice president of the Hudbay Rosemont project told The Associated Press that the mine will only occupy “a very small fraction of the jaguar’s 50 miles-plus range.” The mine itself will stretch nearly eight square miles in the more than 215 square miles of the Santa Rita mountains, he added.

In a statement, Merrin said the company will work with federal agencies to establish conservation and mitigation measures for the jaguar as well as other animals and plans.

However, Serraglio said that the Rosemont mine would destroy El Jefe’s home and severely impact recovery of the big cats in the U.S.

“At ground zero for the mine is the intersection of three major wildlife corridors that are essential for jaguars moving back into the U.S. to reclaim lost territory,” he said, per the Center. “The Santa Rita Mountains are critically important to jaguar recovery in this country, and they must be protected.”

It is comforting to think this Jaguar God of the Night, this lord of the underworld has indeed followed the paths of his ancestors, and conservationists believe El Jefe’s mother lives not too far away.

It is to be hoped that these beautiful cats can permanently make their homes in the U.S. and thrive unimpeded.

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