El Jefe: Is this the United States' last jaguar?

El Jefe has eluded biologists for years but the male jaguar has finally been caught on video, leading experts to push even harder for habitat protection.

The first video footage of a jaguar in the United States was released by the Center for Biological Diversity and Conservation CATalyst Wednesday. 

The footage of the male jaguar, referred to as El Jefe by locals and scientists alike, was captured in the Santa Rita Mountains, just outside of Tuscon, Ariz. 

“This is the only known jaguar currently in the United States. However, there is a breeding population 100 miles south of the border [in Mexico],” Aletris Neils, founder and executive director of Conservation CATalyst, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Wednesday. “For jaguars, that is not far at all.”

Ms. Neils says that the Tuscon area is a perfect habitat for El Jefe, as long as there remains open land connecting his Arizona home and the Mexican population. 

“Jaguars have always occurred in Arizona and yet we know so little about them in the northern portion of their range,” Chris Bugbee, a biologist with Conservation CATalyst, says in a press release. 

El Jefe, and the jaguar species in general, remains elusive to experts. A team of biologists and advocates from these two organizations have spent the last three years tracking El Jefe’s tracks and scat through the Santa Rita Mountains, but this is the first time video footage of the cat has ever been captured.    

So what now? 

“Smack in the middle of his territory is a proposed copper mine,” Neils says. “That not only has the potential to destroy his habitat, but it will also influence prey. This cat will have to relocate to in a different area where he might not be as successful.” 

The  Rosemont Mine is a controversial project owned by Canadian mining company HudBay Minerals. The open-pit copper mine will measure a mile-wide and a half-mile deep and it is planned for 30 miles south of Tuscon in the Santa Rita Mountains: the exact location of El Jefe’s habitat. And the mine would damage surrounding areas as well, say El Jefe’s advocates, because 800-foot-tall piles of toxic mine waste would destroy thousands of surrounding acres

“The Rosemont Mine would destroy El Jefe’s home and severely hamstring recovery of jaguars in the United States,” Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity, says in a press release. “The Santa Rita Mountains are critically important to jaguar recovery in this country, and they must be protected.” 

Mr. Serraglio says the mine is planned for a critical habitat at the intersection of three wildlife corridors. This area is “essential for jaguars moving back into the US to reclaim lost territory,” he adds. 

The video footage came at a critical time, say experts at the two organizations. They hope the video of the only US jaguar will make people aware of the imposing threat to El Jefe’s habitat. 

“We need to get the message out that the only cat left is threatened by this proposed mine,” says Neils. 

And El Jefe is at prime breeding age and condition, say experts, so relocation could prevent a future population increase. 

“He is in prime condition, he has been able to thrive,” adds Neils. “Everything we look at from a scientific perspective – he is an absolutely premium male.”

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