Will 2009 mark the end of wild jaguar sightings in the U.S.?

The elusive Southwest jaguar (Photo: Arizona Game and Fish)

I am delighted to be guest-blogging on The Perch in conjunction with the release of my new book, The Jaguar's Shadow: Searching for a Mythic Cat. This book is a hybrid. It is a primer on the natural history of the largest feline in the Americas, a summary of conservation efforts on the endangered animal's behalf, and the story of the myriad ways indigenous peoples have held Panthera onca sacred. I have tied these elements together with a narrative of my obsessive multi-year quest to actually see a jaguar in the wild.

Amazing but true, jaguars have roamed the Southwest for centuries, despite sanctioned hunting of the rare cats as late as 1969. I am betting this secretive feline, protected for four decades, will persist in the desert mountains of Arizona and New Mexico. But odds against this grow longer. Why?

First, experts cannot agree on how best to study this shy critter without killing it. This past February, an old male called Macho B was snared in the outback south of Tucson. Sedated and fitted with a satellite collar, then released, this jaguar was recaptured only 12 days later, critically ill. Macho B was rushed by helicopter to the Phoenix Zoo, where he was judged to be suffering from kidney failure so extreme that the cat was put out of his misery. Critics say the capture was bungled and possibly illegal. Thus ended field study of an animal photographed by camera traps 82 times since hunters stumbled upon him in 1996.

Investigations into the capture and killing of Macho B continue, but since his death, no jaguars have been confirmed in the Arizona. (Three others were photographed in Arizona between 1997 and 2008.) In New Mexico, it has been 14 years since a verified sighting. Some observers believe the time has come to be more aggressive in looking for the endangered cats—largest in the Western Hemisphere—so we can improve their chances of flourishing in the U.S. Others think the current low-key approach works fine. No one seems to agree on how or whether to snare and collar another all-American jaguar. As a result, no one is trying.

A second factor impinging jaguar survival in the U.S. poses a trickier conundrum. Recently implemented security measures along our southern frontier present virtually impenetrable obstacles to ground-dwelling animals that have traditionally enjoyed free transit to and from Mexico. This shuttling has sustained sources of food, water, mates, and safety for jaguars as well as tortoises, pronghorn, mountain lions, bears, coatis, and opossums. Steel walls up to 16 feet high now seal much of the border, with razor wire and anti-vehicle barriers extending for miles along the rest. Because the scientific consensus holds that jaguars detected recently in the U.S. were born in Mexico, there is concern that these obstacles cut off Arizona and New Mexico from breeding populations deep in Sonora. (No jaguars have been confirmed in California or Texas for more than 50 years and are presumed extirpated there.)

I am still on a quest to meet Panthera onca in the wild, an obsession I detail in The Jaguar's Shadow: Searching for a Mythic Cat. I believe it still could happen in southwestern New Mexico, where I live. But government authorities and concerned scientists must work harder (and quickly) to keep our southern border animal-friendly.

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