It’s said that of all the world’s big cats, jaguars are the only ones that can’t be tamed. They have thick, muscular bodies, stocky limbs and massive skulls. Yellow eyes ringed with black peer out from gorgeously spotted coats. In the shifting, dappled light of the high mountains and impenetrable jungles they call home, they are all but invisible — the ghosts of the Americas, enigmatic, elusive and alone.
“If there’s one defining characteristic that distinguishes it from the other big cats, it’s that you never know what a jaguar is thinking,” Alan Rabinowitz, a big cat expert, once told National Geographic. “… That’s why you don’t see them in circus acts. You don’t even often see them in zoos, because they’re not a good exhibition animal. They’re a lone, solitary, almost moody type of species.”
But there is solitary, and then there is utterly alone. El Jefe, an adult male jaguar thought to be the only one of his kind in the entire United States, is the latter.
The big cat, who stars in a short video released Wednesday by the Center for Biological Diversity, doesn’t look lonely. In the footage researchers spent three years trying to collect (jaguars are nothing if not masters of stealth), El Jefe stalks through scrubby grass and dense forest in the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson, Ariz. It is the first time anyone has seen a jaguar in motion in the United States in more than six years.
But what El Jefe doesn’t know is that he’s a relic, not a sign of resurgence.
Jaguars have lived in the Americas since the Pleistocene and once ranged across most of the western United States. But they were hunted out of existence in 1965, when the last known member of the wild U.S. population was shot and killed by a deer hunter in the Patagonia Mountains near Tucson, according to Smithsonian Magazine.
Arizona outlawed jaguar hunting four years later, and jaguars worldwide are now considered “near threatened” and protected by the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
But the cats that have popped up in the past half century — probably visitors from a population in Sonora, Mexico — have not fared well.
“They turn around and come back to Mexico or they get shot,” Rabinowitz told The Washington Post in 2014. “They don’t establish themselves [in Arizona].”
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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Sarah Kaplan