El Jefe, North America’s Long Lost Jaguar, Is Back

El Jefe the jaguar was a national sensation until his disappearance in 2015. Now the boss is back 120 miles away in Mexico.

El Jefe, the boss, is back.

Conservationists have finally confirmed that North America’s most well-known jaguar, known as El Jefe, appeared for the first time since 2015. He became a national sensation after being discovered in southern Arizona in 2011 and was declared the only wild jaguar in the U.S. Over four years, the black and orange spotted big cat roamed mostly around the Santa Rita mountains, captivating conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts around the world. Then, El Jefe disappeared.

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While some worried that El Jefe died, others believed he traveled to northern Mexico, where a small population of jaguars continued to live freely. But no one knew for sure—until now.

Motion-activated trail cameras set up in the northern Mexican state of Sonora, which borders Arizona, caught a glimpse of a similar-looking jaguar in November 2021. After months of analysis with other organizations like the Northern Jaguar Project, the cat was finally declared on Aug. 3 to be the legendary El Jefe.

“It’s truthfully really lucky. It’s like winning the lottery,” Antonio Esquer, the Sonora coordinator for the Mexican conservation organization Protección de la Fauna (PROFAUNA), told VICE World News. “You’re searching for years, putting in effort, monitoring, and suddenly, he appears. It’s very remarkable.”

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El Jefe was photographed on a camera set up by PROFAUNA more than 120 miles south of his last known location in Arizona. Esquer said the cat was found in the rough vicinity of the Sonoran town of Moctezuma, although he couldn’t reveal the exact location to protect El Jefe from illegal wildlife hunters.

Esquer said that it was “curious” that El Jefe was found in that region of Sonora, “which is a relatively low lying part that is an area where jaguars have not normally been found.”

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“So, obviously, in terms of science we want to know more,” Esquer said. “How are the jaguars moving, where, how often are they doing it, what are their routes? Because that is going to help us a lot to guide the efforts of conservation.”

But why exactly El Jefe disappeared is also a mystery, especially since it took place around the same time that former U.S. president Donald Trump began building his border wall. The border wall immediately faced fierce resistance from conservationists who said the wall limited myriad species like Mexican wolves, bisons, and ocelots in the region, including endangered jaguars like El Jefe.

“This massive Jaguar has no possibility of being able to get through the border wall. So he's going to rely on these areas where there aren't yet border infrastructure and those are becoming few and far between,” said Aletris Neils, the director of Conservation CATalyst.

“Could it be that he has tried to come back to Arizona and has been impeded by these border walls? Absolutely. And now he's just being forced to kind of stay in Mexico, whether he likes it or not.”

Neils offered her own hypothesis about the life of El Jefe and explained why now, more than ever, it was important that El Jefe could potentially return to Arizona.

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“He was probably born in Sonora and then he was not able to compete. There are these large, dominant territorial males that force young males to leave,” Neils said. “So he left. He came to Arizona. There weren't border infrastructures, obviously, with where he passed and arrived here. So he grew up. He went from being this lanky teenager to this incredibly, you know, sexy adult in his prime.”

“He went from being this lanky teenager to this incredibly, you know, sexy adult in his prime.”

El Jefe was estimated to be around 2 years old when first spotted in 2011. Over the four years watching him, Neils said that she and other scientists noticed that El Jefe was becoming agitated.

“We could see he was making these, like, long movements and his testicles were swelling up. And he clearly was looking for a female. And he was at the point where he could actually compete. He could hold a territory and become the dominant male,” said Neils. “But there were no females here. And so he then had to go back to Sonora, where he’s clearly been successful…He went down there, claimed a territory, and thrived.”

Neils marveled at the health of El Jefe in the recent photos, especially since now, he’s estimated to be around 12 years old, which would make him one of the oldest documented living jaguars ever in Sonora. Jaguars life spans often don’t even reach double digits. But that’s also why El Jefe could be in trouble again.

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The discovery of El Jefe over a decade ago was a big deal at the time. It came just two years after the only other jaguar unequivocally documented on both sides of the border, known as Macho B, who had returned to Arizona to wile away his final years, died after a controversial capture by U.S. authorities in 2009. At the time, researchers thought that no wild male jaguars remained in the U.S.

“They [jaguars] come back to their former range to retire. So when they no longer can compete with these younger territorial males, now they're going to need to come back. And if he [El Jefe] doesn't have an opportunity to get away from these males, then they could potentially kill him,” Neils said.

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So when El Jefe appeared in 2011, many were elated, especially in nearby Tucson. The Center for Biological Diversity, which helped discover the jaguar, held a contest to name him, which an elementary school class won and dubbed the cat El Jefe. The nickname stuck, and the cat's legend continued to grow for years even after his disappearance.

Jaguars, the third largest big cat after tigers and lions, once lived throughout Mexico and the southwest U.S. While jaguar populations remain in Mexico, north of the border, the cat had essentially been eliminated from U.S. territory by the 1960s after rampant wildlife hunting. Since then, the U.S. launched a federal recovery plan and jaguars are now protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

That status led to cross border projects like the Borderlands Linkages Initiative, which includes eight Mexican and U.S. conservation groups and is led by the international conservation organization Wildlands Network, to protect jaguar corridors in the borderlands. The project employs 150 motion-activated cameras including the one that spotted El Jefe, throughout the region.

El Jefe the jaguar in 2015. (Image courtesy of Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity)

Juan Carlos Bravo, Wildlands Network’s Conservation Programs Director, told VICE World News that this “kind of collaboration is critical and El Jefe is a good example of what we could accomplish if we did a little bit more on both sides of the border.”

“The community of Arizona really felt an affinity to this jaguar,” said Bravo. “It became a bit of a celebrity jaguar. And I think a lot of people, along with us, are excited that he is alive and well, at least as [recently] as November.”

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And El Jefe just added to his legendary status. Bravo said that although he couldn’t say with complete certainty without all the facts, but “I suspect that once we've had a chance to review the specifics of this case, this will probably be the longest traveled distance ever by a jaguar, certainly in the region.”

Neils couldn’t say with certainty if El Jefe had tried to cross back into Arizona, but if he did, it would certainly be more difficult. Beyond the imposing border wall blocking transit, his home territory in the Santa Rita mountain ranges is now ground zero for a proposed new copper mine. The area had already been ravished by a separate copper mine a few years ago as well.

So while the sighting of El Jefe is exciting, Neils stressed the need to find ways to help the jaguars flourish, instead of impeding their rehabilitation in the American southwest.

“Jaguars, like many other species, rely on being able to come back and forth from Mexico. And so, it's absolutely vital that people understand that if this wall is finished, if we don't remove sections of the wall to allow key wildlife crossing areas, we're going to lose these species and we're going to lose them forever.”

Editor’s note 8/6: The description of Conversation CATalyst has been updated in this story.

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Tagged:

worldnews, border wall, Trump, Conservation, El Jefe, jaguar

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