El Jefe rests in a tree in a photo taken in the Whetstone Mountains in 2011. Photo by Donnie Fenn

I’m not a gambler by nature. You won’t find me in a casino or buying a lottery ticket. When it comes to seeking rarely seen wildlife, however, I’m an eternal optimist, willing to risk my time and effort for the ultimate “prizes” nature has to offer. Glimpses of flashy elegant trogons, rare and diminutive elf butterflies straying here from Mexico, hidden reptiles or nocturnal mammals – all part of my stock and trade as a naturalist. Regardless of whether or not I actually see something rare, consolation prizes in the form of many other species of wildlife, countless native plants, and wild experiences abound. 

I’m not immune to an ongoing obsession with a particular species. Enter one reclusive and hyper-rare feline, normally associated with parts more tropical: El Tigre, the jaguar.

Panthera onca is the world’s third-largest cat species on average – after Old World tigers and lions. Big males in South America can exceed 250 pounds, taking down large crocodiles as part of their diet. Our borderland cats seem to be more on the order of large mountain lions – the males perhaps 150-180 pounds. Females, which have not been reported in Arizona since 1963 when one was unceremoniously shot along the Mogollon Rim, average much lighter in weight.

The local diet of jaguars includes white-tailed deer, collared peccary, and even – in the case of the famous male jaguar, El Jefe, of the Santa Rita Mountains a few years ago – American black bear! El Jefe made national news for a while as he roamed various Sky Island ranges. He was photographed in a tree in the Whetstone Mountains in 2011.

Jaguars have one of the largest ranges of any of the 36 or so cat species on the planet. In recent times – think around 1900 – they roamed from California to Louisiana in the U.S. all the way to Uruguay in South America. Here in Arizona over the past few centuries these iconic cats have been recorded in Madrean evergreen woodland (composed of oaks, pine and junipers), along rivers, and in mountains to over 9,000 feet in elevation. Clearly this is no finicky cat. Left to its own devices and unmolested by humans, the jaguar is a supremely adaptable top predator able to thrive in a variety of environments.

We, however, rarely do leave it alone. Essentially all of our Arizona records in this time frame constitute humans killing jaguars for “sport” or as supposed reprisals or preemptive hits for livestock depredations. There was even a bounty on them in the state for a time. 

Now, in an effort to right our ecological wrongs, environmentalists are encouraging recolonization of the state by this veritable shadow of a cat – one that is rarely glimpsed even where it is considered to be relatively common. 

The Sky Islands have witnessed a handful of jaguar sightings in the form of camera-trap photos and even a few direct ones since 1996. They all appear to be lone males ranging up from known breeding centers in Sonora, Mexico. No evidence of females has been documented during the same time span, leading some resource agencies to declare the jaguar a mere stray in the U.S. and hence, unfortunately, not worthy of truly safeguarding.

This sort of logic belies the recent range of the jaguar here, the key role humans played in initially extirpating it in Arizona and beyond, and the potential for a breeding population to reestablish itself here and in the greater Southwest. Protect this big cat and you automatically safeguard many other species requiring the very same large chunks of intact habitat.

Envision a near future where thriving populations of jaguars, cougars, bears, and a litany of smaller creatures draw in tourists and their dollars. A green economy – sustainable, friendly to the planet, and filling the coffers of local tourism-based businesses. The remote, frozen and mosquito-infested Yellowstone area relies partly on its top predators for the thriving eco-tourism there. Take away the grizzlies, wolves, bison, elk, and other charismatic large fauna and watch their revenue wither away. Along with New Mexico, Arizona is currently the only place in the entire U.S. where someone – perhaps you – might sight el tigre. Let’s not squander this feline prize, otherwise our future might be spotty.

Vincent Pinto and his wife, Claudia, run RAVENS-WAY WILD JOURNEYS LLC, their Nature Adventure & Conservation organization devoted to protecting and promoting the unique biodiversity of the Sky Islands region. RWWJ offers a wide variety of private, custom-made courses, birding & biodiversity tours. Visit ravensnatureschool.org