© Content copyright 2015 by Richard Mahler. All rights reserved.

Black jaguar rescued from the wild. Courtesy of Belize Zoo.

Spotting a Jaguar No Easy Task


from Arizona Highways magazine, March 1995, p. 30-31


They have been called, in apt comparison to the late and famously shy movie star, "the Greta Garbo of cats." Even biologists who study jaguars in their prime habitat may go months, even years, without seeing a specimen in the flesh. In Arizona, where a mere glimpse is headline news, only a handful of people have ever encountered a wild jaguar, one of the state's rarest animals.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime event," concedes Jack Childs, a retired Tucson land surveyor who was among a party of four Arizonans who observed a male jaguar in the rugged Baboquívari Mountains southwest of Tucson on August 31 1996. "Our hounds bayed him into a juniper," recalls Childs, who captured the animal on videotape. "Eventually the jag seemed to get bored and he just laid his head down to go to sleep."


Although Arizona's Game and Fish Department has been flooded with reports ever since, it has documented only three other jaguar sightings in recent years. Two involved a male photographed twice by unattended surveillance cameras at undisclosed locations near the international border, while another male jaguar was tracked and photographed on Mar. 7, 1996 along the Arizona-New Mexico border by rancher Warner Glenn.


"There have been lots of rumors but no hard evidence of jaguars in Arizona since August 2003," says Childs, who oversees a network of 30 surveillance cameras monitoring the passage of large animals. "I'm sure the ones we've been seeing are random individuals from Mexico. I've found absolutely no evidence of a breeding population of jaguars in our state during the eight years I've been studying them."


Bill Van Pelt, a wildlife biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department , agrees that jaguars are likely coming from Mexico to hunt or to expand their territory. "The nearest known breeding pair," he says, "is about 135 miles south of Douglas." Since 2003, Van Pelt's agency has been working with a team of scientists and local authorities to determine the migration patterns of Sonora's estimated 100 remaining jaguars. "No one knows their range for sure," says Van Pelt, "but it is probably as large as that of mountain lions, which are known to travel 200 miles or more."


According to research conducted by biologist David Brown at Arizona State University, there have been at least 59 confirmed jaguar sightings in Arizona since 1900. During that time, the species has occurred as far west as Prescott, east to the White Mountains, and north to the Grand Canyon. The most recent sightings, however, have been within 50 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.


Secretive by nature, jaguars roam mainly at night, preying upon deer, javelina, and smaller mammals. Long despised by ranchers, they will sometimes take livestock. They are the largest cats in the Americas and have golden coats dappled by patterns of black spots and rosettes that are as unique as fingerprints. More closely related to leopards than mountain lions, jaguars are distinguished from the latter by their capacity to roar as well as their extreme adaptability. Commonly associated with tropical jungles, they also are found in deserts, swamps, grasslands, and pine forests from Mexico to Argentina.


"It's always been a peripheral animal here," believes ASU's Brown, noting that there have been no documented female jaguars in Arizona since at least 1963. Brown, who co-authored "Borderland Jaguars" with Mexican researcher Carlos López González, says expert opinion is divided on when or whether jaguars were well-established state residents. Historical records confirm the species has been seen throughout the Southwest, with encounters verified since 1850 in California, New Mexico, and Texas. During pre-Columbian times, the cat may have roamed as far as Oregon, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.


"The only reason the jaguar doesn't breed today in Arizona is because ranchers and government agents systematically wiped them out," contends Michael Robinson of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. His group sued the federal government in 2003, arguing that it has not done enough to protect the jaguar, an officially-recognized endangered species in the U.S. and most other countries in the Western Hemisphere.


Since 1997, however, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has participated in a coalition of government agencies, nonprofit groups, scientists, and private citizens called the Jaguar Conservation Team, which is developing a regional management plan for jaguars. The group has been gathering and disseminating information about the cats with the goal of strengthening their protection. With the group's help, the first sanctuary for border-area jaguars has been established in the heart of its Sonoran breeding grounds.


"It's incredibly exciting to have these magnificent animals in our state," concludes the Game and Fish Department's Bill Van Pelt. "If anybody in Arizona sees a jaguar, we definitely want to hear from them."

© Content copyright 2016 by Richard Mahler. All rights reserved.