Jaguar conservation hopes follow ‘El Jefe’ every time he crosses the border wall

MEXICO CITY (AP) — They call him “El Jefe,” he is at least 12 years old, and his crossing of the heavily guarded U.S.-Mexico border has sparked celebrations on both sides.

“El Jefe” —or “The Boss”— is one of the oldest recorded jaguars along the border, one of the few known to have crossed a border partially bordered by a wall and other infrastructure to stop drug traffickers and migrants, and the one believed to have traveled the furthest, say environmentalists with the Borderlands Linkages Initiative, a binational collaboration of eight conservation groups.

That assessment is based on photographs taken over the years. Jaguars can be identified by their spots, which serve as a kind of unique fingerprint.

The northern jaguar’s rare ability to cross the border suggests that, despite major impediments, there are still open corridors and, if they remain open, “it is feasible to (conserve) the jaguar population in the long term,” Juan Carlos said. Bravo from the Wildlands Network, one of those groups in the initiative.

But some fear for the future of the jaguars. Although it was the Trump administration that reinforced and expanded the border wall with Mexico, the Biden administration has announced plans to close four gaps between the US state of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora, the two states that jaguars traverse.

Conservationists don’t know how many jaguars there are in the Sierra Madre Occidental, but of the 176 that have been identified over two decades by the Northern Jaguar Project, another group in the initiative, only two others are known, in addition to “El Jefe” , they have crossed the border, said Bravo. In one case, conservationists aren’t sure if the jaguar crossed the border dead or alive since only its skin was found.

The first photograph of “El Jefe” was taken by a hunter southeast of Tucson, Arizona, in 2011, Bravo said. The jaguar became famous in Arizona and was named “The Boss” by a local school. Motion-sensing cameras installed in transit areas photographed the jaguar in Arizona again in 2012 and 2015.

Conservationists were stunned when they confirmed that a photograph taken by another coalition member, Profauna, last November in central Sonora was “El Jefe.” The discovery meant not only that jaguars could still cross the border, but that other jaguars they had lost track of could also be alive, the initiative said in a statement.

Hunted in the southwestern United States for bounties offered by the government to promote ranching, they were thought to have disappeared from the United States by the end of the 20th century. Jaguar populations are currently concentrated on the Pacific coast of Mexico, southeastern Mexico, Central America, and central South America.

A sighting of jaguars in the United States in 1996 prompted studies that found a reproductive point in central Sonora.

They call him “El Jefe,” he is at least 12 years old, and his crossing of the heavily guarded US-Mexico border has sparked celebrations on both sides. #Jaguar Conservation #Big Cat Population #Border Wall

NGOs have banded together to operate on both sides of the border to track the cats, create sanctuaries, understand where they have moved to and seek the support of landowners in the US and Mexico to protect them, Bravo said.

In addition to the difficulty of determining where to place the cameras to record the animals and the subsequent analysis of the images, conservationists in Mexico face another problem: drug cartels.

“There is a presence of armed groups and drug traffickers” who pass through the same isolated areas as the jaguars, Bravo said by telephone from Sonora. “It’s important to move carefully, to work with the people in the communities who tell us where not to go… All of that is making it very, very complicated.”

The border is the main challenge to hopes of repopulating the American Southwest with jaguars, with walls preventing the movement of those animals, as well as antelope, black bears and Mexican wolves, Bravo said. Light towers and roads used by Border Patrol are also a problem, he added.

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