JAGUARS: Can They Stage a Comeback in Arizona
By Jeff Egerton
In 1986, a large male jaguar was cornered by hounds and shot in the Dos Cabezas Mountains of southern Arizona. Tragically, this was the last jaguar known to live in Arizona. The last female had been shot in 1963, so clearly there had been no breeding taking place. The obituaries were written and wildlife aficionados mourned the loss of another species. This, in an area that begs for wildlife diversity.
Well, something about southern Arizona must appeal to the most magnificent of all the large cats, because there have been recent sightings of jaguars north of the border. Either they’re trying to move back into southern Arizona, or they never left. Regardless, the stage is set for a happy ending. Unfortunately, before this happy ending can come to fruition, we have to deal with the consequences of the multi-tentacled monster known as illegal immigration.
In 1996, Warner Glenn, a rancher and hunting guide from Douglas, spotted a large cat in the Peloncillo Mountains, east of Douglas. Thinking it was a cougar, he grabbed his camera. After a closer look, he said, “God almighty, that’s a jaguar!” Glenn photographed the cat, then allowed it to go on its way. Six months later Tucson hunters Jack Childs and Matt Colvin treed another jaguar near the reservation of the Tohono O’Odham Nation. The one hundred and fifty pound cat was groggy from feeding, and allowed the men to videotape it at length.
Jack Childs became a jaguar researcher and traveled to Brazil’s Pantanal wilderness to study the cats. In 1999, he began placing remote cameras in southern Arizona. In 2001 he saw his first jaguar photograph. The cat, which appeared healthy, well fed and heavily built, weighed in between 130 and 150 pounds. Childs named it Macho A. The cat appeared on film again in August 2003, and in September 2004. Since then Childs has seen a second male, Macho B, and possibly a third.
Alan Rabinowitz, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Science and Exploration Program, believes the cats might be dispersing from a population known to exist in Sonora, Mexico, about one hundred and thirty miles south of Douglas. He believes the population in Sonora might be in serious trouble, and likens their wandering to a desperate attempt to survive in any way possible.
Other opinions differ, however, claiming that the yellow and worn teeth on Macho B indicate it is four to six years old. This is past the age when it would leave its home turf and search for a new habitat. If this is true, the cats that have been seen and photographed are permanent residents, rather than transients. There is also the hopeful prospect that the third cat in the photos is a female and breeding is taking place.
Jaguars (Panthera onca) are the largest cats in the Western Hemisphere. Larger and stockier than their cousins, they’ve been called a leopard on steroids. The background of their coat is tawny-yellow, lightened to white on the throat and belly. They’re marked with small spots on the head and neck, and dark open-ring rosettes on the sides and flanks. The rosettes on the jaguar and leopard are almost identical, but the jaguars have spots inside the rosettes, where the leopards have none. The spots along a jaguar’s back often merge into a solid line. Melanistic jaguars have been observed in South America with heavily pigmented coats that are almost black. One albino cat, with pink eyes and white claws, has been observed.
The jaguar’s robust stature and legendary strength have given it the reputation of being a large cat, but in reality males rarely reach three hundred pounds and average 175 to 200 pounds. The largest are found in the Pantanal region of Brazil. Females are somewhat smaller, averaging 70 to 90 pounds.
Whereas most large cats kill their prey with a bite to the throat or neck, Jaguars kill their prey with a bite to the temporal bones of the skull resulting in instant death. The South American Indians coined the name yaguara, which means “a beast that kills with one bound.”
The primary habitats of the jaguar include the dense tropical rain forests and swampy grasslands of Central and South America. They have occasionally been found above 8,000 feet. In the damp forest habitat, jaguars like to roam close to rivers, streams and lakes, and are strong swimmers. Like the leopard, it also frequents open country, especially in the most northerly and southerly parts of its range. Their distribution ranges from northern Mexico (and now southern Arizona!) to south central Argentina. At one time they ranged as far north in the U.S. as Washington State, and were seen in California as late as the mid 1950s.
Since the early 1970’s the jaguar has been on the list of totally protected animals in most South American countries. Belize has the world’s only park, opened in 1984, dedicated to the preservation of the jaguar.
Throughout South and Central America, vast areas of wilderness are being cleared for agriculture and cattle ranching. Human encroachment permanently alters the eco-system by cutting down forests and disrupting the normal hunting and traveling patterns that resident cats have established. As more areas open up for development, the jaguar continues in direct competition for its food. Turtles, tortoises, monkeys capybara and fish that they normally feed on, are being captured and sold for their meat. The caiman population, also a jaguar staple, have been decimated to satisfy the skin trade. The competition for food and habitat looks as a larger threat to jaguars than the demand for their skins. Their numbers are diminishing, even though they’re formidable predators, often taking animals as large as peccaries and tapirs.
Jaguars have no established breeding season, with reproduction taking place any time during the year. A series of roaring “calls” and urinary scent marking by both sexes, help amorous males locate receptive females during estrous. After mating, the pair separates, with the female providing all parenting for the offspring. Litters average one to four cubs, born blind, with each weighing two to two and a half pounds, after a gestation period of 95 to 105 days. The cubs generally remain in the den for up to six months. The coat of the cub is wooly with spots much like the adult pattern, although the background color on the adult is more subdued. The cubs are weaned by the age of three months when they begin to accompany their mother on hunts, ultimately remaining with her for up to two years, when they leave to establish territories of their own. The average life expectancy for a jaguar in the wild is 15 to 20 years, with captive individuals often exceeding 25 years.
Jaguars, with a 1.5 million year history, were once an abundant part of American fauna. At one time they ranged as far north in this country as Washington State, and were seen in California as late as the mid 50s.
The last one hundred years have been especially hard on them. The technology and human population boom of the post World War II years, has obliterated more than half their habitat in the western hemisphere. Central America lost 65 percent of its forest cover and Brazil 58 percent. Demand for their pelts, and game hunting also played a major part in the reduction of their overall numbers. In 1969, 10,000 skins, valued at $1.5 million dollars were imported into the U.S. Livestock farmers and jaguars have always been at odds, although recent studies indicate the big cats get blamed for more livestock deaths than they cause.
Fortunately, the entire jaguar population is getting help from some dedicated and resourceful advocates who are waging a battle, on several fronts, to assist in stemming the population decline.
In 1999, the Wildlife Conservation Society held a workshop that brought together more than two dozen experts from throughout the jaguar’s range. The workshop spawned the WCS Jaguar Conservation Program. Using Global Information System technology, they developed maps of existing jaguar habitat. They also determined where good jaguar populations existed, and assessed the most significant threats to jaguars. They then devised a strategy to mitigate those threats and protect important populations through the cat’s range.
The group then set up Jaguar Conservation Units, which are areas of intact, though unprotected, jaguar habitat. In the next few years they carried out exploratory surveys, population estimates, and ecological research in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil.
The program also launched experimental projects with ranchers to resolve jaguar-livestock problems in the Brazilian Pantanal, the Venezuelan Llanos, the Belize rain forest and Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. A jaguar education curriculum was developed in Spanish, and a grant program funded young nationals who wanted to help conserve their country’s jaguars.
As the people in the program collected more data, they made an amazing discovery—Jaguars are travelers, and journeys of 500 miles are not unusual. In 1993 reports surfaced of jaguars swimming across the Panama Canal. Tracks on Barro Colorado Island confirmed the reports. Then came Glenn’s sighting in southern Arizona. This led to the discovery of the small population of jaguars in northern Sonora, Mexico. By now the wildlife experts are wondering— where are the nomadic cats going to turn up next?
The WCS Jaguar Conservation Program was renamed Paseo Tigre—The Path of the Jaguar. The program was also refocused to include study of the jaguar’s routes between their populations, as well as established habitats.
The Center of Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife are taking legal approach to the jaguar’s protection. They filed suit in federal court to ensure the return of North America’s largest cat. The litigation, targeting Interior Secretary Gale Norton, and the Fish and Game Wildlife Service. The litigation, targeting Interior Secretary Gale Norton, and the Fish and Game Wildlife Service, seeks to jumpstart conservation actions through the timely creation of a recovery plan, six years after the jaguar was listed as an endangered species in the United States. In a recent settlement, the government agreed to decide by July, 3, 2006, on critical habitat areas considered important to a species recovery.
This is all encouraging news for the overall jaguar population. Unfortunately, from a local viewpoint, there’s a large dose of vinegar with all the honey. In the coming years, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security plans to fight the illegal immigration problem by building an impenetrable fence along the international border. The jaguars, of course don’t know where the border lies, but they’re about to find out. When the fence goes up, their range will be severely restricted, and we might be slamming the door on them. In the interim the increase in human, vehicular and airborne traffic will certainly have an adverse effect on the cat’s habitat in Arizona.
However, there’s a chance that I’m not giving these incredible creatures enough credit. We gave up on them once—but nobody told the cats that they’re not supposed to be here.