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Only Known Wild Jaguar Spotted by Wildlife Camera in Southern Arizona

Here, kitty, kitty!

That sound you heard outside the tent while camping near Tucson? It could have been a jaguar.

New wildlife-camera footage shot in the Santa Rita Mountains a few months ago shows one of Arizona's rarest and most beautiful mammals — Panthera onca, the native jaguar. This one even has a name: El Jefe. He's the only wild jaguar known to live in the United States.

The footage released on Wednesday (see below) was shot by Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity. Jaguars were believed to be extinct in the United States in the 1990s until one was spotted in Arizona in 1996. Since then, several have been seen in southern Arizona and New Mexico as they range north from Mexico. The federally listed endangered species have territories that can cover 500 miles.

After the 2009 death of Macho B, a jaguar captured and killed by a state official with the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, placing a radio collar on El Jefe probably wouldn't be allowed, says Aletris Neils of Conservation CATalyst, a Tucson-based group that helps monitor local and worldwide wild cat populations.

Since a University of Arizona monitoring project halted in June, "no one was monitoring this jaguar in Arizona," Neils says. So the two wildlife-preservation groups set up various cameras around the Santa Ritas, where El Jefe was known to roam. Thousands of human hours were expended in the hunt for pictures of El Jefe last fall, she says. Experts tracked the cat in part with the help of jaguar-poop-sniffing dogs.

"We've been able to put the story together of how he uses this habitat," Neils says. "He's in perfect condition. He's finding everything he needs to survive."

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One thing the jaguar may be having trouble finding, however, is a Mrs. El Jefe. The solitary animals are "incredibly elusive," and cameras haven't documented any other jaguars in the past three years. El Jefe seems to be the only one of his kind in the state — for now. The jaguar's range overlaps with females that presumably live in Mexico, and El Jefe — a "sexy jaguar," as Neils puts it — has a good shot at hooking up someday.

Neils says she's worried that El Jefe or his kin might not find the right habitat in Arizona once the Rosemont Copper Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains gets started. 

"We don't know if there are other places for this jaguar to survive," she says.

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