...So why am I here? Because this is where the infinitesimal population of US jaguars almost certainly comes from – and if they stop breeding in this corner of the Sierra Madre the species will likely lose its precarious Southwest foothold forever. I’ve been writing about jaguars for over 20 years, following their saucer-sized paw prints from US borderlands south to Panama’s Darien Gap. On this balmy evening my journey has taken me deep into the Mexican state of Sonora, which borders Arizona and New Mexico.
In Teddy Roosevelt’s day jaguars roamed across most of Arizona to the rim of the Grand Canyon, into southwestern New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness, and over the Río Grande into the Big Bend of Texas. But about a hundred years ago, US jaguars were targeted for extermination as part of a government-sponsored program of livestock-predator removal. Bounty hunters were paid to eliminate all large carnivores, including wolves, grizzlies, and mountain lions, another of the four so-called “big cat” species. The grizzlies and wolves were wiped out – though wolves have been reintroduced, they are struggling to gain a foothold here. But mountain lions and a few jaguars survived.
This northernmost jaguar is so rare and so secretive that almost no one ever sees one. During the past 136 years, fewer than one hundred jaguar sightings have been confirmed in the US, virtually all in the Southwest and most by trophy hunters accompanied by scent-trained dogs. For decades, jaguars were thought to be extinct in the US, but in 1996 two of these cats were treed by hunters’ dogs. Since then, a total of five individuals have been verified: two in southwestern New Mexico and three in southeastern Arizona. A sixth was spotted just across the border in Sonora.
Operating in partnership with the Mexican conservation organization Naturalia, NJP has established an 86-square-mile reserve in Sonora for the protection and study of jaguars. This protected area is believed to be critical for the animal’s survival in northwestern Mexico and the southwestern US because the Sonoran jaguar population, too, is seriously threatened by habitat loss, reduced prey populations, and hunting. (Although killing a jaguar in Mexico is illegal and punishable by fines or jail time, poaching and retaliatory killings by ranchers are seldom reported or prosecuted.)
...Most importantly, NJP contracts with a dozen large ranches to pay for any camera-trap photos taken on these lands of jaguars, as well as mountain lions, bobcats, and ocelots. Dubbed Viviendo con Felinos (Living with Felines), the 55,000-acre effort involves placement of dozens of motion-activated cameras on these properties, which are monitored monthly by NJP’s “jaguar guardians” and scientists for evidence of cats and their prey.
“We understand that the local economy is based on cattle,” explains Javier Valenzuela Amarillas, a Sonora native and one of the NJP employees who checks cameras. “We respect that, and try to help ranchers and wildlife coexist.” Besides supplementing rancher income with cash (around $270 per jaguar photo), Viviendo con Felinos guardians suggest ways to minimize big cat depredation, such as keeping cattle away from areas frequented by jaguars and mountain lions. In addition, the NJP helps ranchers obtain Mexican government insurance policies that compensate cattle owners for proven livestock losses to jaguars.
As a result of these cooperative efforts, visiting Mexican biologist Miguel Gómez Ramírez told me, “the population of cats here is healthy and there are plenty of prey animals” for jaguars...