El Jefe, the only wild jaguar known in the United States, has made his film debut.
In unprecedented video released by the nonprofits Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity, the big cat is seen prowling the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson, Arizona.
He's no stranger to the media limelight, though: Trail cameras have photographed the male more than a hundred times over the past three years, and schoolchildren named him El Jefe—which means "the boss" in Spanish—during a nationwide contest in 2015. (See "'Indomitable' Jaguars May Have Lessons in Survival for Us.")
To catch the solitary cat on camera, conservationists used dogs to sniff out jaguar scat, and then installed cameras in these strategic spots.
A U.S. jaguar is rare indeed. As late as the 19th century, the big cats frequently roamed from northern Argentina into Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. But ranchers and farmers settling the American West pushed the world's third-largest cat out of its territory.
By the time Arizona's last legally hunted jaguars were shot in the 1960s, there were no known females left in the U.S. The species is now listed as near-threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Today only the occasional outlier like El Jefe makes an appearance. (See "First Jaguar Caught in U.S. Put to Sleep.")
“He's typical of the extreme toehold that this species maintains in the U.S.,” says Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer for Panthera, a global wild-cat conservation organization.
“Since 1996 there has been evidence of a jaguar in New Mexico or Arizona every year. But I think it has been a total of four or five individuals and they've all been adult males.”
El Jefe and his male predecessors seem to have dispersed from the closest breeding population which is located in Sonora, Mexico, more than 125 miles (200 kilometers) to the south.
“Probably these individuals left that breeding population in Sonora and struck out on their own as young male jaguars do,” Hunter explains. “Their mothers kick them out of their birth home range, and these young male cats are great explorers.” (Learn more about National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative.)
Thanks to his epic journey, El Jefe is the boss of 764,207 acres (309,263 hectares) of Arizona and New Mexico set aside by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical jaguar habitat.
“He's managed to find what a male jaguar really wants—space and a good habitat with lots of prey like white-tailed deer,” Hunters says.
More jaguars would likely find the area to their liking, Hunter adds, but females' stay-at-home nature leaves future U.S. population growth in doubt. (See "Pictures: Jaguars Spotted on Colombian Plantation—A First.")
“For a female cat to naturally colonize the United States again from that Sonora population would be really difficult.”