Only Known Wild Jaguar in the U.S. Spotted in Arizona

America’s last known wild jaguar, El Jefe, has been spotted on camera, highlighting the need to protect critical wildlife from extinction.

El jefe
Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity captured on video the only known wild jaguar currently in the United States, El Jefe. (Courtesy of Conservation CATalyst & Center for Biological Diversity)

This page was published 8 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

El Jefe is the United States’ only known wild jaguar, and earlier this month he was caught on video for the first time. He was filmed in the Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona, just southeast of Tucson. Over the past several years, El Jefe has been photographed on a few rare occasions, but this footage offers considerably more insight about this mysterious animal and his vulnerable habitat for researchers, conservationists and the interested public.

In 2011, El Jefe (which means “the boss” or “the chief”) was photographed in the Whetstone Mountains in Arizona, east of the Santa Rita Mountains. To map the scope of this animal’s habitat, the Whetstone and Santa Rita Mountains are about 50 miles apart. On the other side of the Whetstone Mountains is the San Pedro River valley, a massive and richly diverse wildlife corridor where scientists say El Jefe and smaller, endangered ocelots may roam. The 2011 photos and this new video give us a glimpse of the areas El Jefe—along with a myriad of other animals and plants—calls home. It’s hard to imagine just how far this jaguar can travel, but El Jefe has most likely made his way throughout the valley and surrounding mountain ranges many times, taking advantage of abundant resources and the protection of undeveloped land around the San Pedro River.

The video of El Jefe is a reminder of the tenacity of nature, but also the threat that growing numbers of endangered species in this region face. The San Pedro is the last undammed river in the American Southwest, providing a home and migratory resting ground to more than 400 species of birds, 100 species of butterflies, 83 species of mammals and 47 species of amphibians and reptiles. Jaguars are just one of many animal species for which the San Pedro River valley and surrounding mountains are critical habitat. Unfortunately, the river’s flow is under threat from groundwater extraction to supply building projects in the area, aided by rising temperatures brought on by global warming.

Besides El Jefe, the valley supports two other federally recognized endangered species: the Huachuca water-umbel and the Southwestern Willow flycatcher. The survival and prosperity of these species and their habitats depend on the protections they are granted through the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Without the ESA, these species could join the countless others that have gone extinct in recent history. Scientists agree that extinction rates today are at the highest level since the dinosaurs were erased from the earth 65 million years ago. These numbers may seem daunting, but the amount of biodiversity that the Endangered Species Act has protected is incalculable.

El Jefe and the San Pedro River valley are living proof of the resilient and cooperative nature of wildlife. They have withstood attacks and encroachment over and over again, and their ability to regrow is astounding. Unfortunately, no species is exempt from the threat of extinction. There is no turnaround or regrowth post-extinction, making the Endangered Species Act our best defense against the current extinction crisis.

Since January 2015, Congress has introduced 79 pieces of legislation to undermine or dismantle the ESA. The safeguards of the ESA are essential for the survival of animals like El Jefe, which means that protecting the Endangered Species Act from these political attacks is too. To defend El Jefe and other endangered creatures from current and future political attacks, sign your name to our petition and join the 90 percent of American voters who support the Endangered Species Act. 

Noa Banayan was an intern with the Policy & Legislation team in Washington, D.C. for the spring 2016 semester.

Established in 1989, Earthjustice's Policy & Legislation team works with champions in Congress to craft legislation that supports and extends our legal gains.