The Earth

The Return of the Great American Jaguar

The story of tracking a legendary feline named El Jefe through the Arizona mountains

Photo credit Bill Hatcher
Photo credit:  Bill Hatcher

By Richard Grant

The jaguar known as El Jefe—The Boss—was almost certainly born in the Sierra Madre of northwest Mexico. Chris Bugbee, a wildlife biologist who knows El Jefe better than anyone, guesses that his birthplace was in the 70-square-mile Northern Jaguar Reserve in the state of Sonora. A team of American and Mexican conservationists do their best to protect the dwindling jaguar population there, and it’s within range of the Arizona border, where El Jefe made his fateful crossing into U.S. territory.

The gorgeous leopard-like rosettes were there in his fur at birth. Each jaguar has its own arrangement of these patterns, making individuals easy to identify. El Jefe has a heart-shaped rosette on his right hip and a question mark over the left side of his rib cage. Like all newborn jaguar cubs, he came into the world blind, deaf and helpless, and gradually acquired his sight and hearing over the first few weeks. By three months, the cubs have been weaned from milk to meat, but for the most part stay in the den. “It’s a lot of waiting around for mom to get back from a hunting trip,” says Bugbee.

By six months, the cubs are emerging under maternal supervision. Aletris Neils, a fellow biologist and Bugbee’s wife, studied a jaguar mother at the reserve in Sonora. “She would always stash her cubs on a high ridge while she hunted down in the canyons,” says Neils. “When she made a kill, she would carry the meat uphill to her cubs, rather than invite them down into possible danger.” Neils thinks El Jefe’s mother may have done the same thing, and that might partially explain his liking for high slopes and ridges as an adult, although all cats seem to enjoy a vantage point with a view.

We associate these sleek, swaggering, immensely powerful cats with Latin American jungles, where their populations are highest, but jaguars used to live all across the American Southwest, with reports of sightings from Southern California to the Texas-Louisiana border. They were hunted out for sport and their beautiful pelts and because they posed a threat to cattle. They were trapped and poisoned by semi-professional hunters who were paid a bounty by the federal government. The last recorded female jaguar in the United States was shot dead in Arizona in 1963.

El Jefe is the fourth documented male jaguar to make the border crossing in the last 20 years. Scenting the air for prey and threats and water, prowling through the night with the rocky ground under his cushioned footpads, conscious of the need for stealth and a safe place to sleep in the daytime, hyper­aware of sounds and movement, this young cat could never have known, or cared, that he was walking into a political firestorm.