News USA The celebrated border crossing of El Jefe, the jaguar that managed to...

The celebrated border crossing of El Jefe, the jaguar that managed to get around the wall between the US and Mexico

It is unknown where he was, the paths he crossed or the many prey that may have fallen under his powerful claws during this time. Those who knew of its existence wondered if it would have left offspring in its wake, or lost its life in some remote point of the many kilometers it used to travel. Until just over a week ago, the cameras recorded his return to Mexico.

El Jefe, one of the longest-living jaguars known to exist in the US-Mexico border region, reappeared in Sonora in early August. “We don’t know when he crossed, if he spent the whole year in Arizona or Mexico,” says Carmina Gutierrez, Research Coordinator of the Northern Jaguar Project®, one of the eight organizations of the binational initiative. Borderlands Linkages for the conservation of this species on both sides of the border. “We also have no idea what points of the territory it crossed,” clarifies the biologist. “But the reappearance of this specimen is good news, it means that there is still a possibility that the fauna moves between one country and the other” despite the hundreds of kilometers of walls, fences and border fences that divide both countries, adds Roberto A. Wolf, director of the same association.

First sighted by a hunter southeast of Tucson in 2011, the last time infrared had recorded its presence was in 2021, already in Mexican territory. The photograph was taken by Profauna, an association in Coahuila that also belongs to the binational group. “For years, large jaguars have been registered on both sides of the border. Which means that the conservation work in the region is bearing fruit,” says its director, Sergio Marines, celebrating the last sighting of the already famous specimen.

The Chief was recognized by the pattern of rose-shaped black spots that the Mayans, who used his fur as clothing of power, interpreted as stars in the night sky. “The specks have a unique pattern, they are like our fingerprint. So it is easy to identify them”, explains Gutierrez, who has been tracking the third largest cat in the world for more than 20 years, after the tiger and the lion. And the largest in America, where 18 of its countries live. “It is also the most threatened carnivore in the region,” says Daniela Medellin, a biologist at the Laboratory of Ecology and Conservation of Wildlife, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

“The jaguar is distributed from northern Mexico to Argentina. In the southern United States there are some, but the population is almost extinct,” says Medellin, one of those responsible for carrying out the last national census of jaguars in the country.

In Mexico, some 4,800 jaguars are estimated, most concentrated on the Mexican Pacific coast and in the southeast of the country. The Yucatan Peninsula is the region with the largest population; Reserves such as Calakmul and other state reserves, the habitat of this animal, constitute the best preserved forest areas in the country. “With more than one million hectares protected, in the last 10 or 15 years, the number of jaguars has increased thanks to conservation strategies implemented in collaboration with governments, organizations and landowners,” says the UNAM biologist.

Despite the increase in its population, this graceful feline faces many threats. The main one is the human presence, which with each passing day takes away more territory. “They are animals that require a large area to move. The average of a male ranges from 90 square kilometers to 200. But they can much more”, highlights Medellin. “We have data on movement ranges of more than 800 square kilometers in the same area,” says Gutierrez.

The wall, an obstacle for fauna

In addition to the expansion of human settlements, road construction and mining activities, “in our territory the most serious problem is very evident,” says the director of the Northern Jaguar Project®, whose headquarters are located in the spectacular landscape of deep canyons that descend from the highland peaks and valleys of the mountains of Tucson, Arizona. Surrounded by steep cliffs and outcroppings of volcanic rock, the association bought a huge ranch in the Sierra Zetasora in 2003, expanding to more than 22,000 hectares as land for the conservation of the feline. This territory extends to the border crossing with the largest clandestine migratory flow that has existed since the 1970s: the border between Mexico and the United States, currently limited by fragments of fences, walls and fences that fragment its habitat.

Panoramic view of the border wall in the El Pinacate nature reserve on the border line between the State of Sonora and the State of Arizona, in 2020.Hector Guerrero

“And that of so many other species,” says Miguel Gomez, administrator of the reserve. As the guardian of the sanctuary explains, the wall not only has drastic consequences on human lives, but also “devastating effects on fauna. It prevents the passage and movement of carnivorous animals such as bears, wolves, coyotes and various felines, including the puma and the jaguar.

For centuries, the divisions along the border have been a problem for the largest herbivore that crosses these lands and that is also in danger of extinction: the impressive American bison. “Starting in the 16th century, with the establishment of cattle ranching in America and the installation of fences, when the large bovine ranches originated, the migration of bison and other animals was interrupted between the land crossings that connect the United States with Mexico. . “In works carried out with historians, it is reflected how these settlements impacted especially on large mammals and their predators,” says Marines. Profauna, the organization he joined at the age of 17 as a volunteer and now heads, is focused on buffalo conservation.

“But the caliber of the border wall is already an absolute obstacle for the jaguar and its prey, such as pronghorn or deer,” says Gomez. The monster of infrastructure in sight is not the only thing that prevents the passage of so many animals. “The foundation of the underground walls also affects different species of rodents, such as prairie dogs, and fragments the bird ecosystem,” he adds.

“The wall is a very serious problem that arises from unsuccessfully attempting to solve a very complex situation, in turn causing another with environmental effects that require an urgent solution,” says Wolf when asked about the announcement made by US President Joe Biden, who recently warned the closure of various entrances to try to stop immigration between Arizona and Sonora, jaguar transit steps. “I don’t have the solution to the complex social problem that migration represents, but building a wall like this doesn’t provide one either, and its effects on biodiversity may be irreversible,” the director of Proyecto Jaguar del Norte®, an initiative that It was born from the work of biologist Carlos Lopez, today part of the organization’s board of directors. “He was the one who achieved the first scientific photograph that demonstrated the presence of jaguars in Sonora, a population that supports their migration to Mexico,” says Wolf. That sighting, more than two decades ago, prompted initiatives for the conservation and repopulation of the feline in Arizona, where it was already considered missing.

The conflicts generated with ranchers are other causes that almost caused the extinction of the northern jaguar. “They hunt them for alleged predation, claiming that they kill their livestock. But normally the cows that are eaten died for other reasons and they only take advantage of a dish already served”, reasons Gomez. “All species of carnivores scavenge: It’s easier to eat an animal that’s already dead than to run after a live one and waste energy,” says Wolf, who has experience resolving conflicts with ranchers. “Another great risk is the use of poison, something common, for example, in Chihuahua. I remember a very controversial case in which a wolf that had eaten a cow was poisoned. The worst thing is that poisons with a residual effect continue to be used, which are passed from one consumer to another in the chain, even affecting the eagles”, he points out.

“Although poaching as a trophy hardly exists anymore, because no one is going to have the audacity to sell their skin in a market, they continue to be largely eliminated due to their alleged predation,” agrees Marines, whose organization works with residents to raise awareness about the problem. “If there is a good balance of natural prey, the jaguar will focus on them and the cattle will remain protected,” says the director of PROFAUNA. “In our reserve they feed on wild fauna, especially deer and wild boar, but they can feed on more than 150 species,” says Gutierrez.

After more than two decades studying them, the coordinator of the Northern Jaguar Project® has become one of the greatest experts on the big cat. “Long-term monitoring allows us to learn a lot of new things from them. Until now, the literature indicated that, although they lived for many years in captivity, in freedom they did not exceed 12. But we are already proving that they are longer-lived than previously believed,” says the biologist. El Jefe, who is precisely calculated at that age, is a clear example.

Aerial view of the border wall in the area of ​​the Coronado National memorial nature reserve in Arizona, in 2020.
Aerial view of the border wall in the area of ​​the Coronado National memorial nature reserve in Arizona, in 2020.Hector Guerrero

Its return is another piece of evidence that reinforces what conservation groups have been trying to justify for years to protect it: “It is no longer a theory that the territory between the two countries is the passage of jaguars. Their return is indicative news that these animals move between kilometers and kilometers from one side of the border to the other, ”says the expert, responsible for identifying up to 176 individuals in the last 20 years in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range, where it is unknown how many actually inhabit.

What biologists are clear about is that all jaguars in Arizona were born in Mexico. “Because a female has never been documented in the United States. But the fence makes it very difficult to follow up and demonstrate the obvious that they need to move through the bordering territories,” says Gutierrez.

In all these years, the organization for which the biologist works has only managed to intercept a few specimens. There are barely three jaguars that were seen on both sides of the border and that, like El Jefe, managed to circumvent a wall built by man that is lethal to their own species and many others.

Source: EL PAIS

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