Protecting The Northern Jaguar
A century ago, jaguars roamed much of the southwestern United States, including most of Arizona.
Now, the only glimpses of the endangered cats in the United States are caught on camera just north of the U.S.-Mexico border.
In a recovery plan released this April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said bringing jaguars back to the U.S. means protecting the population south of the border in Mexico. That's what the Northern Jaguar Reserve is trying to do.
Part I: Cameras And Coexistence: Learning To Live With Large Cats
Dry grasses and grey-brown twigs crunched underfoot as biologist Miguel Gómez and his colleagues trudged up an overgrown trail in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range in late May. They were inspecting motion-activated camera traps on the Northern Jaguar Reserve, a private protected area about 130 miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border.
When they’d come across a camera tucked into a hillside or arroyo, Gomez clicked through photos of vultures, javelina, foxes, and most importantly, cats.
Mountain lions, bobcats, lots of ocelots and finally: A jaguar.
“There it is, the jaguarón,” Gómez said, his colleague whistling at the sight of the endangered cat.
Caught mid-stride, the jaguar's unique pattern of rosette spots were illuminated by the camera flash as it strolled through a palm-shadowed arroyo just a few nights before.
“Just knowing that you’re walking in a place where a jaguar has been a day, two days, two hours, before is something not very many people have the chance to do,” Gómez said.
He’s spent more than a decade tracking and studying jaguars in this region. But he’s still awestruck to walk in the footsteps of the huge cat.
“It’s something really special,” he said.
A Diminishing Species
Jaguars are shy, solitary animals with territories that can span hundreds of miles, Gómez said. But habitat loss, poaching and conflict with humans has meant both their numbers and range have diminished.
A century or so ago, jaguars roamed from the southern part of Argentina all the way north into much of the southwestern United States, including parts of Texas, News Mexico, California and most of Arizona.
Now, the only glimpses in the United States are caught on camera just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, usually in the mountain wilderness of southern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico.
Both the U.S. and Mexican governments now consider the cats an endangered species. But many biologists worry a proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall would threaten conservation and make it harder for jaguars to re-establish a population north of the border.
In a recovery plan released this April, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggested that the best way to bring jaguars back to the U.S. is by protecting the estimated 120 jaguars that live south of the border in Mexico, growing the Sonoran population and maintaining cross-border corridors that jaguars can use to move northward.
Coexisting With Cats
Central to that plan are efforts like the Northern Jaguar Reserve. The 55,000-acre private protected area was created 16 years ago by buying former ranch land and turning it into a haven for the northernmost breeding population of jaguars in the world. Here, jaguars and other animals can roam free without roads, mines, hunting or other human interference, Gómez said.
“The goal of the Northern Jaguar Project is to safeguard jaguars in this region,” he said. “And because the jaguar is an umbrella species, we’re protecting the rest of the plants and animals in the ecosystem at the same time.”
But it’s not enough just to buy up land for the reserve, he said. Jaguars live and wander across much larger areas. And once they leave the reserve, one of the biggest threats to the northern jaguar in Sonora is retaliation, he said. A jaguar kills a rancher’s cattle — or the rancher thinks it has — so the rancher traps and kills the cat.
“The perception here that the jaguar is a predator to cattle is one of the primary problems we have,” Gómez said.
So to break that cycle, in 2007 the reserve started Viviendo Con Felinos, or Living With Cats. It a voluntary program for nearby ranchers. If they agree to allow biologists with the Northern Jaguar Reserve to place and monitor cameras on their property, the reserve pays them every time a picture of a cat is taken on their land. Ranchers also have to agree not to hunt cats or their prey, and reserve biologists work with them to manage their livestock in a way that discourages depredation, or cats killing cattle.
For ranchers like Diego Ezrré, it seems to be working.
Every week, Ezrré drives his well-worn 1989 Toyota 4x4 up the mountainside from his home in the little town of Sahuaripa, Sonora, to his 2,000-acre working ranch, Rancho El Calabozo, just south of the jaguar reserve.
On a good day, the 45-mile trip takes him four hours, he said. It took us six, crawling up the rocky dirt road overlooking deep canyons and towering rock formations. This time of year it’s hot and barren in this part of the Sierra Madre. But as soon as the monsoons start everything changes, turning lush and green almost overnight.
Ezrre has been part of the Viviendo con Felinos program since the beginning, he said.
“At first, the attraction was the money,” he admitted. “But most of the ranchers who are in the program, our perspective has changed. We realize that the jaguars aren’t such a threat. They don’t cause nearly as much damage as illness and other things.”
Pouring cattle feed into a huge metal trough and tossing his horse, Ezrré calls the Northern Jaguar Reserve a “good neighbor.” Since the reserve blocked off the land to hunting and worked with other ranches to do the same, jaguars passing through his property are less likely to target cattle because there are plenty of deer and javelina, he said.
It’s that kind of change that has made the Viviendo Con Felinos program popular, said Carmina Gutiérrez, a reserve biologist.
“There is a big waiting list,” she laughed, sitting under a painting of a jaguar in the reserve’s main office in Sahuaripa. “At the beginning, in 2007, nobody wanted to work with us. But now they know that it’s better to have wildlife than to kill wildlife, so they are realizing they want to be part of this.”
There are currently 17 ranches covering more than 88,000 acres of land participating in Viviendo Con Felinos, Gutiérrez said. That’s more doubled the area where biologists can track, study and protect jaguars.
But change is slow, she said, and a lot depends on the choices the next generation of cattle ranchers make for their land.
“We don’t want them to decide not to be a cattle rancher, no, but to be a good cattle rancher,” she said.
Hope For The Future
As the morning bell rang at the local secondary school in Sahauripa, a group of kids ran across the street to a nearby basketball court to show off a mural they painted. Rolling green hills were covered with trees, flowers, birds and, of course, a pair of jaguars.
“We want to protect the jaguars, because if not they’ll go extinct, and we won’t see them. We’ll be left all alone,” said 11-year-old Claudia, one of a couple dozen students at her school who are in the EcoGuardian Club.
The reserve hosts workshops and campouts where these students learn that having jaguars in their midst isn’t a threat but an asset. And it’s making an impact, teacher Ramón Córdova said.
“They have a different perspective than my generation,” he said. “Little by little, they’re learning that it’s something special, that their home is like a sanctuary for these animals, and that they should want to take care of them.¨
Still, there’s a long way to go to fully protect the northern jaguar even just in this corner of the state of Sonora, Gutiérrez said.
“The work to try to change the mind for the whole community will be very, very difficult, and maybe I won’t see the results,’ she said. “Maybe that will be my son, my grandson, something like that. But I think we’re doing what we can.”
She hopes that will be enough.
Part II: Securing Jaguar Corridors
Cows splashed through a shallow creek just outside the little town of Alamos, Sonora.
Alamos is known as a charming Mexican pueblo magico, or magic town, designated for its rich cultural and historic significance, and its tourism potential.
This region is also recognized as an important ecological crossroads in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental. It’s home to the northernmost tropical deciduous forest in the Western Hemisphere, and it’s a critical connection point between Sonoran and Sinaloan jaguars, said Ramon Ojeda the GIS coordinator on the nearby Reserva Monte Mojino.
“This is the natural protected area Sierra Alamos-Rio Cuchujaqui,” he said as we drove through a 230,000-acre federal protected area. “Inside the federal protected area is Reserva Monte Mojino.”
The Monte Mojino Reserve is a 16,000-acre patchwork of former ranches pieced together to make a private reserve.
“What we’re trying to do is bring the level of conservation to a stricter level than they have in the federal protected area,” Ojeda said.
Because even most federally protected land is privately owned in Mexico, the government can only provide certain protections. For example, cattle ranching and some mining are being allowed in the protected area.
On the private reserve, they keep those kinds of human incursions out, Ojeda said.
Residents And Visitors
Until a few years ago, he said, researchers thought jaguars were only here in passing. But they started a camera monitoring program in 2014, and a few years later, one of the camera traps snapped a photo of a pregnant jaguar, Meche. A sign of a resident population.
As we hiked through the dry undergrowth in the reserve to the spot Meche was photographed, Park Ranger Alejandro Sauceda said she was caught on these cameras for three consecutive days in 2017.
“It was the first days of April,” he said. “And she was right here, by this little pool of water.”
Sauceda has been a park ranger on the reserve for 10 years, after the ranch he used to work on was purchased by Reserva Monte Mojino. He’s never seen a jaguar, he said, but he knows there here, both residents and visitors passing through.
The Sinaloa Corridor
“If connectivity between Sinaloan jaguars and the northernmost jaguars in Sonora is broken, in the worst-case scenario, the Sonoran jaguar could become isolated,” Ojeda said.
Cut off from genetic diversity, they would become vulnerable and eventually die out, he said. “And, well, that would destroy the hopes of the United States that someday jaguars would return to Arizona."
“The only corridor that currently has no population at the end of it is the one in Arizona,” agreed Howard Quigley, director of the jaguar program director and conservation science executive director for Panthera, a global wild cat conservation organization. He was also co-lead on a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service jaguar recovery plan released earlier this year.
Quigley said re-establishing a breeding population of jaguars in the United States depends on three things in Mexico: protecting jaguars in Sonora, protecting jaguars in Sinaloa, and making sure those two core jaguar population can connect.
"You need to have core populations that are well protected,” he said. “And you need to have corridors between them to make sure that that lifeblood of gene flow is going to maintain those populations.”
The problem is, right now there are limited protections in the Sinaloa corridor between Reserva Monte Mojino and a jaguar reserve in central Sinaloa, he said. “In that, what I call no-man’s land between Mazatlan and Alamos.”
Another problem: a proposed U.S.-Mexico border fence.
Back in Alamos, Lydia Lozano drives around town showing off colorful murals of jaguars painted on the walls of schools, restaurants and old buildings. They’re part of the annual Dia del Jaguar, or Jaguar Day celebration, in Alamos each October.
“You know, if you want to protect your jaguar population in Arizona, whether it’s one, two or three jaguars, you have to work with Mexico. And that’s reality,” said Lozano, Mexico director for Nature and Culture International, a San-Diego-based organization that runs Reserva Monte Mojino.
The few jaguars that are seen roaming Arizona have to be able to cross the border to breed, she said. The recently released USFWS jaguar recovery plan included at least two jaguar border-crossings.
Many biologists would like to see many more borderland corridors safeguarded from additional border fencing.
“So you have this jaguar recovery plan made in the U.S. but everything has to be done in Mexico," Lozano said, referring to the USFWS plan.
"And it’s pretty obvious, but that’s how you know that we’re all connected. You’re talking about a species that has been forever connected through America,” she said. “I’m just happy to find these partners that do understand that having a wall, it’s unnatural.”
The Bigger Picture
Lozano said for a long time conservation organizations had limited collaboration in Mexico, in because there was a lot of competition for resources. But she believes partnerships, whether it’s between the U.S. and Mexico, or Sonora and Sinaloa, are the best way to protect the jaguar across its northern range.
“I think NGOs and also donors are shifting into the vision of protecting something bigger than just dots on a map,” she said.
Instead, their finding ways to share information and skills between groups and between isolated reserves, stitching together pieces of the jaguar corridor, little by little.
“It’s at a very small scale compared to the jaguar corridor,” she said. “But it’s working.”
Jaguars numbers are still low in Sonora and throughout Mexico — there are only an estimated 4,100 in the entire country — and could be decades before their numbers reach healthy levels, Lozano said.
Conservation and species recovery, she said, are a long-term commitment.