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NMSU Scientists Discover Stealthy Jaguars in Northern Mexico

NACORI CHICO, Mexico - Caught in the glare of an automatic camera trap that sensed his silent passing, Panchito, a 150-pound wild jaguar, barely registers a flicker of interest as he pads past. Named for Pancho Villa, the elusive Mexican revolutionary who invaded New Mexico in 1916 and was chased into Mexico by U.S. forces but never captured, Panchito seems just as determined to roam free.

A lithe adult jaguar, its eyes aglow, triggers a camera trap that is automatically activated by heat and motion. New Mexico State University researchers have been clicking away along known jaguar corridors in the mountains of northern Mexico for the past two years. (11/24/2003) (Courtesy Photo by Octavio Rosas)

The big cat is one of at least five rare, wild jaguars discovered by a team of New Mexico State University wildlife researchers living in what amounts to an isolated ecological sanctuary deep in the mountains of northern Mexico, but less than 120 miles from the U.S. border. Though jaguars are third-largest cat in the world, topped only by tigers and lions, they remain mysterious.

"Jaguars are probably the least studied large cats in the world," said Raul Valdez, a wildlife ecologist with NMSU's fishery and wildlife sciences department. And there's a good reason. The stealthy cats are solitary animals, often going to great lengths to avoid humans and even other jaguars, he said.

Many experts believed the big cats had virtually vanished from the United States, but they're still around, albeit rarely. In 1996, two sightings were documented in the Baboquivari Mountains west of Tucson and in the Peloncillo Mountains, along the New Mexico state line.

Those discoveries led Valdez to ponder just where those cats came from. Soon he and his team were headed south, conducting field surveys along a natural wildlife corridor that runs from Douglas, Ariz., to Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains. The search for el tigre, as the locals called the jaguar, turned up little until NMSU scientists arrived in Nácori Chico (NAH-ko-ree CHEE-ko), a tiny Sonoran farming community.

Situated at the confluence of three rivers - Yaqui, Bavispe, Papigochic - the area is a transitional land zone that resembles tropics more than desert mountains. From horseback, the research team combed the mountains, plowing through dense vegetation to interview farmers and ranchers, as well as search for tracks and jaguar sign.

"We found el tigre," said Octavio Rosas, a native of Mexico who leads NMSU's field studies as part of his doctoral research at NMSU. From jaguar tracks and camera traps, Rosas now knows there are at least three female and two male jaguars in the area. "They're well-fed and doing well."

Using a 130-square-mile region around Nácori Chico as experimental base, several studies are underway to determine the jaguars' feeding and breeding habits, along with their range. The researchers are also laying the groundwork for a mutually beneficial conservation agreement between local landowners and jaguar population. The plan focuses on jaguars' ability to bring in new income for farmers and ranchers through ecotourism.

The NMSU project is supported by a grant from the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society. "Little by little, we are beginning to piece together the life history of jaguars," said Alan Rabinowitz, WCS director of science and exploration. "This project will provide much-needed data to better understand these mysterious big cats in their northernmost range."

Rabinowitz's work to save the jaguar is featured in a new National Geographic special, In Search of the Jaguar, premiering on PBS, Wednesday, Nov. 26, at 8 p.m. ET.

While jaguars are commonly associated with lush South American jungles, they were once native to California, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. They still roam freely from Mexico to the tip of South America, but here in the United States, most of the 70 jaguars killed or reported in the last 100 years occurred before 1950. Valdez said U.S. populations likely dipped because of federal predator control programs and hunting by private livestock producers.

Still, there are multiple efforts to save the big cats. The jaguar has been listed as an endangered species since July 1997. Historically, jaguars have been revered among some indigenous groups as religious icons. From an ecological standpoint, jaguars are the top predators of their habitat, serving as an indicator or flagship species.

"If you have big predators like jaguars and pumas, then you know that the habitat is healthy," Rosas said.

Easily identified by their bold polka-dot fur, jaguars are great cats in every sense of the word. Belonging to the genus Panthera, the big cat clan includes leopards, lions and tigers.

Although smaller than the other big cats overall, the jaguar has a comparatively large head, strong jaw and broad paws with sharp claws. They can be large, measuring almost 6 feet from nose to tail and weighing up to 270 pounds in South America, though most are between 100 and 200 pounds.

The next step in NMSU's jaguar research is to equip some jaguars with radio collars, as well as competing big cats such as the pumas found in the Nácori Chico region. The collars would allow the researchers to pinpoint the animals' movement.

While two pumas have been trapped and collared, the jaguars remain elusive. "We've tried very hard to trap them, but so far no luck," Rosas said. "It's like they're trying to outwit us." Somewhere, deep in Sierra Madre, Panchito must be agreeing as he slips silently through the underbrush.