March 25, 2008

Elusive Jaguars Found in Arizona

As the U.S. government plans to complete a pedestrian fence to effectively seal off heavily crossed areas of the border between the U.S. and Mexico, environmentalists and biologists like Emil McCain are studying the possibly negative effects imposed on a group of extremely rare jaguars.

The jaguars are known to travel through the mountains from Mexico into the southwestern U.S.

McCain, a wildlife graduate student at Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif., was recently thrilled to find four photographs of the elusive jaguars taken by remote cameras stationed in the Arizona desert in a project to support his master's thesis on mountain lion activity.

McCain, who was taking classes a thousand miles away when the images were taken, said he instantly knew they were jaguars.

"There's a sense of not being the top dog anymore when you know there's a jaguar around,' he said. "They're a very powerful animal and their presence (even if unseen) is overwhelming."

Each photo shows a jaguar walking away from the camera. One photo appears to be of the same jaguar photographed by Arizona houndsman Jack Childs in 2001, which suggests that it is actually a resident of the area. The others indicate a possibility of two other jaguars prowling the area.

"Those two points are really huge," said McCain's major advisor, HSU wildlife Professor T. Luke George, who referred to McCain as "one of those people born 150 years too late."

McCain said the government enforced immigration fence could prohibit the remaining jaguar population from venturing into their conventional territory.

"The low flat valleys are effectively walled off to wildlife. As a result everything is funneled up through the high mountain ranges that span the border" McCain said.

"The border barriers are directly linked with the funneling of people into the last remaining habitats. Jaguars are very solitary animals, they can't move freely where there are a lot of people."

Believed to have become extinct in the U.S. until Arizona rancher Warner Glenn captured images of one in New Mexico in 1996, jaguars are the only roaring cats in the Americas.

"It was unforgettable, probably the most exciting day I have had in my life," Glenn said.

The images taken by Glenn and Childs helped win federal protection for the animals as an endangered species the following year.

McCain joined forces with Childs and his wife Anna Mary to found the nonprofit Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project which set up 40 to 50 cameras to photograph jaguars roaming through a highland wildlife corridor in the southwest known as the "Sky Islands."

Over the past seven years, researchers have photographed four or five jaguars, all of which were males.

"Because there are no females and no reproduction, jaguars in the United States are totally dependent on cross-border movement," said McCain. "That connectivity with Mexico is absolutely crucial."

McCain said he is worried that there might be no conservation plan to save the remaining felines in their habitat.

"After the Border Patrol finishes securing the lowland areas they will be forced to extend those walls out across the mountain ranges and totally seal off any hopes of jaguars crossing back and forth," he said.

"The jaguar is a great emblem of wildness and an example of a healthy ecosystem. It really inspires people and creates a sense of wonder at the natural world. And in today's world, we really need that."


On the Net:

Humboldt State University

Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project