Full of power and grace, the jaguar is a symbol of mystery and wilderness throughout the Americas. El tigre is known far and wide as a magical cat—elusive, crafty, and fierce. While they prefer to live near warm, wet, riverine areas, jaguars thrive in a multitude of habitats from the jungle to desert to pine forests.

So powerful was the jaguar that ancient civilizations worshiped it as a god. Now it is on the brink of extinction. Centuries of reverence quickly turned to hatred. Hunting, logging, overgrazing, rampant development, and government predator "control" programs have all but eliminated the western hemisphere’s largest cat from the American Southwest.

Jaguars used to roam the borderland states from southern California to Louisiana. A small population of jaguars was known to exist in Arizona and New Mexico, as far north as the Grand Canyon. As late as the 1960's, jaguar reproduction was documented in Arizona (in the form of kittens shot dead). But the same federal predator extermination program that wiped out wolves also targeted jaguars, and along with the efforts of individual ranchers, jaguars were extirpated from the United States.

Nevertheless, the big spotted cats still roam up into their ancestral U.S. range from Mexico, often to meet the same fatal fate. In 1997, a legal and grassroots organizing campaign by the Center for Biological Diversity resulted in the jaguar's listing as an endangered species in the United States, finally providing the species legal protection.

Now the Center is participating in a multi-agency Jaguar Conservation Team that is dominated by the livestock industry and advocates of killing predators. The Center's role ensures that the biological needs of recovering jaguars are prioritized over political concerns. For instance, through participation on the Team's habitat subcommittee, we were able to block a proposal to only consider a narrow range of former jaguar habitat (that does not include the Gila National Forest and other key areas) for future recovery efforts.

The Center has also documented a series of jaguar sightings in and around the Gila National Forest, including several that were either never reported to wildlife authorities or had been ignored once reported. This documentation will help us garner a proper evaluation of the Gila's habitat suitability for jaguars, in preparation for development of a federal Jaguar Recovery Plan.

The future recovery plan must include the Gila Ecosystem and many of the Sky Islands where jaguars used to roam. A combination of private efforts and those of the Jaguar Conservation Team will point to the best remaining habitats for jaguar augmentation or reintroduction.

graphic Andrew Rodman ©2002
October 8, 2004
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