SCIENCE
02/04/2016 06:13 pm ET

Rare Footage Captures America's Only Known Wild Jaguar

The video shows the majestic cat, named "El Jefe," roaming free in Arizona.

In the Santa Rita Mountains outside of Tucson, Arizona, roams a lonely and unlikely predator. 

His name is El Jefe, Spanish for "the boss" -- and he is America's only known wild jaguar.

While scientists have been tracking the animal for about three years, the big cat is making his video debut after the nonprofits Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity unveiled dramatic footage of the predator in his natural environment.

"A lot of people have no idea that we have jaguars in the United States or that they belong here," said the center's Randy Serraglio, according to The Associated Press. "In bringing this video, we hope to inspire people to care about these animals and support protection for their homes."

Jaguars once roamed throughout the American Southwest, with historical reports putting them as far north as the Grand Canyon and as far east as Louisiana, the center said in a statement. But over the last 150 years, these large, majestic felines vanished from their U.S. range as a result of habitat loss and predator control efforts.

According to CBS News, 7-year-old El Jefe is one of only four or five jaguars that have been spotted in the U.S. in the last 20 years. He's also the only one known to live in the country since a 15-year-old cat named Macho B died in Arizona in March 2009.

The last verified female jaguar in the U.S. was reportedly shot by a hunter in Arizona in 1963.

Studying these elusive cats anywhere is extremely difficult, but following the only known individual in the U.S. is especially challenging." Biologist Chris Bugbee

Chris Bugbee, a biologist with Conservation CATalyst, has been collecting data on El Jefe for the past three years. He was finally able to track and capture the new footage of the cat using a "specially trained scat detection dog" and strategically placed cameras.

"Studying these elusive cats anywhere is extremely difficult, but following the only known individual in the U.S. is especially challenging," Bugbee said in a statement.

The Center for Biological Diversity says the footage comes at a "crucial point" in the rare cat's conservation, as a Canadian mining company is proposing to develop an open-pit copper mine in the area. The nonprofit says the proposed Rosemont Mine would permanently destroy thousands of acres of federally protected jaguar habitat.

"The Santa Rita Mountains are critically important to jaguar recovery in this country, and they must be protected," Serraglio said in a statement.

Jaguars are the third-largest cats in the world, behind tigers and lions. While they once roamed from Argentina to the American Southwest, their population now occupies only about 46 percent of the historic range.

As National Geographic reports, El Jefe likely wandered to the U.S. from Sonora, Mexico. More than 125 miles to the south, the state is home to the closest breeding population of jaguars. 

“Just knowing that this amazing cat is right out there, just 25 miles from downtown Tucson, is a big thrill,” Serraglio said.

See below for the full video of the Arizona jaguar.

 

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