Jaguars Seen Back in U.S. Decades After Being Hunted Out

Jaguars have reportedly been spotted along the southern border of the U.S, suggesting that their range may be moving northwards after the species was hunted out of the country in the mid-20th century.

In 2020, Ganesh Marin, a wildlife ecologist and Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona, noticed that a jaguar kept on showing up on wildlife cameras that he had set up along the Arizona border with Mexico. He named the big cat El Bonito—"The Beautiful" in Spanish.

The following year, Marin discovered that another jaguar had shown up in the territory as well, which he named Valerio. Now, he was seeing two young male jaguars roaming an area of land close to the U.S. border.

On Monday this week, San Diego news station CBS8 reported that a pair of males were spotted crossing into Arizona. The findings suggest that the species might be moving north to reclaim territory they once held before they were forced southwards.

A stock photo shows a jaguar in the wild. Jaguars once lived in the U.S. but were hunted out in the 1900s. Palenque/Getty

Jaguars are the largest big-cat species in the Western Hemisphere and the third largest in the world after tigers and lions. They are recognized as a priority species for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) due to the decimation of its population and habitat destruction in the last century.

The big cats have a characteristic spotted pattern similar to leopards of Africa and Asia, and typically have a fur color that is orange to tan. They can reach 9 feet in length including a 3-foot tail and can weigh up to 350 lbs.

It wasn't that long ago that jaguars lived in the U.S., with their territory stretching from California to Texas prior to colonization according to the Biophilia Foundation biodiversity group. Their numbers then dwindled until the last known female jaguar in the country was killed in Arizona between the 1940s and 1960s. Since then, males have been spotted sporadically.

"If we continue trying to protect the jaguars, maybe within about five years we could see pregnant females in the United States," Gerardo Ceballos, a researcher with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told National Geographic in July.

However, even if sightings of the big cats along the southern U.S. border can be taken as a promising sign, there are still obstacles in the way. One major obstacle is the U.S.-Mexico border wall partly constructed during the Donald Trump administration. Roads are another.

If the males can be allowed to venture north into the U.S., females will be likely to follow and the big cats' range will expand.

For this to happen, it will be crucial to maintain open corridors in the western borderlands that jaguars will be able to use to cross into the U.S, according to Marin and his Ph.D. adviser John Koprowski.

"In our view, maintaining these corridors is crucial to connect fragmented habitats for jaguars and other mammals, such as black bears, pumas, ocelots and Mexican wolves," the two researchers wrote in an article for The Conversation.

"Habitat loss and illegal killings are still the main threats to jaguars in northern Mexico. Creating natural protected areas that could support breeding populations and offer routes for northward expansion would help accelerate natural recolonization of jaguars into the U.S."