In November of 2016, a remote camera in the Dos Cabezas Mountains of southeast Arizona caught a shot of a rare animal: a jaguar. This summer, video footage from a different camera in the Chiricahua Mountains of the same state revealed a familiar set of spots – the same jaguar, several months later, and looking quite at home in its new United States stomping grounds.

Video courtesy of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"This beautiful cat has now appeared in images taken seven months apart," said Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity in a press release. "It seems that it's established residence in excellent habitat more than 50 miles north of the [Mexican] border, which is great news for jaguar recovery."

The new video has now been publicly released by the Center, along with the big cat's affectionate name, Sombra. The moniker, chosen by students at Paulo Freire Freedom School in Tucson, is Spanish for "shadow", and cements the predator's place as part of the local Arizona community, something that conservationists are very excited about.

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The same jaguar was photographed in the Dos Cabezas Mountains late last year. Image: Bureau of Land Management

Though we think of them as Central and South American animals, jaguars were once common in the southwest United States, ranging from California to the Grand Canyon to Louisiana. But a long history of being targeted by hunters and government programmes (mainly in the name of protecting livestock), as well as losing the habitat it needed to survive, left the species virtually extinct in the region. In 2009, what was thought to be the last wild jaguar in the country was euthanised.

But the situation may be changing. Within just the past few years, three different jaguars have been spotted in Arizona, including a famous big male named El Jefe – photographed over one hundred times in the Santa Rita Mountains – and a younger male named Yo'oko, who seems to have staked a claim to territory on the Fort Huachuca military reservation (both of these cats were also named by local students). The jaguars are crossing the southern US border from imperilled populations in Mexico, re-taking some of their former home range.

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Another jaguar was photographed by a trail camera in the Huachuca Mountains of Arizona late last year. Image: Cochise District - BSA

The Center for Biological Diversity has spent several years fighting to create safe habitat space for these animals, which are, as the Center website states, the largest cat species in the entire western hemisphere.

Since 2007, the organisation has been working to oppose the construction of a copper mine in Arizona that threatens to erase thousands of acres of pristine jaguar habitat. And in 2014, it helped spur United States Fish and Wildlife to designate over 760,000 acres of federally protected land, specifically set aside as a region of safety for jaguars.

According to the Center's representatives, there are millions of additional acres of suitable environment for the spotted cats, and indeed Sombra has appeared outside the protected range. Conservationists hope to secure more of that land, but at the moment, there is another major obstacle – a literal wall – threatening to halt the jaguars' future success.

"One of the greatest single threats to jaguar recovery in the United Sates is the proposed expansion of the US-Mexico border wall, which would destroy the big cats' ancient migration paths," the Center explained on Facebook.

"These cats must be able to move back and forth across the border as they travel long distances to find mates and establish new territories," Serraglio added.

Jaguars aren't the only animals that would be negatively affected by the border-wall project promised by US President Donald Trump; for months, conservationists have raised concerns about the potentially extensive impacts on local wildlife.

The new footage of Sombra, meanwhile, is especially exciting because we don't yet know if the jaguar is male or female. "The possibility that it may be a female gives us a lot of hope that jaguars might jump-start their recovery in a region they've called home for thousands of years," said Serraglio. If this turns out to be the case, Sombra would become the first female documented in the US since the last one was shot in Arizona more than fifty years ago.

"Jaguars are clearly trying hard to re-establish a population in the United States," said Serraglio, "They've now travelled here through every large mountain range connecting Arizona and Sonora."



Top header image: Andrew Whalley, Flickr