The Jaguar Man

Wildlife Biologist Octavio Rosas Fights For the Big Cats

Wild jaguars in the U.S.? What sounds implausible was proven true in 1996 when two male jaguars were photographed, first in southern New Mexico and then in Arizona. Until that time, experts had concluded that our hemisphere’s biggest cat—seldom seen north of the Mexico border since European settlement—had disappeared forever from the U.S.

"It was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen," says Warner Glenn, a big-game hunter whose hounds brought a large jaguar to bay during a late-winter mountain lion hunt. Glenn took a series of remarkable photos. "I felt tremendously lucky," said the rancher, who wrote a book about his experience.

Six months after Glenn’s sighting, members of a party led by Jack Childs treed a jaguar in the Baboquivari Mountains near Tucson. Childs caught the cat on videotape as it settled into an aerie of juniper branches. "I considered it a once-in-a-lifetime event," says the retired surveyor.

Since then, motion-triggered hidden cameras in southern Arizona have clicked off 16 pictures of the endangered cats, including two that appear to be the first resident U.S. jaguars in decades. "What Jack and Warner have documented is amazing," says Mexican wildlife biologist Octavio Rosas. "But this species will not survive long north of the border without effective protection in Mexico."

Rosas, now completing his Ph.D. degree at New Mexico State University, was spurred into action by the sightings made by Glenn and Childs. "I’d been working with wildlife in Sonora, the Mexican state immediately south of Arizona, so I knew that a small breeding population existed there and was probably the source of the cats seen sporadically in the U.S.," he says. Rosas soon put together a unique project that tied local conservation and field research to economic development.

Rosas is renowned in Sonora as "el tigrero," or "the tiger man." (The Spanish "tigre" is used commonly in Latin America instead of jaguar, a word borrowed from South American Indians.) Nowhere is Rosas more respected than in Nãcori Chico, a farming village, accessible by a single dirt road, that is the closest community to his 130-square-mile study area.

"El tigrero has put us on the map," said a proud shopkeeper, gesturing toward a billboard at Nãcori Chico’s entrance that displays the image of an enormous jaguar. The store owner is convinced that saving Panthera onca will not only help science, but boost the lagging local economy. "The research and tourism has definitely created more jobs here," he says.

But Rosas notes that el tigre is still despised by many ranchers. The cat’s eyesight is twice as keen as the average human’s and its jaws can easily crush the skull of a yearling steer. Some jaguars will take livestock regularly if given the chance.

"As a practical matter in the Sonoran Sierra Madre," said one area sportsman, who asked not to be named, "ranchers kill whatever they want if it strays onto their land." According to Arizona State University biologist David Brown, at least 30 jaguars were killed in Sonora between 1990 and 2000, mainly by stockmen who flaunted Mexico’s 1986 prohibition against jaguar hunting. An estimated 90 to 120 such cats are believed to remain in the area.

Rosas traveled through the Sierra Madre beginning in 1999, interviewing ranch owners, cowboys and villagers. "We came up with a plan that recognizes the needs of local people," recalls the Puebla native. "Put simply, we are paying ranchers and cowboys not to kill jaguars and to help protect them instead."

U.S. hunters pay local cattlemen for permission to hunt a sustainable number of deer on properties where trophy-quality game has proven plentiful. When hunting season ends, Rosas invites eco-tourists to those same ranches to join him and cowboys in their search for jaguars. And while it’s unusual to see one of these mainly nocturnal cats, birders are often thrilled to find thick-billed parrots, elegant trogons, golden eagles and vermilion flycatchers in the Sierra Madre.

During a visit last spring the research camp was based at Rancho Napopa, a cattle, sheep and goat operation more than two hours by rutted road south of Nãcori Chico. Visiting eco-tourists and off-duty hunters shared the hacienda with 11 students from Mexican universities who were honing their field techniques under the tutelage of Rosas.Visitors and students piled into dusty four-wheel-drives and headed out to designated research sites. During the previous six years, Rosas had pinpointed areas with enough wildlife to sustain jaguars.

The Conservation Program for Jaguars in the Uplands of the Sierra Madre Sonora, as the Rosas effort is formally known, receives its bare-bones funding primarily from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, with additional contributions from fashion maven Liz Claiborne and the King of Bhutan.

Among paid guides during the 2005 season was Manuel "Memo" Galãz, a life-long cowboy whom Rosas has trained to look for cat signs and, if needed, to help capture jaguars. Another crew member was David Strozdas, a former Oklahoma game warden who now studies mountain lions and bighorn sheep on Ted Turner’s Armendaris Ranch in New Mexico.

"Lots of peccary, coatimundi and deer are here," declared Rosas, who studied the signs in a flower-filled meadow. He attributed such abundance to several months of wet weather. "Such mammals are among the jaguar’s favorite foods," he said.

The trail ended at a tree-shaded stream bed, where camouflaged cameras were set to take pictures of large animals that passed by. Mejia found that only half of each roll had been exposed, so it was left to be checked at a later date.

"Care to guess why I use two cameras at each location?" Rosas asked, enjoying his role as teacher. When theories came up short he explained that the polka-dot pattern on either flank of a jaguar is as unique as a fingerprint. "If we take a picture of only one flank, we won’t know if it’s the same cat when he or she is photographed from the opposite direction. By comparing coat patterns on jaguars, we can identify individuals."

Later that evening, Rosas described how he and his colleagues had traveled by pickup and horseback to many Sonoran ranches. The scientists had shown owners, foremen and vaqueros (cowboys) their field procedures, baits, snares, traps and tracking equipment. "With a few exceptions, the ranchers have been supportive," Rosas says. "They now understand what I’m trying to accomplish."

Asked what would happen if the people of the Sierra Madre return to their old ways, Rosas turned his palms up in the universal gesture of resignation. "Que lastima," he sighed. "What a shame."