A wild jaguar was photographed by trail cameras in Arizona on two occasions this spring, the first documented sighting in the United States of the once-native species since 2016. The images were captured in March and May by cameras run by Customs and Border Protection and reported on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) online Jaguar Observations Database.

Jaguars are the third-largest cats in the world, trailing only tigers and lions. They can weigh 100 to 250 pounds and stretch 5 to 6 feet from nose to the base of the tail. Their native range once stretched from Argentina to the southwestern United States, but today they are mainly found in the Amazon Basin of South America and in small pockets of Central America and Mexico. The latest sightings were recorded after a shipping container barrier erected by the state of Arizona on the U.S.-Mexico border was removed, unblocking a critical jaguar migration route through the Huachuca Mountains.

A trail camera photo of a
A Bureau of Land Management photo showing a jaguar spotted on U.S. soil in 2016. BLM.

The images, which have not been released to the public, mark only the seventh jaguar sighting on U.S. soil since 1996. All seven have involved males. The last know female jaguar in Arizona was killed in 1949. Researchers know there is a breeding population of jaguars 100 miles south of the border in Sonora, Mexico, where conservation efforts have helped expand the population to around 4,800—and that group is the likely source of the most recent sighting. 

“Males are the ones that expand and disperse,” Ganesh Marin, a doctoral student at the University of Arizona who monitors 97 cameras as part of a jaguar research study told the Arizona Republic. “There are more records of jaguars in the United States and in the border with Mexico because they are exploring for new territories,” Marin said.

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According to USFWS, the recent photos are “too blurry for spot analysis,” a technique that allows researchers to identify individual jaguars by their unique spot patterns, so it’s unclear if the latest sighting is a new arrival or a previously photographed cat. It’s not uncommon for the elusive animals to escape detection for many years. A big jaguar known as El Jefe (The Chief) that was videotaped in Arizona’s Santa Rita mountains in 2016 disappeared until August 2022, when it was spotted again 120 miles south in Mexico.