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New Arizona jaguar is a reminder of how human-made borders can harm wildlife

Images captured last month show the eighth wild jaguar documented in the American Southwest in the past three decades.

There are 750,000 acres along the Arizona-New Mexico border that are federally protected habitat for jaguars that once lived throughout the region. Since 1996, only eight of the world’s third-biggest cats have been documented here.

The Rewilding Institute’s jaguar recovery coordinator, Megan “Turtle” Southern, said this new cat is both a symbol of hope, and a messenger.

“What jaguars are telling us with their movements is that they need access to both sides of the border,” said Southern. “And this new jaguar is an ambassador for connectivity and really a messenger that we need to keep wildlife corridors open.”

Southern said human-made obstacles, like sections of border wall, endanger the natural corridors jaguars use to navigate their massive territories.

“This new jaguar is just one of the many jaguars who should be roaming Arizona and New Mexico in a healthy population,” she said.

“Wild, rugged landscapes” that are accessible for large carnivores, like jaguars, are vital to keeping ecosystems functioning.

“This new jaguar proves that Arizona is still wild,” said Southern. “We still have our apex predators here. The border is still porous enough that wild jaguars can still cross it.”

For decades, said Southern, conservationists and advocates from both sides of the border have come together to find a way to help encourage more to cross over.

“I think of spokes on a wheel,” she said of the varied kinds of protections needed in different areas of jaguar territory. “You’ve got the core, kind of the hub, and then you've got the buffer zone. And then radiating out from there in different directions, the next step is to establish passageways that connect these conservation lands and wild habitats.”

And in those efforts: “We need this Jaguar that's been photographed in Arizona to be a catalyst for protecting habitat and keeping pathways open between these core areas.”

According to Southern, without safe passages for jaguars to navigate their territories, “the entire structure of an ecosystem is swept off its feet” and jaguars will disappear from the United States altogether.

But the newest jaguar spotted in Arizona demonstrates that there is still hope.

“Going 125 miles south of the border, there’s still a breeding population of jaguars,” said Southern. “Conservationists in the early 2000s set out to say, ‘If there's ever gonna be Jaguars in the United States again, if we're gonna see a healthy breeding population, let's look to that source, where there's still females and cubs. And protect those cats so that they can move and access the habitat that's abundant in Arizona.'”

The new jaguar’s appearance is also a call to action for more than just advocates, Southern added. Once these corridors and other areas of habitat are successfully protected, the next step will be to “consider a thoughtfully planned reintroduction effort.”

“We have to work together,” Southern said. “All of us — whether that's the public land owners, politicians, conservationists — to keep wild landscapes protected and support healthy populations of large carnivores.”

Southern said she believes jaguars’ unique quality to unite people can help spur further cooperation.

“Jaguars symbolize wildness, right?” she said. “And what I’ve found in talking to people of all different backgrounds [is] wherever somebody comes from or whatever they believe or feel or think, that there's something about a jaguar that stirs something in the hearts of people.”

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Kirsten Dorman is a field correspondent at KJZZ. Born and raised in New Jersey, Dorman fell in love with audio storytelling as a freshman at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2019.