A Decade of Success in Jaguar and Ocelot Conservation

Story by Jessica Moreno
Sergio Avila checks a wildlife camera, of the old film variety, while pointing out the camera's field of view.

Sergio Avila checks a wildlife camera, of the old film variety, while pointing out the camera’s field of view.

What began in 2006 as a small jaguar monitoring and landowner outreach project has grown tremendously in the last decade. I was still a volunteer that year, following Sky Island Alliance biologist Sergio Avila both afoot and in a dusty Jeep Cherokee named Barney as we traveled eroded dirt roads, clambered over shale and shin-dagger lined slopes, and hiked through cottonwood-scented canyons to set the first wildlife cameras (using film!) in search of jaguars and a conservation ethic in the wilds of Sonora, Mexico. And we found both: at least two individual male jaguars and several ocelots living in the Sierra Azul Mountains, on a privately owned ranch property called Rancho el Aribabi.  El Aribabi’s 10,000 acres are now designated as an Área Natural Protegida Voluntariamente, or Voluntary Natural Protected Area, and the ranch is serving as a model for land stewardship in the region. Since this first exciting success for wild cats, we have continued to reach thousands of students, private landowners and volunteers, and remain directly involved in the protection and restoration of thousands of acres of land, land that serves as critical habitat and travel routes for jaguars, ocelots and other wildlife.

When I joined Sky Island Alliance as the Wildlife Linkages Program Coordinator in 2009, we made history by documenting the first living record of an ocelot in Arizona. In 2011 we recorded the first evidence of ocelots breeding in the Sky Islands, with a kitten and mother filmed on camera in Sonora, Mexico. Our data has informed the draft Ocelot Recovery Plan and helped protect local water and jaguar and ocelot habitat. We submitted detailed public comments supporting Jaguar Critical Habitat designation, including our own proposed maps pushing for corridor recognition as well as core habitat protection. In 2014, Tim Cook and Brit Oleson, two of Sky Island Alliance’s wildlife monitoring volunteers, documented the tracks of a young male jaguar in the Santa Rita Mountains of southern Arizona, just three months before Jaguar Critical Habitat was finally designated – after almost 10 years of advocacy. That same year we were awarded the prestigious Walden Woods Project 2014 Environmental Challenge Award for creating solutions to specific environmental challenges at a local, regional or national level – an award presented to us by none other than music legend Don Henley and actor Robert Redford!

Jaguar (c) Sky Island Alliance/ El Aribabi

Jaguar (c) Sky Island Alliance/ El Aribabi

Throughout the majority of the last 20 years at least one jaguar, and sometimes several at a time, have always been present in the Arizona/Sonora borderlands, and as many as 8 different individuals have been photographed to date – but the possibility remains that there are, and have been, more jaguars that we are just not seeing. Today, we know of at least one young jaguar and half a dozen ocelots that roam the Sky Islands. They are here of their own accord, patiently telling us that this is, and always has been, their home.

To help these elusive and secretive wild cats stay and thrive, Sky Island Alliance is advocating for jaguar and ocelot conservation in the region by promoting greater public understanding of the importance and benefit of carnivores; informing Critical Habitat designation; identifying and mapping their best habitat and movement corridors; analyzing motion-activated camera data to determine wild cat activity patterns and behavior; supporting non-invasive wildlife monitoring; and encouraging the designation of new protected areas and privately-owned and managed conservation lands in Sonora, Mexico.

Our conservation efforts for jaguars and ocelots have only been the tip of the iceberg, as our wildlife monitoring has led us to discover and name several new species to science, including the Black-tailed dragonfly, the Toribusi paper wasp, and a new species of the Stevia plant. We also confirmed the willowleaf oak in the Patagonia Mountains of southern Arizona as new tree for the United States.

We have developed and shared positive stories of conservation in Mexico and Arizona, of people working to protect their land, and of the wildlife that must thrive regardless of political, linguistic or cultural barriers. Overall, we erased boundaries. We are poised to do even more. With your help, what will the next ten years bring?

Want to learn more? Read Sky Island Alliance’s peer-reviewed paper, Wildlife Survey and Monitoring in the Sky Island Region with an Emphasis on Neotropical Felids, published in the proceedings of the 2012 Madrean Conference.

Our work over the last ten years with jaguar and ocelot conservation has shaped my career and outlook as a biologist and conservationist. Just knowing that jaguars and ocelots are present in our Sky Island region is one of the reasons I am passionate about what we do. Please help us continue this important work!