The authorities believe he slipped across the United States-Mexico border sometime during the summer of 2016, likely deep in the night. He carried no papers. The crossing happened in the rugged backcountry of southeastern Arizona, where the main deterrent to trespassers is the challenging nature of the terrain--not the metal walls, checkpoints, and aerial surveillance that dominate much of the border.
But the border crosser was desert-hardy and something of an expert at camouflage. No one knows for certain how long he'd been in the United States before a motion-activated camera caught him walking a trail in the Dos Cabezas Mountains on the night of November 16. When a government agency retrieved the photo in late February, the image was plastered across Arizona newspapers, causing an immediate sensation.
The border crosser was a jaguar. Jaguars once roamed throughout the southwestern United States, but are now quite rare. A core population resides in the mountains of northern Mexico, and occasionally an adventurous jaguar will venture north of the border. When one of these elusive, graceful cats makes an appearance stateside, usually via a motion-triggered camera, it may get celebrity status.
"We've had positive identifications of seven cats, alive and well, in the last twenty years in the United States," says Diana Hadley of the Mexico-based Northern Jaguar Project, which works with people in both countries to protect the big cat. One of those cats became known as El Jefe, after he took up residence in 2011 in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson, Arizona. His presence was proof that the United States still had enough wild habitat to support a jaguar.
The new cat was especially exciting because, based on size and shape, observers initially thought it might be female. "A lot of people in Arizona would be very happy to have jaguars from Mexico breeding in Arizona," remarks Hadley.
In September 2017, the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity released new video of the cat, apparently a male, caught on a motion-triggered camera ambling through the oak scrub forest in the Chiricahua Mountains. He's been named Sombra, or Shadow, by schoolkids in Tucson.
Such things will no longer happen if Donald Trump builds his border wall. If constructed the way Trump envisions--thirty feet high and two feet thick with deep footings--it would "obstruct all mammals from crossing the border," says Hadley. It would block not just jaguars but many mammals, toads, and other small animals and birds that can't fly up and over, including roadrunners and quail. Even bats and insects could be dissuaded by sudden encounters with the massive concrete barrier, she notes. "If he were to construct that wall, [animal] crossing would stop. Period."
You could be forgiven, in the wake of Donald Trump's zeal for a "great, great wall" between Mexico and the United States (and dividing tribal Tohono O'bdham land), for perceiving irony in the excitement over feline border crossers.
People who live in the borderlands celebrate the jaguar as a symbol of possibility for a region with a shared history...