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WILD WEST / Ken Lamberton

A Southwestern legend returns

The jaguar, an object of contemporary fascination and ancient worship, was driven south of the border long ago. But now the exile has come back to Arizona.

August 30, 2005|Ken Lamberton

"WHAT DO I DO about a leopard in my yard?"

My mom is on the phone, and I'm not sure how to answer. She lives in the Catalina Mountain foothills north of Tucson where mountain lions can occasionally cause a stir. But a leopard?

She tells me that it all began with the barking of her Maltese dog, and when she looked out the window, she saw a large cat moving along the inside wall of her courtyard. The cat, which measured nearly 5 feet long -- with a tail of comparable length -- leapt over the wall and disappeared. I told her to call Arizona Game and Fish.

Tim Snow, a specialist with the department, arrived at her home a few minutes before I did, and although we searched, we couldn't locate any tracks in the dry ground. Tim told me that he gets a few reports like this every year from the Catalina foothills. What my mom had seen in her yard, identified from a lineup of various photographs, was a jaguar, the dappled cat, the world's third largest and the only one in the New World that roars.

I have been fascinated with jaguars since I saw my first one when I was 10. Although caged, the animal was alert, spring-loaded. Later I drew that scene from memory. With its head lowered, its eyes fixed straight ahead, partially lidded, penetrating, there was no escaping its gaze. This was a creature of mountain ridges and rugged side canyons. This was a creature that knew no boundaries, whose enclosure was superfluous. It is an image that haunts me again as I discover that jaguars are returning to the wild borderland country of southern Arizona.

Jaguars have stalked the imaginations of people for thousands of years. In southern Mexico at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, a 2,000-year-old, 9-foot Olmec head of carved basalt bears the paws of a jaguar across both colossal temples. If the Olmecs were intrigued by jaguars, the Maya, who followed them, were obsessed. The ruins of their cities on the Yucatan peninsula, like those at Balamku and Chichen Itza, are peppered with elaborate jaguar carvings, some with the cats painted red and encrusted with jade and turquoise or with carvings of human hearts in their claws. Spread the jaguar's skin, say the Maya, and you spread the heavens of a starry night.

I think about this one day while hiking through a canyon lined with thorn scrub and burnt cayenne walls, into the western flank of the Tumacacori Mountains in southern Arizona.

Here are pools of water so deep they hold the sky, and rocks so high they touch the clouds. I'm hiking with members of the Sky Island Alliance, a conservation nonprofit that wants to establish Tumacacori Highlands as a wilderness area. If jaguars were to find a place to live in the Southwest, it could be here in this 76,000-acre expanse.

Historically, jaguars roamed the Southwest's deserts, grasslands and forests, from Texas to California, until development confined them mostly to isolated regions in Mexico and Central and South America. But recently something has changed.

In October of 2002, a black jaguar crossed from Mexico into the Huachuca Mountains on the eastern rim of the San Rafael Valley of southern Arizona. Another was spotted in the Patagonia Mountains to the west. Between 1996 and 2004, on eight separate occasions, witnesses have documented with photographs or video jaguars in Arizona. These animals appear to be at least three different male cats; two were caught just recently using remote motion-sensing cameras set up in the Tumacacori Highlands.

The day before I had hiked with my friend, the poet and author Richard Shelton, into Sycamore Creek, a riparian drainage that cuts across the Tumacacori Highlands. Its perennial waters seep southward into Mexico, and in its warm tannin-brown pools, Sonora chub swim among dead leaves, algae-furred rocks and muddy jaguar tracks. As we returned to our camp, Dick reminded me that a partial solar eclipse would occur in the afternoon. I poked a hole in a page of my notebook and let the light pass through to a second sheet. The sun still held to its orb.

The Maya have a myth that says the world will end when jaguars rise from the underworld to eat the sun and the moon. An eclipse, they say, will foreshadow the event. Back at camp, our friends wanted to know about the eclipse, so I pulled out my pinhole viewer and there, along its smooth arc, was a perfect bite mark.

On our last night in the Tumacacori Highlands, we listen to wildlife biologist Sergio Avila speak about his work with jaguars. Sergio has lived with the Tarahumara people in the Sierra Madres and learned to track, trap and monitor the animals. More recently, he helped set up and operate cameras to document the presence of jaguars in Arizona. He passes these photographs around and then produces two saucer-sized plaster casts of a mountain lion and jaguar footprint to illustrate their difference.

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