Originally Published: November 27, 2008 7:01 p.m.
A newly captive rare jaguar could help researchers save this exotic animal that has magical meaning to indigenous populations of the Americas.
The jaguar unfortunately will never be able to return to the wild because of injuries to its canine teeth it suffered during illegal captivity, Arizona Game and Fish Department officials said.
Hopefully the big cat can at least become an ambassador for its kind, said Bill Van Pelt, who manages the Game and Fish Department's non-game program.
This will be the first opportunity in history for researchers to obtain genetic material from a jaguar in its northernmost range of northern Mexico and southern Arizona.
"This is the first known jaguar from this region in live captivity," Van Pelt said. "So that's part of the reason we're interested in it."
The jaguar underwent major dental surgery a week ago to extract three upper incisors and get four root canals. With the loss of all four of its largest canine teeth, it would not be able to prey in the wilds, Van Pelt said. Officials believe it damaged its teeth trying to bite its way out of one of its illegal cages.
A rancher trapped the young male jaguar after believing it was killing his livestock, Van Pelt related. The rancher then sold it to a traveling circus.
Jaguars are protected in Mexico as an endangered species, so when Mexican authorities heard about the illegal captive they confiscated it in Hermosillo, Mexico last year.
Mexican officials agreed to let the jaguar live in Arizona for a year to get dental surgery and stay at the Phoenix Zoo before returning to a Mexican zoo. At some point, it will be on display at the Phoenix Zoo, where a jaguar from South America also lives.
Jaguars historically ranged from southern Arizona and New Mexico to southern Argentina. They are the largest cats in the Western Hemisphere, averaging 124-211 pounds but reaching weights over 300 pounds. It is the only North American cat that roars.
The ancient Maya believed that the jaguar's skin symbolized the night sky, while Amazonian societies thought the jaguar's eyes were a connection to the spirit world, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society's Save the Jaguar webpage. Aztecs fed the hearts of sacrificed humans to jaguars.
Their range has shrunk by more than half during the last century. Plans for a full U.S. border fence without environmental analysis could further endanger the jaguars' existence.
Arizona officials are not sure whether this state is even part of the cat's breeding range. They have only two circumstantial reports of females with cubs, in about 1890 and 1908. The last female was killed here in 1964. The closest known breeding population is 135 miles south of the U.S.-Mexican border.
Officials thought jaguars were gone from this country until two independent sightings occurred in 1996.
Now, remote sensing cameras are proving that male jaguars still venture into southern Arizona on a somewhat regular basis.
Since Jaguar Conservation Team researchers set up about 50 cameras near the Arizona-Mexico border in 2001, they have captured at least 49 photos of two or three jaguars.
Photographic evidence indicates that one of the males is at least 12 years old, which is at least three years older than the average male lifespan, Van Pelt said. "He has greenish-blue eye color, which is pretty unique as well," he added.
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