A prominent northern Sonora rancher heavily involved in conservation work says he’s been told by sources that the dead jaguar whose pelt recently appeared online was trapped and killed by a mountain lion hunter.

Carlos Robles Elias, owner of Rancho El Aribabi near Nogales, Sonora, said that based on what he’s been told by a friend, the jaguar kill occurred about six months ago in Sonora, somewhere north of Aribabi, between the Rio Cocospera Valley and the U.S. border. He doesn’t know exactly where. The Cocospera, which runs through his ranch, and the U.S. border are about 25 miles apart, he said.

Elias said he doesn’t know how the jaguar was killed after it was trapped. In the U.S. and Mexico, it’s illegal to kill a jaguar, which is protected as an endangered species in both countries.

Elias told the Arizona Daily Star this week that he obtained the photo of the pelt from one of “some people” who called him or came to him to talk about big-cat issues, and he shared it on a private online messaging service. A scientist for the Northern Jaguar Project, which obtained the photo from that site, sent it to the Star last week, which is how the jaguar death became publicly known.

Elias declined to name any friends or contacts familiar with the jaguar killing, saying he doesn’t believe any would want to talk to a reporter.

“My thinking is that he was trying to find a lion and he found a jaguar,” Elias said of the hunter, adding that he doesn’t know if a rancher hired the hunter.

Retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Jim Rorabaugh told the Star: “I think it is very likely that the jaguar was trapped incidental to an effort to kill a puma that had been taking calves.” He said he based that belief on what he knows about why someone would set a trap for a mountain lion in Sonora.

The jaguar was one of just seven that have been photographed in Arizona or New Mexico since 1996. This jaguar had been photographed regularly in Southeast Arizona’s Huachuca Mountains from late fall 2016 to July 2017, first by cameras run by University of Arizona researchers, and later by cameras managed by Tucson-based Conservation CATalyst.

Officials of the Arizona Game and Fish Department, a Northern Jaguar Project biologist and Rorabaugh all agreed that the spot pattern on the jaguar pelt seen in the latest photo match those on the Huachucas’ jaguar. Each of the big cats has a unique spot pattern.

The jaguar was nicknamed Yo’oko last year by Tucson students at Hiaki High School in a vote co-sponsored by Conservation CATalyst and the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

In an interview via emails with the Star, Elias said he was “very disappointed” and both saddened and angered by the jaguar’s death.

At the same time, he argued vehemently that more needs to be done on many levels to protect jaguars in Mexico. That country is considered the source of the handful of male jaguars who, like Yo’oko, have been photographed in Arizona in the past two decades.

“Securing them in Mexico is where the efforts need to go into. There are many ranchers who still kill jaguars and there need to be more programs that support other alternatives like payments for pictures and other kinds of programs,” Elias said. He referred to the program run by the Tucson-based Northern Jaguar Project that pays ranchers near its Sonoran jaguar reserve every time a jaguar’s likeness appears on one of the project’s remote cameras.

Efforts to keep
them alive

Elias has lived at Aribabi since the early 1980s, and has owned 10,000 acres of the 30,000-acre ranch since 1987.

He has sought to transform the once-conventional cattle ranch, which has been in his family since 1888, into a haven for birds, mammals and other wildlife. As a result, he and the ranch have drawn a large amount of attention from U.S. and Mexican conservationists.

Among more than 80,000 to 100,000 wildlife photos that have been taken on his ranch by remote cameras are pictures of two jaguars.

“What is being done is not enough. … Everybody knows the efforts we made for years as a family to keep them alive. We and others like us, need more help and often we feel alone,” Elias said.

What have the U.S. government, its federal Jaguar Recovery Team and others done to enable jaguars to live and recover on U.S. land, Elias asked rhetorically. “Is it enough using cameras to ‘keep’ them alive?” he asked. “Counting them at U.S. territory is not enough!”

Jaguars previously ranged as far north in Arizona as the Grand Canyon, until virtually disappearing here during the 20th century.

Rorabaugh has worked at Aribabi on wildlife matters for years and shares Elias’ concern about the need for more help for Sonoran jaguars.

He has placed and monitored remote cameras at Aribabi since 2014. He’s also regularly led ecotourism trips there. He also helped with wildlife surveys and other conservation work on the ranch in his days with the wildlife service both before and since his retirement in 2010.

Rorabaugh noted that the U.S. government jaguar recovery plan draft says the bulk of conservation actions for the species needs to occur south of the border. If jaguars are doing well in Mexico, they will come to the United States, unless the large border wall proposed by President Trump is built, he said.

“So a legitimate question to ask, is USFWS living up to that (draft) pledge to facilitate recovery south of the border? They should be providing funds to Northern Jaguar Project and others willing to do jaguar conservation in Sonora and elsewhere in Mexico,” said Rorabaugh, who was second in command at the wildlife service’s Tucson office for his last 10 years on the job.

Volatile situation

The killing has increased public attention to an already volatile situation for jaguars and ranchers in Sonora, particularly northern Sonora.

Through its compensation practices, the Northern Jaguar Project group has won friends with many neighboring ranchers near its reserve about 110 miles south of the U.S. border.

But another group calling itself Primero Conservation says it has documented a half-dozen jaguar killings in an area northeast of the reserve in recent years. It has also documented a major decline in photo jaguar detections from 2010 to 2015.

While there could be many causes for these trends, the Primero group says a contributing factor is ranchers trying to kill jaguars out of concern that they’re eating cattle.

One reason Elias is frustrated by the latest death is that his Rancho El Aribabi has protected jaguars and yet he feels he’s received little help from outside conservation groups. He also has fenced off the section of Rio Cocospera running through his property to keep out cattle, which has allowed more large trees to grow and attracted more than 200 bird species.

He did get help from a Fish and Wildlife Service program to fence off part of the Cocospera and is getting help from another outside group to fully fence the river off, he said.

A third group, the U.S.-based Wildlands Network, is also helping by working to form a separate, nonprofit group calling itself Friends of El Aribabi. The group hopes to establish an operation at the ranch raising what’s known as “predator-friendly, grass-fed beef,” a type of cattle that is adaptable to arid lands, very mobile, and whose bulls have large horns that tend to keep predators away, said Myles Traphagen, a Tucsonan who sits on the group’s board of directors.

The idea is to market the grass-fed beef as a way of making the ranch a sustainable venture, said Traphagen, the Wildlands Network’s borderlands coordinator.

“It’s too late for that Jaguar but maybe (not) for others, but at least they are helping,” Elias wrote to the Star about the Friends of El Aribabi effort.

“But other groups need to help with programs like the Northern Jaguar Reserve, which is not enough. ... I hope people realize there is much work to do in Mexico and it is here where it will make the bigger difference.”

He said he has no plans to bring information about this jaguar killing to Mexican environmental law enforcement agencies.

“I do not have enough documents to go into a legal suit, and, for sure, nobody will give me more info.”

“People talk about this as a secret because everybody knows it is not legal (to kill a jaguar),” Elias wrote. “No one wants (to) talk about this matter.”

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@tucson.com or 806-7746. On Twitter@tonydavis987