February 21, 2009 / 12:17 AM / 11 years ago

Rare U.S. jaguar caught, released in Arizona

PHOENIX (Reuters) - An extremely rare jaguar has been captured and fitted with a satellite tracking collar by researchers in Arizona, who hope to shed light on the habits of one of the United States’ most elusive predators.

An extremely rare jaguar, fitted with a satellite tracking collar, is released into the wilderness southwest of Tucson, Arizona, in this photo taken on February 18, 2009, and released by the Arizona Game and Fish Department on February 20. REUTERS/Arizona Game and Fish Department/Handout

Arizona Game and Fish Department officials caught the male cat Wednesday in a rugged area southwest of Tucson during a study to better understand bear and mountain lion habitat.

Jaguars roam over a vast area ranging from northern Argentina in the south to the rugged borderland wildernesses of Arizona and New Mexico, where they were thought to have vanished until two confirmed sightings in 1996.

Only a handful have ever been sighted in the United States since then, and very little is known about their habits.

The animal, thought to be at least 15 years old, was fitted with a collar containing a global positioning system, and released back into the wild, officials said.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to allow us to learn how the animal moves out in the landscape,” said Bill Van Pelt, the department’s birds and mammals program manager.

The U.S. government placed the animals under the Endangered Species Act protections in 1997. Since then, researchers using cameras set out on remote trails have identified just a handful of individual animals, all males.

The jaguars, the only roaring cats in the Americas, are thought to breed in Mexico and roam up over the border.

In recent years, concern over the well-being of the U.S. population has intensified as a program to build 670 miles of fencing gathers speed along the nearly 2,000-mile (3,200-km) southwest border with Mexico.

Van Pelt said the GPS collar fitted to the jaguar — believed to be an animal known as Macho B, which has been periodically photographed over the past 13 years — would allow scientists to track its movements back and forth over the border from Mexico and study its little known habits.

“The collar will also let us know kill sites, where it’s eating, when it’s eating ... (and) how it gets across major roads in country where there is a lot of human activity going on,” he said in a telephone interview.

“It’s just truly fascinating from a biological perspective.”

Editing by Vicki Allen

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