The jaguar, Panthera onca, has become an animal in danger of extinction over recent decades, due to the fragmentation and deterioration of its habitat, as well as hunting and illegal animal smuggling. As a result of this vulnerability, no individuals have been seen in the centre of Mexico since the start of the 20th Century. However, Mexican and Spanish scientists have now managed to photograph a male jaguar in this region.

The lack of published records about Panthera onca in the State of Mexico and concerns about whether this animal may have become extinct in the forests of the 674.10 km2 Sierra Nanchititla Natural Reserve led to researchers from the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico (UAEM) and the University of Alicante (UA) successfully seeking out and monitoring this feline.

The Mexican-Spanish research project, which has been published recently in The Southwestern Naturalist, includes the first documented recording of Panthera Onca in the centre of Mexico, in the Río Balsas river basin. "The photographs provide information about new recording sites, and allow us to deduce that the area where the animal was observed may be a corridor connecting jaguar populations," Octavio Monroy-Vilchis, lead author and a researcher at the UAEM, told Servicio de Información y Noticias Científicas ( SINC).

The researchers carried out 86 interviews with inhabitants of villages near the study area between October 2002 and December 2004, as well as collecting feline dropping samples and installing automatic photographic detection systems.

Mexico jaguar
One of the three photographs of the jaguar taken during the research project in the centre of Mexico. Photo: Octavio Monroy-Vilchis et al / SINC

"Even though not one of the interviews mentioned sightings of jaguars, we obtained three photographs of a male, and ten of the 132 excrement samples found have been attributed to the jaguar", says Monroy-Vilchis.

According to members of the local Wildlife Conservation Society, the general area of the Río Balsas river basin is a priority area for verifying the presence of jaguars, since this "could act as a corridor for them to move around".

The experts say there are 15 areas in which it is unknown whether these animals still exist, whether their populations are stable, and if their habitat is adequate. These areas are important for scientific studies, because they could include crucial zones for the felines' long-term survival.

Monitoring the largest feline in the Americas in the centre of Mexico meant the Mexican scientists had to travel 1,360 kilometres in search of clues and footprints. The Spanish researchers financed the cameras and analysed a total of 1,800 data events collected by them, which were placed in the Natural Reserve.

Of all this material, only three photographs deposited with the image library of mammals in the Sierra Nanchititla Biological Station (UAEM) showed a male individual.

Despite the photographs taken, the researchers themselves were unable to see the animal. "The lack of evidence highlights the fact that the jaguar is more elusive than other felines, and that its presence in the area is sporadic - possibly because it has access to other resources near to Michoacán and Guerrero," says Monroy-Vilchis.

The recording of this individual and the presence of excrement in a range of sites in the south east of the State of Mexico now mean its known range has been extended to 400 km to the south east of Arroyo Seco (Querétano), 27 km to the north east of Purísima de Arista, and 140 km to the north of Puerto del Gallo (Guerrero).

According to the scientists, the fact that the animal was captured on film at 1,845 metres "supports the theory that jaguars travel along the sides of mountains because their habitat has been fragmented by hunting and other human activities", says the scientist.

Monroy-Vilchis, O; Sánchez, O; Aguilera-Reyes, U; Suárez, P; Urios, V. “Jaguar (Panthera onca) in the State of Mexico” Southwestern Naturalist, 53(4): 533-537 diciembre de 2008.