Along Nogales wall, jaguar images celebrate newly discovered big cat & offer a warning for the future

Against the orange glare of high-pressure sodium lights, a small projector cast an image of a northern jaguar against the steel wall strung with razor wire that runs along West International Street in downtown Nogales, Ariz.

For nearly a hundred people at the border barrier, the images projected across the 18-foot high steel bollard wall were a celebration of a newly discovered jaguar roaming Southern Arizona and also a warning for the jaguar’s future if border wall construction continues. 

Earlier this month, hundreds of people from the Tohono O’odham Nation — including students, elders and tribal members — voted to name the latest wild jaguar recently recorded in Southern Arizona. They named him O:ṣhad Ñu:kudam, which means “Jaguar Protector” in the O’odham language.

O:ṣhad Ñu:kudam is pronounced “OH-shahd NOO-KOO-dum.” O:ṣhad is the most recent charismatic big cat to be documented in Arizona over the last 30 years — decades after the species was all but eliminated from the southwestern United States.

Other recent jaguars found in Southern Arizona include El Jefe, Yo’oko Nahsuareo (Yaqui for Jaguar Warrior) and Sombra.

At the May 11 event, the big cat’s photograph faded, and was replaced by a Mexican wolf, a brown bear, a mountain lion, and pronghorn deer. As the sodium lights buzzed, a small crowd watched the images as part of an momentary art installation created by artist Lauren Strohacker, as part of a partnership with nearly two dozen environmental groups—including the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sky Island Alliance, the Sierra Club, and Conservation CATalyst.

Called “Jaguar Rising,” the event featured performances by Kate Scott and Will Clipman backed by imagery from Virginia Maria Romero. Roz Switzer read a story about the Mexican wolf “Mr. Goodbar,” and Erick Meza, with the Sierra Club told a parable in Spanish about the hummingbird.

Enviro protests slowed border barriers

Scott, along with other activists, was central to the protest which successfully halted the construction of a wall made from shipping container that was erected during the last days of Gov. Doug Ducey’s administration. Scott, co-founder of the Madrean Archipelago Wildlife Center, spent weeks camping out at the wall, even during storms that brought snow and rain.

At a cost of $75 million, the state of Arizona built one wall near the Morelos Dam in Yuma, stacking the steel cargo containers two high to build a barrier to stymie asylum seekers from coming across the U.S.-Mexico border. In fall 2022, the state began building a similar ad-hoc wall across a remote valley in Cochise County, stacking the containers like discarded Legos across ephemeral streams and valleys before the effort came to halt because of a small band of protesters. As Ducey’s term came to an end, the federal government launched a lawsuit against the state, and contractors removed the containers, leaving debris and construction scars across the valley.

Soon after, remote cameras in the Huachuca Mountains photographed a wild jaguar near the barrier.

Along with music and spoken word performances, the Nogales event this month including a discussion about the future of conservation efforts in Southern Arizona, especially after the Trump administration  built hundreds of miles of new 30-foot barriers, racing through construction even after the ex-president lost the November 2020 election.

Through much of 2019 and 2020, the Trump administration attempted to build as much of the ex-president’s promised border wall as fast as possible, ignoring congressional wishes and the financial, environmental and cultural costs of the effort. In Arizona, the Trump administration focused its efforts on protected federal land, building as much of the wall—largely made of 30-foot-high steel bollards filled with concrete—as possible, slashing through cacti and shattering the rocky mantle of the landscape with explosives and bulldozers.

All told, U.S. Customs and Border Protection built 452 miles of new wall to replace “outmoded or dilapidated” walls, and much of this fell across Southern Arizona’s protected lands.

Southwest is jaguar’s ‘true home’

“We really don’t know what the impact for jaguars are here,” said Aletris Neils, Ph.D., executive director with Conservation CATalyst. While jaguars are often imagined as tropical animals that live in lush rain forests, the jaguar evolved in what is now the United States, she said. 

“So this is in their DNA, this is the true home for them,” she said.

She said jaguars largely co-existed with people until the recent past, but they’re “stubborn” creatures and have remained in the region despite government-sponsored programs that slaughtered the big carnivores because of their potential threat to cattle.

However, while the jaguars radiated south, some male jaguars come into the U.S. and are “more likely to cross really treacherous terrain” to get here. Because the only known jaguars north of the border are male, U.S. Fish and Wildlife has balked at protecting the big cats here, arguing they’re not a breeding population.  

“Even though we know several cats have come up here as young males,” she said. “When they get to the United States, and get to Arizona, they find large protected area full of prey, and it’s perfect for them. It’s this ideal situation where they can grow up where they can become these prime males. But that’s the time of their life that’s most treacherous.”

Neils said the young males head back into Mexico and become part of a new population, while older cats return and retire—like snowbirds from Ohio—to Arizona.

“So this arbitrary line on a map doesn’t exist. For jaguars, you know, it’s not part of the equation, they exist in these massive, massive landscapes. That’s how they perceive the world.” However, border barriers create “so many problems for jaguars you know, it’s it’s hard to even describe, but luckily they keep persevering and they keep hanging on.”

Border walls ‘a stunt’ by politicians

Myles Traphagen, a borderlands program coordinator with Wildlands Network, said the border wall, including the one topped with “razor” or concertina wire in downtown Nogales — separating Ambos Nogales — was “evil.”

“Pretty much all the border wall has has been a stunt,” he said. He criticized the constant use of the border wall as a backdrop for congressional junkets, and said the borderlands “dodged a bullet” with the halt of border wall construction by the Biden administration, including one spot about 8 miles east of the Patagonia Mountains. 

“We got lucky in some regards that a border wall was not built over the Patagonia Mountains,” he said. While some border wall construction continues near Nogales, construction stopped in “crucial ares” like Sycamore Canyon and California Gulch, creating a 10-mile gap.

“We need to make sure is that that gap does not get filled,” Traphagen said. “So this is really a time to remain vigilant because we’re under threat. You know, we’ve had a nice little pause over the last three years,” he said. “I’m worried that they’re gonna come around again. So educate yourself on where border walls exist and where they don’t exist, and we need to protect those places that have not been walled off because those happen to be some of the most important places in the borderlands.”

He said under CBP didn’t build many barriers in critical habitat for jaguars because those areas included mountainous areas or difficult terrain, and they were aiming at the “low-hanging  fruit to build as much border wall as they could.” However, those gaps remain and its important to maintain those gaps, he said.

Turtle Southern, jaguar recovery coordinator for Rewilding Earth, said the gaps leaves some room for hope.

Neils agreed, calling the end of the “horrible” container wall in the San Rafael Valley a “glimmer of hope,” noting that a few weeks after the makeshift wall was removed a jaguar appeared.

“So all of your hard work paid off, and we all the prayers and you know, it worked. A few weeks later a jaguar came in,” Nellis said. However, it remains a tough time for the striking carnivores because groups are hunting the animal.

“Unfortunately it’s tough time for jaguars right now,” she said. “This has always been a safe haven for them, and now we just have to be a little bit more secretive and protective of them.” Nellis called the recent naming of O:ṣhad a success story because it involved the Tohono O’odham Nation, who want to see the jaguar’s recovery.

Diana Hadley, a founder of the Northern Jaguar Project and a member of Rewilding Earth’s leadership council, outlined problems in the recovery of the Mexican grey wolf in Arizona and New Mexico noted wildlife corridors extend down through Mexico. “So, we need wolves without borders. All species need no borders.”

Traphagen highlighted a major issue with border wall construction under the 2005 REAL ID Act, which he called “Congress’s worst moment.”

While federal construction projects have to follow a series of federal laws regarding the environment and cultural artifacts, the Secretary of Homeland Security can waive these rules under the 2005 act, this includes the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. 

Following the law’s passage, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff used the authority at least five times from 2005 to 2009 to “waive in their entirety” more than 37 federal laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, to build more than 550 miles of border wall and roads along the southern border.

Chertoff, and his successor under the Obama administration Jeh Johnson, waived the environmental impacts of new construction and border enforcement throughout the southwest, including protected federal lands like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Big Bend National Park.

However, the Trump administration’s round-robin of Homeland Security secretaries used waivers at least 29 times, and as late as April 2020, DHS was issuing new waivers for construction for around 15 miles of border wall in the Rio Grande Valley.

“It’s a real problem, not just for the land and the wildlife and the people on it, but it’s a problem for the democratic institution. That’s a slippery slope as fascism when there’s no repeal.” He noted the REAL ID Act allows DHS officials to rescind some of the earliest environmental provisions, including the 1890s-era Rivers and Harbors Protection Act.

“So basically, everything that our government has enacted, just gets wiped clean with the stroke of a pen,” he said. “So because of this, we have very few tools” to stop border wall construction.

Animal images in focus

While Traphagen struck a sour note, arguing for “massive civil disobedience” against future walls, Nellis said recovery for jaguars is going to require grassroots campaigns and organizing to convince people to love the big cats with “common ground” While issues are polarized, people can be convinced to save the jaguars, and she argued for jaguar tourism, which would be a “huge asset to the state.”

She also argued the wall should be replaced with remote sensors.

“I’m so tired of white middle-aged guys from Ohio telling me what it’s like to be on the border. telling me how dangerous it is,” Nellis said. “So, we’re just trying to bring that to people’s attention, hearing in a really positive way how lucky we are to live in this incredible region of the world.” 

Traphagen agreed, telling the crowd about the complexities of the borderlands, which are often unrecognized by politicians. 

“They see it as that stark line of interface,” he said. “It’s the line of scrimmage between us and them that we’re being invaded. And that’s the narrative that we really need to change.”

After the talk, the crowd headed to the gallery La Linea or “The Line” along Morley Avenue, some wearing animal masks, including jaguars and owls. One girl carried a poster, designed like a name tag that reads “Hello, my name is O:ṣhad Ñu:kudam.”

At the wall, Strohacker began projecting the images of animals on the border wall.

An “eco-political artist,” Strohacker is based in Knoxville, Tenn., and has projected images on different spots of the border wall, including 2017 when she used the wall in Agua Prieta, Sonora as a canvas. She said the razor wire was “ugly and brutal” but created a poignancy for the images of animals that need to be protected. 

“We’re here under these sodium lights, these surprisingly bright lights, and yet the images come into focus. This is important for people to see the backdrop and then be able to play with this juxtaposition,” she said.

As the crowd watched the images, the air grew cool and dogs argued on the southern side of the wall. The border was quiet and still, and on the wall a jaguar stared out before fading from view like a ghost.