I nearly fell off Aunt Anne’s sofa this morning, when I heard the presenter on the BBC’s breakfast show announce that a jaguar – the United States’ only known wild jaguar, for that matter – had been captured on video by a camera-trap in Arizona. Surely, I thought, that could only mean the same jaguar which had become central to my research on a proposed copper mine in southern Arizona.

Previously, El Jefe – ‘The Boss’, as he has been christened by a local school – had been captured in still images by scientists working on a federally-funded University of Arizona project. But, while his appearance in the vicinity of the planned Rosemont Copper mine site had added weight to the arguments against the project, the story had remained a matter for regional news at most.

Last year, similar images of an ocelot, forced the U.S. Forest Service to reinitiate it’s consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on whether construction of the Rosemont mine on public land threatened the animal’s ‘critical habitat’ under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Both the ocelot and the jaguar are protected under the federal legislation.

A scan of social media confirmed what I already knew, the fight to save El Jefe’s home, in the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson, had gone global.

My research is on the political ecology of contested spaces of environmental decision-making in relation to mining and water resources. In particular, I focus on the ways in which interested members of the public, government agencies and environmental groups participate in the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which mandates the process by which projects such as the Rosemont mine are approved.

Under the Act, the Forest Service, as the federal agency responsible for the management of the Coronado National Forest within which the mine site is located, are responsible for assessing the sociocultural and environmental impacts of the proposal. This includes ensuring parallel compliance with the ESA, the Clean Water Act (CWA) and a number of other pieces of federal and state-level legislation.

El Jefe was sighted prowling the banks of a mountain stream. Water has been a key debate in the Rosemont Copper Project issue. There, in the semi-arid Sonoran Desert, water availability is the fundamental control upon the development of the unique habitats that support the species upon which El Jefe predates. Equally, access to a plentiful water supply was also key to the colonisation of the desert by the only species which has predated upon the jaguar, humans.

Historically, the pioneers of the western expansion of the U.S. (as in many other places) viewed nature instrumentally, as an infinite resource to be appropriated, extracted, reconstituted and commoditised. Backed by eastern capital, such an outlook drove the influx of prospectors to southern Arizona in the 19th century, exploring the rich mineral resources of the region. While mining towns such as Rosemont sprang up around mountain ranges such as the Santa Ritas, the industry was supported by the development of the University of Arizona in Tucson, a land-grant college whose main departments included ‘mines and metallurgy’. As the city grew, so did the demands for the groundwater of the Tucson Basin, for industries such as ranching, agriculture, mining and municipal supply.

From exploration through to closure, water plays a vital role in a mine’s lifecycle. As wells as being used to process ore and separate minerals, water is also essential for ancillary processes, including: transporting and processing ore; treating and transporting waste tailings; cooling, lubricating and washing equipment; and suppressing dust. These activities have off-site implications for water availability for competing uses. Firstly, the potential for pollution of groundwater by toxins, heavy metals and sediments has implications for downstream water users.

In the case of the Rosemont Copper Project, residents and businesses to the east of the mine site rely upon potable water from wells which are hydrologically connected to it. Moreover, the excavation of open mine pits has the effect of creating a hydraulic sink, causing drawdown of the surrounding water table. As well as impacting upon water supply for humans, this dewatering may affect plants and animals whose habitats are sensitive to water availability. Social and cultural values attached to a number of unique habitats in the area surrounding Rosemont create further tension between mining and other water users. Thus designated areas such as Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, and designated waterways, such as Cienega Creek itself and Davidson Canyon, have become key battlegrounds in the Rosemont debate.

Moreover, mineralisations are often found in headwater areas that serve as sources for rural and urban water supply. They also frequently occur in desert areas where water required for extraction and processing has to be diverted from elsewhere and other uses. Today, the aquifers which underlie Tucson have to be supplemented by the Central Arizona Project – a 338-mile canal system from the Colorado River on Arizona’s western border. The Rosemont mine plans to source its water from an aquifer to the south of Tucson, a supply which is used extensively by agriculture and a growing residential population. However, sixteen consecutive years of drought in the Colorado River basin and the increasing possibility of return to groundwater ‘mining’ has highlighted the increasing threats to the region posed by climate change. Any significant new use of water is liable to increasingly close scrutiny.

As Tucsonians have become more populous, wealthier and more economically diverse, so their values have changed in relation to their environment. Ranchers and farmers have been joined by retired professionals and academics, building their dream homes in Tucson’s satellite communities of Green Valley and Vail. While there are plenty of those who view water and land in terms of their economic potential, many of those who have settled in the area did so for different reasons. Not only do they view the natural attributes of the Arizonan landscape as fundamental to their health and wellbeing, but often they campaign for the rights of plants and animals such as the jaguar as self-determining, individual agents.

In debates around proposed developments such as the Rosemont Copper Project, environmentalists are often the target of derision for focussing on ‘charismatic mega-fauna’ such as the jaguar, to the detriment of broader ecological or socio-cultural interests. Nevertheless, organisations such as the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which carried out the research effort that captured El Jefe on film, recognise the power of these animals to alert the public to the broader environmental and social impacts of projects.

CBD are predominantly funded by membership fees and donations, which enable them to adopt a wide-ranging strategic approach to representing the environment in such instances. They draw upon a network of scientific, legal and practical expertise and deploy it in multiple spaces of engagement. This ranges from participating in the NEPA environmental impact analysis to ensuring its proper implementation by taking legal action against institutions such as the Forest Service. They employ and collaborate with biological scientists, and generate public support by promoting their scientific work through the press, social media and community events.

The kind of international coverage which saw El Jefe slink onto our screens this morning is exactly what CBD would have been hoping for. However, that this is not the first evidence of a jaguar’s presence in the area is interesting. Capturing what could (possibly, at a stretch) be described as evidence at a higher level of scientific abstraction, the still image, produced little media attention beyond southern Arizona. Get a video, however, and suddenly my Aunties are talking about El Jefe over tea and scones on Seaburn promenade.

It is likely that video enables the scientists to better observe the age, sex, health and perhaps some behavioural traits of the animal. Beyond that however, the medium surely offers little in the way of further evidence of its presence or the ‘criticality’ of its habitat. Is it logical to conclude that the presence of a single jaguar within such a large area points toward a ‘viable’ habitat for a larger population? There are historical reports of jaguars as far north as the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, in the mountains of Southern California and as far east as Louisiana.

The question, of course, is one of thresholds. Organisations such as CBD look to go beyond mere conservation of remaining habitats – to restoring them to as close to their pre-human condition as possible. Proponents and scientific advocates for the Rosemont mine, however, accuse the environmentalists of bleary-eyed sentimentalism. For them, a return to pre-industrial pristineness is not a practicable option when balanced with the needs of modern society. Yet in seeking to re-engage those who may have had their heads turned by this rationale, CBD now have a piece of ordinance which can create a visceral connection between El Jefe and the up-to-now apathetic or passively appalled public. This can be seen as the latest tactic in an iterative campaign of resistance against the Rosemont Copper mine.

For some of those I interviewed during my research, even though they rarely visited the Santa Rita Mountains, let alone seen a jaguar, its mere presence in the hazy, blue hills beyond the city limits is important. Randy Spoke with such excitement and passion about how strong and healthy the jaguar looked in the photographs last year. I imagine he was beating his chest in delight at the film of El Jefe.

Personally, however, it is the image of him walking alongside the creek that offers the most potential for articulating the significance of this discovery. As I have mentioned, water is an increasingly contested resource in Arizona. Water flows through each and every issue in relation to the construction of an open cast copper mine in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona. In this way, physical processes can be seen as inseparable from social and political processes. In the context of the Rosemont Copper Project, El Jefe can be considered in terms of his position in a ‘hydrosocial’ configuration, in which his existence both mediates and is produced by social struggles over the allocation of water for competing uses.

It seemed impossible that the case study I had been researching for my doctorate for the past 32 months, and the animal which – I often imagine – stalked the same dusty canyons I had explored during my visits to the area, could suddenly be projected into my aunt’s living room. But there he was, moving among the green margins, that fluid, lithe, knowing, purposeful action; his beautiful markings in full, lifelike Technicolor. I instantly loved him, and he definitely suits his name. El Jefe, he owns that place.