The “Indiana Jones of wildlife conservation” was an optimist in a field dominated by doom-and-gloom
NEW YORK CITY––Wild cat conservationist Alan Rabinowitz died of cancer on August 5, 2018 in Manhattan, New York City, after an 18-year struggle that began with a diagnosis of leukemia in 2001 and spanned most of the achievements for which he was best known.
These achievements included cofounding the international wild cat conservation organization Panthera in 2006, underwritten by investor Thomas Kaplan, and starring in the 2015 documentary Tiger Tiger, following Rabinowitz’s efforts to save the Sunderbans, a tidal mangrove swamp along the border of India and Bangladesh. The Sunderbans are believed to be home of the most wild tigers of any habitat left in the world.
First major habitat reserves in Burma
2001 was the same year in which Rabinowitz persuaded the government of Myanmar (formerly called Burma) to set aside the Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, the first part of what is now a system of four reserves called the Northern Forest Complex, together protecting wildlife habitat in an area the size of Belgium.
The diagnosis of leukemia left Rabinowitz with what he said in Tiger Tiger were “two choices in my life,” either to “play it very, very safe and sit at home, and maybe prolong my life by a few years and be there for my kids,” daughter Alana and son Alexander, “or be the person who I am, and who makes me feel best, and be the father I want them to know—but maybe cut my life short with them.”
“Foolish to stay home”
Decided Rabinowitz, as he told Andrea M. Couture of the Christian Science Monitor in July 2002, “It’s very foolish for people to stand on their high horse and stay home.”
Recalled Ashley Yeager, associate editor for The Scientist, “Rabinowitz was born in 1953 in New York City. He stuttered as a child and found it impossible to talk.”
Rabinowitz, as a “target of playground ridicule,” recounted Tibor Krausz in a 2007 Christian Science Monitor profile, “began lifting weights and taking boxing lessons at age 10. Between kindergarten and sixth grade he stopped talking altogether. To people, that is. After school, he’d lock himself in his room and pour his heart out to his pet turtles, hamsters, and gerbils.”
Promised to use voice to save animals
“I made a promise that if I ever got my voice,” Rabinowitz said, “I’d use it to try to save animals.”
Elaborated Rabinowitz to National Geographic in 2014, “I had very, very bad speech blocks and would spasm and shake, trying to get the words out.”
“To find comfort,” Yeager narrated, “he’d [also] go to the Bronx Zoo, where he’d sit and watch the big cats, one lone jaguar in particular.
“I would go to the bars, wait until nobody was around, and talk to the jaguar—tell it my hopes and dreams, whether it was a bad day at school or how stupid I felt people were because they didn’t try to understand me,” Rabinowitz told Yeager.
As at home, to the turtles, hamsters, and gerbils, Yeager wrote, “He promised the cat that if he could learn to talk, he’d advocate for him and his fellow felines.”
Rabinowitz later told the story in a children’s book, A Boy & A Jaguar (2015), illustrated by Catia Chien.
Bats, raccoons, & George Schaller
Studying biology and chemistry at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) Rabinowitz at last overcame his stutter. Earning his undergraduate degree in 1974, Rabinowitz completed a master’s degree and doctorate in ecology at the University of Tennessee, in 1978 and 1981, respectively.
“He first studied the endangered gray bat, and then raccoons in Great Smoky Mountains National Park,” wrote Yeager.
Through this work Rabinowitz became acquainted with legendary biologist and conservationist George Schaller, then director of international conservation for the New York Zoological Society (renamed the Wildlife Conservation Society in 1992), now a Panthera vice president.
Wildlife Conservation Society
Schaller funded Rabinowitz to study jaguars in Belize, Central America, the beginning of a 30-year tenure for Rabinowitz as a Wildlife Conservation Society researcher, and eventually the beginning of his relationship with his Thai-born wife Salisa.
Salisa Rabinowitz, a Wildlife Conservation Society conservation geneticist from 1992 to 2005, working under director of conservation genetics George Amato, followed Amato when in 2005 he became director of the Center for Conservation Genetics at the American Museum of Natural History.
“Rabinowitz’s work in Belize is credited with helping to establish the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary,” Yeager recounted.
Belize became the model
Designated in 1986, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary project became Rabinowitz’s model for subsequent successes, among them helping to establish the biggest wildlife reserve in Taiwan, set aside to protect clouded leopards; his accomplishments in Myanmar; and persuading governments from Mexico to Argentina to cooperate with Panthera in preserving the Jaguar Corridor, intended to become a chain of jaguar habitat facilitating north/south migration and mixing of what could otherwise become isolated, fragmented populations at risk of losing genetic diversity.
Formerly, Rabinowitz told Elizabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times, “We were giving them [jaguars] nice land to live on when what they needed was an underground railway.”
“Nobody goes to Belize, or anywhere else, and establishes a reserve — you convince the government to establish it,” George Schaller told The Washington Post. “That takes a certain political sense. It takes passionate people like Alan to be on the ground in these countries, sometimes for several years, to reach the trust of the government and convince them to protect something. And that’s not what you train for as a scientist.”
Rabinowitz detailed the politics and biology of the matter in his 1986 book Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve.
Rabinowitz then revisited what he had learned about jaguar conservation in a controversial New York Times op-ed essay, “Jaguars Don’t Live Here Anymore,” published in January 2010.
Opposed “critical habitat” designation for jaguars
“Earlier this month,” Rabinowitz opened, “the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced it would designate critical habitat for the endangered jaguar in the United States and take the first steps toward mandating a jaguar recovery plan. This is a policy reversal and, on the surface, it may appear to be a victory for the conservation community and for jaguars, the largest wild cats in the Western Hemisphere. But as someone who has studied jaguars for nearly three decades, I can tell you it is nothing less than a slap in the face to good science. What’s more, by changing the rules for animal preservation, it stands to weaken the Endangered Species Act.”
Rabinowitz and other biologists had in 1997 persuaded the Fish & Wildlife Service to add jaguars to the U.S. endangered species list to protect the occasional individuals who sometimes wander across the Mexican border, but jaguars have not been known to breed in the U.S. in nearly 120 years and have rarely been seen even as far as 40 miles north of the border.
“We should help conserve true habitat”
The Fish & Wildlife Service did not protect “critical habitat” in the U.S. for jaguars, Rabinowitz recounted, because no U.S. habitat was more than marginally suitable for sustaining a jaguar population.
Under pressure of lawsuits repeatedly filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and Defenders of Wildlife, the Fish and Wildlife Service eventually agreed to designate “critical habitat” and to draft a jaguar recovery plan.
“There are better ways to help jaguars,” Rabinowitz concluded. “Rather than demand jaguars return to our country,” even when jaguars themselves show no interest in doing so, “we should help Mexico and other jaguar-range countries conserve the animals’ true habitat.”
Between rounds fought on behalf of jaguars, Rabinowitz took up the cause of tigers.
Tigers “in desperate shape”
“When I started in 1993 or so in Indochina, doing tiger surveys throughout Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam,” Rabinowitz recalled to Lily Huang of Newsweek in 2008, “tigers were in desperate shape. We were dealing with estimates, which I thought were overestimates at the time, of 5,000 to 7,000 tigers left throughout their entire range. Now we know it’s probably half that, at most.”
Working to improve population data on wild cats led Rabinowitz into ever more ambitious efforts on behalf of habitat conservation.
“From his base in Thailand he looked hungrily over the border to Burma,” Peter Popham of The Independent recounted in January 2007. “Kachin was one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots. But it remained a closed book to the outside world: the last Western scientist to have a good look at it was the British botanist Frank Kingdon-Ward, in the 1900s. The region’s wildlife had never been properly documented. The only thing for sure was that there was plenty of it, including many, many tigers – but it enjoyed scant protection. The military regime admitted to devoting a paltry 0.1 per cent of GDP to wildlife conservation.”
“Marched into Rangoon”
Rabinowitz therefore “marched into the Ministry of Forestry in Rangoon and badgered the Forestry Minister into doing a deal,” Popham summarized. “He led a gruelling exploratory trek through Kachin state, and sketched the outlines of four national parks within it. The first to be established was Hkakabo Razi, around the mountain of the same name, Burma’s tallest, which borders Tibet and China,” also near the Burmese border with India.
By 2004 all four reserves had been designated, protecting among them 13,500 square miles of forests and river habitat between the Kumon and Patkai mountain ranges, home of as many as 100 tigers, plus clouded leopards, Asian black bears, sambar, and leaf deer, among other species of note.
“The process was certainly accelerated by the fact that there was no requirement to put it before parliament,” Popham observed. “As Rabinowitz commented to National Geographic magazine, ‘It’s much harder to get conservation done in democracies than in communist countries or dictatorships.’”
But Rabinowitz had underestimated the corruption that would undermine his efforts.
“The Burmese junta have been playing both sides of the street,” Popham explained. “While gaily endorsing Rabinowitz’s ambitious schemes, they have also been facilitating – and making immense profits from – an unprecedented gold rush into the very zones where his conservation effort is focused.”
Wrote Michael Casey for Associated Press, “Rabinowitz acknowledges that gold mining is a problem and says he has repeatedly pressed the [Myanmar] government to ban it, with limited success. But he says the problem has to be kept in perspective. The mines are located in a small part of the reserve and are not as much of a threat to the wildlife as hunting has been in the past or planned sugar cane and tapioca plantations are in the future.”
“Candy in a daycare center”
“Putting sugar cane plantations in a reserve is like throwing candy in a daycare center,” Rabinowitz told Casey. “Elephants love sugar cane and what you will get are major wildlife conflicts.”
Concluded Rabinowitz, “We’re making progress. We’re saving stuff. Does the reserve have lots of issues? Sure it does. But that is part of the dynamic of conservation on a large scale.”
Rabinowitz’s work in Burma also “hasn’t endeared him to human rights campaigners,” observed Tibor Krausz in his 2007 profile of Rabinowitz for the Christian Science Monitor.
“Burma is a pariah state under international sanctions thanks to its government, which jails pro-democracy activists, oppresses citizens, and engages in the ethnic cleansing of its minority populations,” Krausz explained. “Advocacy groups like the U.S. Campaign for Burma, which calls for the complete isolation of the country, accuse Rabinowitz of providing the government with an excuse to further dispossess minorities by appropriating their lands.
“I didn’t go to Myanmar to save people”
“By implication, Rabinowitz is an unwitting accomplice,” Krausz wrote. “Not so, he counters. Corrupt officials don’t need him as cover to exploit natural resources; they can do that anyhow. Rather, he argues, it’s his trademark brand of relentless, on-the-ground engagement that may stop both the government and locals from full-scale despoliation.
“You take whatever you can get, under whatever conditions are mandated,” Rabinowitz said. “I have a job to do save an ecosystem. I didn’t go to Myanmar to help people; I went there to save tigers.”
But Rabinowitz believed he had helped the indigenous people of the Hkakabo Razi region, as well as the wildlife, by introducing them to pig farming in place of their previous hunter/gatherer economy, which had come to depend largely on poaching and trafficking wildlife parts.
This was of course no favor to the pigs, and as indigenous pig farming becomes commercialized, may significantly pollute the habitat that Rabinowitz sought to protect.
High altitude tigers
From Myanmar, Rabinowitz ventured on to the Himalayan foothill nation of Bhutan in 2010 with BBC wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan and Bhutanese forest guard Phup Tshering, to investigate claims by villagers that tigers, normally a lowland-and-swamps species, were living at altitudes of up to 13,000 feet above sea level.
Leaving hidden cameras at the treeline, Rabinowitz and Buchanan returned three months later, recounted BBC Earth News editor Matt Walker, to recover documentation of the lives of red foxes, jungle cats, monkeys, Himalayan black bear, tarkin, serow, musk deer “and even a red panda,” as well as “tigers, leopards, and snow leopards all sharing the same valley.”
“I say we still can save them”
First called “the Indiana Jones of wildlife conservation” by Time magazine circa 2007, and since remembered as such by many others, Rabinowitz might also be remembered as an incorrigible optimist in a field dominated by pessimism and misanthropy.
“While everyone’s declaring gloom and doom for big cats,” Rabinowitz told Krauz in 2007, “I say we can still save them.”