Meet Tom Kaplan
Photo: Luke Hunter.
It is difficult to reconcile a U.S. billionaire who has made his fortune from extractive industries, largely gold mining, to his love for big cats, and easy to dismiss his generous philanthropy to wildlife – from tigers and Asiatic cheetahs to the rare indigo snake – as green wash. But in a day and age when conservation is being pitted against, even seen as an obstacle to, development, Dr. Thomas S. Kaplan shows how good, responsible business can help conservation, change the fate of species and possibly give them a future. Tom Kaplan has established the organisation Panthera to protect the world’s big cats, endowed a wildlife conservation education programme at his alma mater Oxford University and, inspired by his daughter, set up one of the most successful reptiles and amphibian conservation programmes. Tom has also leveraged his considerable influence to sensitise industry, save fragile landscapes from mining, and worked with governments to protect big cat landscapes. In India for a pilgrimage to Ranthambhore, he spoke to Prerna Singh Bindra en route, in Delhi.
Your interest in wildlife started when you were around six while you were living in New York?
Yes, indeed. My interest in tigers, and India too, goes back to when I was a young boy in the late 1960s. Wild cat posters and paintings lined the walls of my room. As a child, I visited the Bronx Zoo to see the big cats, read the books of Jim Corbett, and was inspired by George Schaller’s work on tigers. My family was always keen on animals, so they were happy to encourage me.
There is this story that anyone who entered your house had to donate something to India’s Project Tiger.
True! I had heard about India’s extraordinary mission to save tigers, and I decided to do my bit. So I made this rule that every visitor to our home had to make a donation at the door to WWF’s drive for Project Tiger. It was 1970, and my very first engagement with philanthropy.
By this time you were living in Florida and having your first experiences with nature?
When I was eight, we moved to Florida. I loved it. The moment I came home from school, I dropped off my books and would either grab a fishing rod and go to one of the canals, or a pillowcase and go looking for snakes. I would walk for miles and miles, sometimes with friends, but most times alone. One day, I spent the whole day tracking a Florida panther, which was then the rarest of the big cats. And I actually saw one, my first cat sighting in the wild. I ran all the way home and reported it to the authorities, excited, and quite proud of myself for performing this very important civic service. They didn’t believe me! I was prepared, and had taken a pugmark imprint with plaster of Paris. In another twist to my extraordinary evening, while bicycling back to the location of the sighting to set the plaster, a bobcat crossed my path with a rabbit in its mouth. I was so surprised I nearly cycled off the road. Since then, though I have seen almost all the other big cats in their natural environment, I have not seen another bobcat in the wild, and only recently saw a mountain lion again in Chilean Patagonia.
I knew then that this was what I really wanted to do with my life - follow wild cats, study snakes and turtles. In other words, become a felid zoologist...or a herpetologist.
But you didn’t, did you? You went ahead and studied history, and became a billionaire.
(Laughs). Yeah, I got very, very lucky. Early on I realised that I would have made a mediocre scientist. I simply didn’t have the aptitude. So academically, I pursued another of my passions – history – at Oxford, and then had unexpected luck in business exploring for minerals and energy. It was this which allowed me to stick to my ultimate passion - saving big cats. I just went about it not through the linear path but a more circuitous one. When I reached a point when I felt we could give back in a truly meaningful way, my wife Daphne and I founded Panthera. This was in 2006, and the organisation today is involved in protecting every species of big cat, and most of the smaller ones. We were fortunate to have on board some of the best of the best: Alan Rabinowitz, who has had a major influence on my life; George Schaller, his mentor, and a great inspiration to us both; Luke Hunter, David MacDonald, and many other such great cat talents who have enabled us to grow into an organisation spanning over 40 countries with nearly 80 partnerships.
Photo: Steve Winter/Panthera.
But Tom, your fortune is largely from gold and silver mining, an extractive industry which can have devastating impacts on nature. So isn’t there a conflict here?
Not really. I have never faced that conflict, because for me wildlife comes first. Folks in my company define this as the ‘Tom Rule’. They know where my heart is. If an area has been scoped for oil or minerals but is ecologically important, we don’t mine there. In fact, if our geologists in the field happen upon an unprotected, but ecologically valuable area, they have the authority to buy it and do nothing with it, just so that no one else mines it.
Oxford’s David Macdonald once said that, “while the whole world is trying to turn tigers into gold, Tom is trying to turn gold into tigers.” Is the Tom Rule part of that ethos?
To a certain extent, yes. But we’ve also taken the concept of using our business to effect conservation in unusually proactive ways. It has been my privilege to apply the lessons I have learned in other fields, and indeed the important contacts that my professional life affords me, to drive an aggressive conservation agenda. I believe we need this “conservation sensitivity” in other sectors.
Can you elaborate with an example?
In 2006, I went to Pakistan on business. I was that very rare American businessman who was going to Islamabad post 9/11, despite the travel advisories! At the time, I was interested in Pakistan as a mining jurisdiction, and also hoped to lobby for conserving snow leopards, as Pakistan is a key range state for the species. A 15-minute meeting was scheduled with the then Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz. We hit it off and the meeting lasted for almost two hours. The first 15 minutes we talked about business, the rest was devoted to snow leopards. The next day, I heard that the Prime Minister had called his Minister of Environment asking him to get a programme going on snow leopard conservation! As it happened, WWF had one already prepared and it was approved on the spot, to the astonishment of WWF’s local leadership. It was beyond my wildest dreams that we could’ve had such an impact, and I was elated. It was the first, but not the last, time that I was able to leverage my business interests for conservation. Not once has it been the other way around. Never.
Let’s cross borders, and come to India, and your association with it.
India is central to me and all those who love nature. I love the culture and the people. And of course, for a conservationist, India is unique. It is a geographical expression for a region that contains more wildlife than anywhere else in the world... and a unique place in big cat conservation in that India encompasses approximately 60 per cent of the world’s remaining wild tigers and probably the single largest leopard population. The Gir forests offer the last sanctuary for the Asiatic lion. Meanwhile, India’s mountains harbour snow leopards, while clouded leopards live in its tropical forests.
India knows it has a responsibility to conservation. But as a heritage site of big cat conservation, it is a global responsibility for all of us to work with India to be able to change the narrative and show that it is not incompatible to have growth, which is inevitable and an imperative for the people, and yet also blend that into a natural synthesis with conservation. We owe it to our children to be able to give them a higher standard of living, but we also owe it to our children and their children to ensure that their natural heritage is preserved.
Photo courtesy: Tom Kaplan.
We are seeing, in many countries, a weakening of rules and regulations that govern wildlife, and the will to conserve. How does a fast-developing nation with a burgeoning population conserve forests?
That’s a complex one. Let me attempt to answer it, though I don’t pretend to have all the answers. First, I do know that India has the political will to save tigers. While it may not be politically advantageous in the short term to save wildlife, in the longer term those who protect the environmental endowment for future generations invariably enjoy greater legacies. People forget the policies that created development and growth, because economics is fickle as well as cyclical.
There are very few people who can recall what Teddy (Theodore) Roosevelt’s economic policies were. But they know that this intensely passionate man saved vast landscapes, and that indeed America owes some of its most spectacular heritage sites to his vision. India’s former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (you may challenge her politics) has at least one lasting legacy. If the tiger survives, people will say she was the one who mobilised India and the foreign community to do something about it. In other words, conservation is good politics in the end.
It’s important to say here that conservation and development are not mutually exclusive. Take Panthera’s Jaguar Corridor project, arguably one of the most ambitious carnivore conservation projects globally. The Jaguar Corridor starts from the Mexico/U.S. border and works its way through every country in the region down to northern Argentina.
Amazingly, throughout the full extent of the jaguar’s range, there are no genetic differences in the populations. That’s important, as it means that, once in a while, jaguars are crossing the Panama canal; there’s connectivity. It also means that it is possible to save the species across its entire range.
So, the Jaguar Corridor Programme is about linking every one of these countries in a pact that will enable governments to incorporate jaguar landscapes into their development plans. This is not a mutually exclusive ambition. It is entirely possible to mesh the two if there is a proactive will to change the narrative and show that development and wildlife can co-exist.
From big cats to snakes – why Project Orianne?
Though I love reptiles, this initiative was actually inspired by my daughter, Orianne. When she was five, she had an encounter with this gorgeous and rare Indigo snake. And the next thing she asked me is to “do for Indigo snakes what we are trying to do for tigers”. She explained that this is how she “wanted to give back”. She knew she had her father wrapped around her finger! As a result, her name is now associated with one of the most successful species’ conservation programmes in the United States. This gives us all a lot of joy because Project Orianne was a uniquely successful alliance between communities, landowners, NGOs, as well as state and federal governments. We have also created one of the only snake reserves in the world, in Georgia, which is a critical habitat where the Indigos migrate and breed.
So life has in many ways come full circle…
Yes, hasn’t it? As much as our family’s calling card is the big cats, we love nature, we love wildlife and, more than that, we view it as an incredible privilege to be able to have the opportunity to save species. I don’t think there is any greater gratification imaginable than to be able to think that a species has a better future. In some cases, a species may well have been saved from “blinking out” because one has exerted the effort and deployed the capital to be able to make that happen.
Not everyone can do that given the financial scale that we have, of course, and I fully realise that. But there are so many ways in which people can be engaged in conservation. They range from writing a cheque to worthy organisations to volunteering to be in the field to monitor species. It can be lobbying government officials or working with the local communities that live in proximity to the cats. Industrialists can incorporate conservation into their business plans. Journalists can create awareness about the cause to mobilise public opinion. The key prerequisite for any of those things is passion. History shows over and over again that if you have just a few really passionate people, and you superimpose real commitment onto that passion, you can change the world.
Photo: Nick Garbutt.
Author: Prerna Singh Bindra, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 8, August 2015.