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Meet Dr. Alan Rabinowitz

Meet Dr. Alan Rabinowitz

Alan Rabinowitz Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Director of Science and Exploration, and the Big Cat Programme at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), Rabinowitz’ work on jaguars led to the establishment of the world’s first jaguar preserve in Belize.He has spent decades in the forests of Asia,including Thailand and Northern Myanmar. Jennifer Scarlott, Director, International Conservation Initiatives, with Sanctuary magazine, spoke with Dr. Rabinowitz at his office in New York about his career, and current work to establish a contiguous corridor for jaguars in South America, and the world’s largest tiger reserve in Myanmar.

What led you in the direction of wildlife?

I grew up in New York City, and didn’t know much about animals. Throughout my childhood, I had a severe stutter. People didn’t know what to think about me. My parents tried to explain to my teachers that I was normal, but they felt I was disruptive. People who stutter can often speak normally to animals. During my childhood, I’d come home from school each day and go into a little closet with my chameleons, turtles, and other small pets, and I would ‘talk’ to them. But as soon as I stepped out of the closet, I was incoherent. So as a kid, I made a promise to the animals. I felt so close to them because I realised that we had something in common – that animals have feelings and desires and needs, as I did, but they couldn’t talk either. I swore to my pets and other animals that if I ever found my voice, I would try to be their voice. When I was in college, I finally found a clinic that helped me to speak. By that time though, I realised that what I really cared about was being with animals and in the wild. So I worked towards getting a Ph.D in wildlife biology, studying bats and bears in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. It was at the end of my studies, in 1982, that I met Dr. George Schaller for the first time. When he asked if I would be interested in going to Belize to study jaguars, I said yes, of course! I didn’t even know where Belize was at the time.

Were your two years in Belize formative for you?

In just two years, you managed to convince the Government of Belize to establish the world’s first jaguar preserve.

Back at that time, the work wasn’t about conservation. We were focussed strictly on science. I had been hired to go study jaguars and then leave Belize. But I couldn’t because the jaguars were being killed. Now it seems commonplace, but back then I was in a country where the field of conservation biology didn’t exist. Belize didn’t have a single national park at the time. This was a country with 80 to 90 per cent jungle and lots of jaguars. I decided, though, that I should try to convince the Prime Minister that he should save a piece of jungle for jaguars. It seems easy enough now to explain to people that if you don’t protect wilderness, it will disappear, but back then you had to really look into the future to see what was coming down the road. I’m happy that I managed to convince the Government to establish the world’s first jaguar preserve.

Belize is now a major eco-tourist destination, and it was the establishment of the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve that launched the whole tourism industry.

Now you’re working on a contiguous corridor for jaguars?

Yes. I run a Big Cat Programme here at WCS. There are two big projects that I’m trying to make a success, and they’ll probably keep me busy for the rest of my life. One is setting up what will probably be the world’s largest tiger reserve, Hukawng, a 23,301 sq. km. area in northern Burma. The other, even bigger challenge, is establishing a contiguous genetic corridor for jaguars from Mexico to Argentina.

What are the obstacles?

Human beings, politics. Of course, people are also the solution. The fact is that people are part of the whole environment. Many people say poverty is the main obstacle to protecting wilderness, but it’s not. It’s often more difficult to establish Protected Areas in wealthier countries than in poorer ones. It’s greed that is the primary obstacle to conserving species – what the Buddhists call the “hungry ghost realm”. It’s very hard to fight it. One of our biggest challenges in Asia right now is the trade in wildlife parts, specifically tigers, for Traditional Chinese Medicines. The trade is booming because China is a booming economy and more people have money. It’s the increasing wealth that’s driving it.

You’ve studied cats in Central and South America, and all over Asia – why have you focussed on big cats?

I didn’t work to protect the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve, just to save jaguars. I did it to save a big, beautiful rainforest. It’s easy to “sell” the protection of big cats to governments. For me, though, it’s about saving a whole, huge, intact system, with the people inside, showing that people and wildlife can live in harmony. It’s the same with the Hukawng Valley, in Burma, there are Asian elephants, clouded leopards, all sorts of fantastic animals! It’s got incredible butterflies and orchids and ants. I think about them too. But I can’t go to a government and say, give me this for the ants! They’re not going to give me anything for the ants, or the butterflies. Or even for the turtles, even though they are the most endangered animals in Asia. So you save the large areas of wilderness that tigers need, and then all the other species get saved too.

What was it like to discover the leaf deer Muntiacus putaoensis?

That was a highlight of my life. I wasn’t looking for it. It’s almost unheard of, discovering a new mammal, so to just stumble on one was amazing. To just chance upon, not only a new species, but the smallest, most primitive deer in the world, was wonderful. The leaf deer is a living fossil, the missing link in deer evolution. Studying it is helping scientists to see how and why, not only deer, but mammals evolved from solitary into social animals, from having long canines into having just chewing teeth. It’s still alive back up there in Northern Burma! I get furious at people who give up when something goes wrong, and say the struggle’s lost, we’ve failed. Should you say to young people, don’t try, don’t fight, don’t work for what you can get? You’ve got to keep fighting.

Dr. Rabinowitz convinced the Belize Government to establish the Cockscomb Jaguar Preserve and is now working to create a contiguous corridor for jaguars from Mexico to Argentina.
Photo: Panthera.org.

What does the future hold for tigers in India?

Indira Gandhi, the late Prime Minister of India, did just what India needed at the time – she said that India had to save tigers and protect wilderness at all costs. But then, when tiger numbers began to rebound, the government should have moderated its approach. But it didn’t, and the growing perception that tigers were being given higher priority than people created an ongoing backlash against tigers that is very hard to fight.

The Tribal Bill is part of that backlash, isn’t it?

Yes. The situation is so complicated. Even politicians who don’t love wildlife are not going to want their biggest predators wiped out under their watch. Losing tigers in India would mean losing a major economic input. But I don’t see a big future for tigers in India. Unless the government goes back to a larger landscape concept in terms of preserving tigers and other wildlife, the future is bleak. India’s wildlife is isolated in very small, fragmented pockets. Tigers will probably continue to exist, but not in a truly wild sense, they’ll hang on in what could be called “mega-zoos,” where you might have to artificially ensure continued genetic diversity in the remaining population, and tourists will come in jeeps to view highly- habituated animals.

What is your view on the role of the World Bank?

The World Bank (WB) is too big. It’s hard to direct, but if you can steer it, it can be powerful and effectual. I backed a WB dam project in Laos, because if the WB didn’t back the dam, it was going to be built anyway by the Koreans, the Thais or the Chinese. All they cared about was making money from Laos. The Bank did guarantee a million dollars per year from the dam toward the Protected Area and local people. The Bank does some horrendous things, it’s a big environmental destroyer sometimes, even when it claims to be doing the right thing. It has a very bad record in India. On the other hand, there are not that many groups that bring that level of money to the table that care at all about the environment. Some people who criticise the Bank don’t say anything about unaccountable corporations like Exxon, or Microsoft, because there’s nothing they can do about them, even though they have a horrific impact on the environment.

What would you say to a young field biologist who feels that science is everything, and conservation is unimportant?

Conservation without science is very, very weak conservation, and then often wrongly guided. But if field biologists stop at the science, and don’t carry it further into conservation, they’re doing a gross injustice to what they’re working on. Many people want to see themselves ust as academic or traditional scientists, but it’s your responsibility, as far as I’m concerned, in your papers, lectures, books, to take that one step further and inform others how the subject of your study can be protected. You’re the best person to play that advocacy role. Doing less than that is selfish and irresponsible, frankly.

Do you feel that the role of women is expanding in field biology and wildlife conservation, or that they have a particular role to play in the future?

There are more women in the field now. There’s nothing a woman can’t do. I’ve seen many more men have emotional breakdowns in this field, from being alone, and the difficulty of it, than women. In Why Big, Fierce Animals are Rare, Paul Colinvaux describes how species stay within their niché, with the exception of human beings, who occupy and overflow every niché.

Is there any hope for the planet with a species that doesn’t seem to recognise that it needs to set limits for itself, to share?

I think that “recognition” and “sharing” are the two key words. Environmental education of young people is crucial. We need to get to a point where we don’t have to think of sharing, or think of recognising, because thinking about it already means you’ve set yourself apart from nature. We need to get to a point where doing that is simply inconceivable, because we view ourselves as part of nature. Living in the world with animals must be a given, and anything less would be equivalent to our world ending as we know it.

Dr. Rabinowitz on a boat in the wilds of Thailand, where he tracked leopards, tigers and other big cats. His field research on the Indochinese tiger resulted in the declaration of the country’s first World Heritage Site. Photo: Panthera.org.

Let’s return to animals. Would you tell me about an exciting encounter you’ve had in the wild?

At the end of my years in Belize in the early 1980s, just before I left to work on clouded leopards in Asia, I went into the jungle one last time. I didn’t expect to see a jaguar, but before long, I found huge tracks, the biggest I had ever seen. Although I knew my chances of seeing this cat were small, sometimes you’re lucky. So I followed the tracks deeper into the forest, going on for several hours until it began to get dark. I didn’t have a flashlight, and I didn’t want to be in the jungle after dark without one. So I turned around to begin the long hike out. And not 4.5 m. behind me was the jaguar. This jaguar that I had been tracking had circled around behind me, and had been following me! Jaguars are so curious, all big cats are. At first, I didn’t feel scared because it was such a shock. I realised I should make myself look smaller, so I squatted down, expecting the jaguar to just turn away. But the jaguar sat down. I found myself looking into its eyes. Anybody who ever thinks that a zoo animal is like a wild animal has never seen a wild one up close, especially a big cat. The power, the wildness, and the fire, you could just see it in its eyes, so different from a captive animal. After about 15 or 20 seconds I thought, I should be scared. This jaguar could kill me. So I actually got a little scared. I got a lot scared! I stood up, and stepped back. I shouldn’t have moved so quickly. The jaguar jumped up. But it wasn’t going to attack me. It just turned and started walking into the jungle. Just before it left the trail, it turned, looked at me again, and walked away.

That was one of the most incredible experiences with an animal I’ve ever had. It was almost this incredible good-bye. But it was more than that. As a kid, when I stuttered so badly, I always asked my father to bring me to the Bronx Zoo, to the big cat house. They had one old jaguar and several tigers. At that time in my childhood, I felt very broken inside, very hurt. And the zoo animals looked very hurt, too. The old zoo cages were just concrete and bars, and I thought, what did this huge animal do to get there? When I met that jaguar in the forest just before I left Belize, I felt like my life had come full circle, from those early days of a broken animal in the zoo and a broken me, to me in the wild and the animal in the wild, and both of us strong and free.

by Jennifer Scarlott, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXVI No. 5, October 2006.

 
 
 

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