Making the world safe for big cats

Explorer Alan Rabinowitz creates havens for tigers, jaguars, and leopards.

Alan Rabinowitz was on a routine mission deep inside a Burmese jungle when news reached him about the attack. In a nearby camp of rattan gatherers a juvenile elephant had just been set upon by a tiger. The intrepid wildlife expert from New York decided to investigate.

Sure enough, the still-jittery elephant calf had rake-style claw marks on its flank. Mr. Rabinowitz peeled off from his obligatory government escort to track the attacker. Near a bank of thick undergrowth, he had "a gut feeling," he says. "I was looking at the jungle and sensed a presence in there watching me. I don't think it was intuition; it was knowing my animal so well."

He threw a rock into the tall grass. Suddenly there was a mighty rustle, followed by the receding sound of a large animal sprinting through the forest. Closer inspection revealed the fresh pug marks (paw prints) of a tiger having lain in wait.

Rabinowitz was relieved – but not for the reason you or I would have been: He was glad the tiger was there. "When we start bringing the number of tigers up," he says, "they're bound to have run-ins with people." And that's great, he adds, because friskier tigers may testify to a beleaguered species on the rebound – even if that causes problems for villagers in the area.

"I didn't go to Myanmar [Burma] to help people," says Rabinowitz, director of science and exploration for the Wildlife Conservation Society based at the Bronx Zoo who recently passed through Bangkok, after spending two months in Myanmar. "I went there to save tigers."

And save them he does. Ironically, though, that invariably entails helping people. Take Ah Puh, a Lisu hunter expert at trapping tigers in remote northern jungles of Burma. The area is populated by impoverished ethnic minorities who often exchange exotic animal parts with Chinese traders for their most prized commodity: salt.

As recently as the 1980s, dozens of tigers were poached every year in Burma's forests; today, only around 80 remain, Rabinowitz says. They, too, are doomed, he adds, unless locals like Ah Puh endorse his message of wildlife conservation.

So, hiking into backwoods hamlets, he told tribesmen (through interpreters) about the long-term ecological benefits of livestock husbandry over traditional ways of hunting. He then gave them fast-breeding piglets.

"Turns out pigs there can't just wallow in their filth like back home because they get killed by parasites," he notes. "But now locals know how to raise pigs in the jungle. As do I."

Loath to tell hand-to-mouth hunters never to stalk game at all, he brought slides and printed posters to showcase endangered species: the Asiatic black bear, the clouded leopard, the sambar ( an Asiatic deer).

Ah Puh was among the persuaded, Rabinowitz says. Having traded in his crossbow and poison arrows, the Lisu man now earns a living helping the American's locally recruited team of wardens to pinpoint sites for the infrared ray-triggered cameras that monitor tigers.

"One of our wardens just reported seeing a mother with two cubs," Rabinowitz says cheerfully.

That's solace enough, he suggests, when facing his critics who often don't approve of his tactics in conservation. Human rights advocates, for example, accuse him of being a dupe of Burma's repressive military regime.

Built like Rambo, with ruggedly handsome features, Rabinowitz has the storybook look of an explorer. His talisman is a jade sun god pendant from Mayan temple ruins that he stumbled upon in Belize's Cockscomb Basin, where he tracked jaguars and set up the world's first reserve for the spotted cats in 1984. He has other physical mementoes – including a boxer's nose – from a litany of adventures, including a crash landing in the jungle.

The dashing figure that Rabinowitz cuts is at odds with his Brooklyn childhood. A stutterer, he was the target of playground ridicule. To fend off tormentors, he began lifting weights and taking boxing lessons at age 10. Between kindergarten and sixth grade, he says, 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. "I made a promise that if I ever got my voice," says Rabinowitz, who still occasionally stutters slightly, "I'd use it to try to save animals."

He has. Rabinowitz studied jaguars in Belize, clouded leopards in Taiwan, and Indo-Chinese tigers in Thailand. In all three countries he established pioneering nature reserves for big cats.

"Alan has done a tremendous job in conservation," says George Schaller, a legendary naturalist who launched Rabinowitz on his career in the 1980s while the young biologist was studying black bears and raccoons in Tennessee's Smoky Mountains. "He's very focused and dedicated, working toward what needs to be done with local people, officials, donors, scientists, and whoever can help."

During his recent Burma visit, Rabinowitz trekked to the remote hamlets of Lisu, Dawang, and Kachin tribespeople around the Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary. Rabinowitz had been key in convincing Burma's secretive and intractable government to set aside the land in 2001. A triangular wedge between northeastern India and southwestern China, it's the linchpin of his conservationist masterpiece – the Northern Forest Complex. Exceeding the size of Maryland, it links four protected biodiversity hot spots.

His work hasn't endeared him to human rights campaigners. 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. Advocacy groups like the US 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 under the pretext of creating a wildlife reserve.

A new report, "The Valley of Darkness," from the Bangkok-based Kachin Development Networking Group insists that the Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary is an environmental mess. In the previously isolated valley, the report claims, roads and bridges built by the government have facilitated a major gold rush that has destroyed forest and rivers and caused social turmoil among minorities.

By implication, Rabinowitz is an unwitting accomplice. 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. In conservation, he says, "you take whatever you can get under whatever conditions are mandated. I have a job to do – save an ecosystem."

And that's hard enough as it is. Rabinowitz discovered this year that since his last visit to Burma two years ago, two land concessions – 300 square miles each – had been granted to tapioca and sugar-cane growers inside the sanctuary's putatively inviolable interior. So off he stormed to the country's new capital, Naypyidaw, a secluded bunker-barracks of a town built by the nation's generals. "I was furious," Rabinowitz says. "If I'm gonna raise millions of dollars and risk my reputation, then the government has to show me it means business, too."

Officials blamed the concessions on an oversight. So he returned to the valley to coax a promise from the concession's beneficiary, a local Kachin developer, not to encroach unnecessarily on wildlife.

Rabinowitz remains relentless. He'd hardly emerged from the Burmese jungles before he flew to Brazil, where he's working on another project – the establishment of a "genetic corridor" for jaguars from Mexico to Argentina. He aims to combine intact forests with the edges of nearby cultivated land so that the roving predators can pass undisturbed along the entire distance between the South American and lower North American continents.

"While everyone's declaring gloom and doom for big cats," Rabinowitz insists, "I say we can still save them."

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