Q&A: Alan Rabinowitz

June 30th, 2011 by Charles Siebert

The protector of wild cats explains the importance of preserving jaguars and tigers the right way, by letting them roam uninterrupted.

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The Responsibility Project

For more than 25 years, field biologist Alan Rabinowitz has devoted himself to one increasingly urgent cause: trying to save the planet’s last remaining populations of wild cats. Dubbed by Time magazine in 2008 as the “Indiana Jones of Wildlife Protection,” Rabinowitz has hacked his way through some of the world’s most remote regions in order to track and better understand the ways of everything from jaguars and tigers to clouded leopards, snow leopards, Asiatic leopards, and civets.

In the late 1980s, Rabinowitz helped establish the world’s first jaguar sanctuary in Belize. In the ensuing years, his pioneering research on Indochinese tigers, Asiatic leopards and leopard cats led to the establishment of Thailand’s first World Heritage Site and, in neighboring Myanmar, the world’s largest tiger reserve. In 2001, Rabinowitz was diagnosed with chronic lymphatic leukemia, an incurable form of cancer, but he has pressed on with his mission. A longtime field researcher for the Wildlife Conservation Society, he is now the president and CEO of Panthera, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the world’s 36 wild cat species.

What does the word responsibility mean to you in terms of your life’s work?

Well, people often view it as having a sense of responsibility to the world, but I don’t feel that per se. I feel I have a responsibility to myself to do something meaningful with my life and to do it in a big way, or in a way that changes things or makes things better. Otherwise, what’s it all for at the end of the day?

You grew up in Brooklyn. How did you come to devote your life to wild cats?

At first it wasn’t the love of animals so much as the desire to be away from people. I had a terrible stutter as a kid and was always being ridiculed for it and getting into fights. My only refuge was with animals – other voiceless beings who, like me, weren’t broken, but were still mistreated because they couldn’t communicate. I’ve always wanted to work for those who didn’t have a chance. But the first time I encountered a jaguar in the wild changed me forever. I crested a road in the Belize jungle and there it was, staring at me. Jaguars are the top predator; they haven’t evolved to know fear. That one in Belize had probably never seen a human before. It knew I was coming but just waited to check me out. It’s an incredible responsibility – seeing and feeling something that might not be on this earth much longer.

How has your thinking about conservation evolved since your first big success in the 1980s with jaguars in Belize?

It can be summarized in one word: scale. I realize now that for many of the large, land-based species, we haven’t been working on the right scale. The traditional paradigm was that you find a place where an animal is thriving and then you fence it in and keep people out. But we now know that animals like jaguars and tigers range and breed over wide distances, which helps to maintain the genetic vitality of the species. Locking them up in small, isolated fragments leads to those populations – and eventually the entire species – blinking out.

What should the new paradigm be?

People, even scientists, want to view conservation as aspiring to what I call a Bambi-like state of equilibrium. You figure out what area to preserve and then it becomes a kind of Walt Disney Bambi-land. But when you’re trying to enforce something that doesn’t really exist in nature, you’re always in crisis management. So our paradigm shouldn’t be toward some kind of perfect equilibrium, some beautiful, inviolate paradise. It should be what the whole rest of the world is: a dynamic disequilibrium. We have to view animals, especially the large, wide-ranging ones, as part of the larger human landscape, not apart from it.

People may say that’s a dream, but it’s not, especially with mostly solitary and secretive creatures like big cats. They can live with people just fine as long as they have small core environments where they can hunker down and breed. It’s not the traditional ‘You stay there, we stay here’ anymore. We have to teach people how to live with wildlife. Conservation now is not just managing wildlife; it’s managing people.

One way in which you’re currently trying to implement this new paradigm is by establishing “corridors.” How do these work?

It involves establishing contiguous areas across a broad and varied landscape through which jaguars or tigers can safely pass. These aren’t protected areas exactly; that’s a plus for politicians, because you’re not asking them to set aside huge tracts of their country for cats. These are generally private lands that are zoned for the types of uses, typically farming or herding, that give jaguars or tigers room to maneuver.

We’re currently piecing together a jaguar corridor from Mexico to Argentina, and the leaders of most of the countries involved have signed off on it. What’s great is that it’s vast and flexible enough to work hand-in-hand with development. For instance, if someone wants to put a four-lane highway through one part of a jaguar corridor, an adjacent part of the corridor would be given a higher priority for protection against further development, making it far more difficult to build anything there that would prevent jaguars from traveling through.

Are you trying to turn jaguars and tigers into commuters?

Well, I’m not turning them into anything; it turns out that’s what they are. That was my and everyone else’s mistake in the beginning, thinking they weren’t. Using the latest DNA fingerprinting techniques, we’ve been able to show that they are commuters. They disperse and breed over vast distances, and this ensures the genetic connectivity and vitality of the species.

What about the problem of poachers, hunters or human conflict?

We have to do what we can to stop poaching and hunting, but we’ll never stop it all.  For instance, we need to educate people that tiger bones have no medicinal benefits, or that wild cats don’t pose a danger to people. We know they don’t. Huge numbers of people in California live with cougars in their back yards. If every cougar in California sought out a human, you’d have a big problem.  But our main focus has to be figuring out what the minimum viable population of jaguars or tigers in an area might be, and then managing it so that the overall population can withstand the occasional perturbations that come from living within the larger dynamic disequilibrium of life.

What are you most proud of?

The jaguar corridor – but it’s by no means what I’m hanging my hat on as my life achievement, because I’m now working on the much harder task of creating a similar landscape for the remaining 3,500 or so tigers out there from the Himalayas down into Malaya. In general I’m proudest of having looked at all the new data that modern genetic research has provided and having had that ‘aha!’ moment, the epiphany about the concept of scale and saving a species throughout its entire range. Previously, I thought in terms of triage: deciding which areas are important and which aren’t. But when instead you start thinking in terms of connectivity and the pitfalls of the loss of genetic connectivity, there are no unimportant areas. If you think small, all you’ll get is small.

How has your illness affected your approach to your work and your life?

A lot! Before the cancer, I felt I’d already accomplished many different things, and I was imagining a time when I could slow down, maybe have a second house by a lake and retire and do things normal people do. But I realized that even if I didn’t die so quickly, very soon I might not be able to do the kind of fieldwork I do if my symptoms got worse and I started needing chemo treatments and bone marrow transplants. It’s now 10 years since the diagnosis and I’m still only in stage one. Still, not knowing what the future holds, I’ve sped up, not slowed down. There will be no retirement in my life. Forget the second house. Forget everything. I’m going to keep the candle lit at both ends and spend as much time with my wife and my kids as I can when I’m not sick. I want them to know me as much as possible as I still am, as the person I want them to see.

Charles Siebert is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and is the author most recently of “The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals.”