By Vicki Croke
For Alan Rabinowitz, the concept of the “battle to save wild cats” is growing less and less metaphorical by the minute. In this time of unprecedented poaching and wildlife trafficking, the big cat biologist and president of the conservation group Panthera is leading what he says is nothing short of a global “counter terrorism” campaign.
So, last month, when he received an astonishing pledge of $80 million over ten years, to save tigers, lions, leopards, cheetahs, and other cats, he considered it just the start of a larger war chest. Former military personnel have been hired, guards will be trained, and the latest surveillance technology applied.
The combative approach may seem out of character for Rabinowitz. After all, he’s best known for silently trailing jaguars or tigers in their native habitat, for writing memoirs as sensitive as they are scientific, and for persuading the officials of various governments, dictators among them, to set aside land for conservation.
But Rabinowitz has always been a fighter. And in two new memoirs (one for children, one for adults coming out in Sept.) and in appearances on shows like “The Colbert Report,” he has made clear that his fight for big cats is personal. It’s a mission with deep roots entwined with his breathtakingly painful childhood.
A tiger in Bandhavgarh National Park, India. (Panthera)
Rabinowitz suffered from a debilitating stutter—one so severe that he was ostracized, labeled mentally disabled, and could only think of himself as “broken.” Mostly, he kept to himself at school, but his father taught him how to box and he didn’t back away from brawls. He found solace in the small pets (a hamster, gerbil, turtle, chameleon, and garter snake) he kept home in New York, and also with one particular caged jaguar at the Bronx Zoo.
He discovered he could talk to animals, that with them, he could speak without stuttering. They always made him feel better—especially that captive jaguar. While the other big cats in the zoo paced near the bars, the jaguar stayed back, removed. Except when Rabinowitz whispered to him. Then, most often he would approach. Rabinowitz felt he had something in common with this huge, powerful cat: they were both prisoners. And he made a vow, the true meaning of which, he says, he didn’t even understand himself:
“I promised him that if I ever found my voice one day, I would try to help him, I would try to be his voice. I didn’t know what I was promising, all I knew is that it came from deep inside and that I had to do it.”
It may not have been a linear path, but after Rabinowitz learned how to control his stutter, he went on to study jaguars in Belize, and to establish the first sanctuary there for the species. He spent nearly 30 years as the executive director of science and exploration at the Wildlife Conservation Society, before co-founding and acting as CEO for Panthera. Along the way, he’s researched tigers, clouded leopards, Asiatic leopards, Sumatran rhinos, bears, and leopard cats, among others. Besides Belize, his work has resulted in protected areas and reserves being established in Taiwan and Myanmar. And he’s also discovered a new species—the primitive leaf deer.
Camera trap photo reveals a jaguar slipping through a fence. (Steve Winter /
“It might be a cliché to say it, but Alan Rabinowitz has been an inspiration to many of the people who are struggling to save today’s endangered wildlife and wild places,” says Tony Vecchio, executive director of the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, and an ardent conservationist himself. “Many of us were finding our way in the ’80s when he published ‘Jaguar.’ We got to see a thoughtful, dedicated, passionate human being overcoming great obstacles to make a difference for wildlife. Since then he has done nothing but accelerate the pace of his work. So, from where I sit, there’s a bar out there that has been set by Alan, a bar that he continually raises. Just what we all need as we fight the good fight.”
In a way, Rabinowitz’s work is just beginning. Panthera is the leading conservation group concentrating on big cats, and Rabinowitz says the $80 million pledge, made just weeks ago, is “a good start.” He’s not being facetious. The goal for the campaign is $200 million, and even that might need boosting. Rabinowitz says the reality is that it may take something like a billion dollars to get the job done.
The job involves understanding the biology, behavior, and needs of wild cats; protecting them from poachers; and securing habitat for them around the world—especially by establishing wildlife “corridors,” which link populations of wild animals so they can avoid inbreeding.
A leopard in South Luangwa National Park, Zambia.
Rabinowitz is thinking big and thinking long term. “We’re talking about saving tigers and jaguars and lions and cheetahs and leopards from extinction over their entire range,” Rabinowitz says. “Conservation suffers terribly in my opinion from people and organizations NOT operating at the proper scale. Hunting, poaching, wildlife trafficking—that’s all happening on a global scale.” But conservation efforts often respond in small, localized ways. “That’s why we’re not winning the battle,” he says.
There are fewer than 3,200 tigers in the wild (100 years ago, that figure was probably 100,000), living in less than seven percent of their historic range. The world’s remaining 30,000 lions have lost 80 percent of their historic range. Cheetahs’ numbers are down to less than 10,000, and they have vanished from 25 countries where they used to roam.
A pride of lions in Zambia’s South Luangwa
Rabinowitz makes the case for big cats, not just for their sake, which for many of us is argument enough, but also for the environment as a whole. Cats need so much territory that when you save them, you save the wilderness itself.
That has appeal for people who might not be considered traditional conservation donors. Rabinowitz has prided himself in going outside the usual circles looking for backers. And, according to Forbes, Panthera’s co-founder, Thomas Kaplan, a billionaire mining investor, pays all administrative costs for the organization so that all contributions go straight to conservation.
Rabinowitz’s funders for this latest initiative include Kaplan and his wife Daphne Recanati Kaplan; the crown prince of Abu Dhabi; the CEO of a Hong Kong investment company, and a businessman in India.
An Amur tiger in a photo by Pathera’s Senior Tiger
Dr. John Goodrich.
The vision is to save these cats across their entire range. For tigers especially, that’s broad brush conservation. Their habitat is dotted across 11 countries, from India to Russia. And Rabinowitz, who was once that little boy wanting to free a caged jaguar, now is interested in saving enough land so that all these species are not held in the isolated pockets of wild that he calls “megazoos.”
“We want to help the tiger throughout its whole range,” he says, “in all the countries where it still exists, in some places where maybe it can be brought back, and in high priority sites, use funding to enhance law enforcement.” In the past, he says, that was accomplished by helping governments hire more guards or by providing better pay. Today, Rabinowitz says,
“Just getting boots on the ground is never going to stem the bleeding that’s occurring in these areas when things like tiger bone and elephant ivory and rhino horn become so valuable, and the areas where they are protected are so large.”
His hope is that better technology—hidden cameras monitoring wild animals the way traffic cams watch drivers, may be one good weapon.
“We’re scaling up in order to put cameras in the forest not just to take pictures of animals and be able to identify and count animals but to take pictures of people. Cameras that don’t flash, where the people won’t even know where the camera is or when their picture is taken until there’s a knock on their door or until law enforcement arrives in their village.”
Life has changed drastically for Alan Rabinowitz—he was once a city kid tormented by others and filled with self-loathing. Today, he is a superstar of the conservation world. But in many ways, things haven’t changed. He is still a fighter who won’t be bullied, and his mission now is the same as it was when he whispered to that jaguar in the Bronx Zoo.
“I never forgot that promise,” he says.