Natural World Hero

Alan Rabinowitz

Dr Alan Rabinowitz is one of the world's leading big cat experts. He is the CEO of Panthera, an inspirational nonprofit conservation organisation.

Dedicated to saving the world's big cats

Dr Alan Rabinowitz is one of the world’s leading big cat experts. His extraordinary story starts in childhood, where difficulties he faced communicating with the human world led him to seek out the company of animals who became his confidants. A regular visitor as a boy to the Bronx Zoo, his promise to a resident jaguar there to become a voice for big cats became the foundation for a remarkable career.

He has travelled the world working on conservation projects; his work in Belize resulted in the world’s first jaguar sanctuary: The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. He has been instrumental in establishing seven significant protected areas, including the first marine national park in Myanmar, the first and largest Himalayan national park, and the world’s largest tiger reserve in the Hukaung Valley.

His reputation for exploring and helping to preserve some of the most wild places on our planet led him to be coined as the Indiana Jones of Wildlife Conservation by TIME Magazine. He is currently the CEO of Panthera, a non-profit organisation devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 38 wild cat species and their ecosystems. Dr Rabinowitz has also authored eight books and over one hundred articles chronicling his career and remarkable natural world experiences.

The next journey he will be embarking on is to trek the Jaguar Corridor, a transnational protected areas corridor for jaguars across their entire range, from Mexico to Argentina.

Interview with Alan Rabinowitz

What path led you to become a conservationist? Do you have a single most influential or defining moment when you knew that you had to take action to try and protect big cats?

The path I took to becoming a conservationist is perhaps a strange one because as a young person growing up, I wasn’t surrounded by animals, I grew up in New York City and didn’t even see a cow in a field until I went to college. As a child I had a very bad stutter and would get a complete block when trying to talk to people. At school I was labelled as having special educational needs; the adult world had classified me as broken and as a result I just stopped talking.

However, after school I would return home, gather my pets (a menagerie including a snake, hamster, turtle and chameleon) and the words would pour out. I could talk to animals, let off my frustration at how stupid humans were and say everything I wanted to say. They listened and would react, while I knew they didn’t understand they did feel and respond to my emotions.

I realised that people mistreated animals, just down to forgetting to feed their pets, and I realised that animals were disrespected by humans as they had no voice. If they could talk they wouldn’t be treated the way that they often are by humans.

I socialised by bonding with animals and when things were bad my father would take me to the Bronx Zoo. I would always head straight for the Great Cat House. I strongly felt that these hugely powerful beasts, who could easily kill humans, were locked up purely because they had no human voice. If they could talk they wouldn’t be in that situation, they wouldn’t choose to be caged.

I was always drawn to the jaguar enclosure where one solitary jaguar would pace around his cage. I would sit and whisper to this jaguar, outpouring all my emotions, and I promised that if one day I found my voice I would become their voice. I could see their feeling, emotion and consciousness, like me they were just unable to talk. 

Animals saved me as a child and I swore that I would become their voice if I learned to communicate with the human world.

You were responsible for the world's first jaguar sanctuary, the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve. Why are these protected areas so critical?

I’ve learned over the years that if we want a world with animals we need to let them roam. They need a core area, a home, a protected space. In order to have a life, a space to reproduce and exist, they need a private home; a ground zero. They will have to exist in other areas, cultivated areas shared with humans, movement corridors, but these core protected areas have to exist if we are to succeed in preserving the natural world.

I don’t keep count but think it is seven protected spaces I’ve helped establish now but I’m frustrated as there is still so much to do and still so much work ahead to ensure the protected spaces wildlife, and us humans, need are preserved.

What has been your most moving natural world experience to date?

There are two I’d like to share, one involving animals and the second involving humans.

After the Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve in Belize was successfully set up I returned back to the area to say a final goodbye. Having spent thousands of hours tracking jaguars through the region I was able to recognise the tracks of individuals, but I noticed tracks from a new jaguar and started to follow them as I took a last walk along the edge of the forest along the trail of an old timber road. I was alone and had no equipment with me, not even a flash light, and lost track of time following the tracks. Realising that dusk was falling and not wanting to find myself out in the jungle with no equipment I turned to head back towards camp and realised that the jaguar I had been tracking had circled round and had been tracking me for quite a while, his prints in my footsteps.  

It’s rare to see a jaguar in the jungle here, yet in front of me was a large male. I was blocking his way back to the jungle and he was blocking my way back to camp. I knew not to turn and run, with cats you should make yourself large and dominant, but instead I squatted down and stared. The jaguar then did something very unusual. He sat down, and just stared back. Staring into his eyes took me back to the hours spent as a child with the jaguar at the Bronx Zoo. I didn’t feel immediately under threat but wasn’t sure what to do, and decided to slowly back away. As I moved away I tripped, landing flat on my back, totally exposed to this powerful, wild cat. My heart was racing, I thought this could well be my end. Then, as I lay on the ground the jaguar got up and walked past, off into the jungle. Scared and shaking I watched it walk away, back into its protected space, its home.

As somebody who has shied away from humans it surprises me that my second most moving natural world experience was actually with humans.

I was travelling through The Sundarbans, a region in southern Bangladesh and extreme southern part of the Indian state of West Bengal. The mangrove forest here is home to a number of threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile and to one of the largest populations of tigers in one area. However it is an area of much human-wildlife conflict and there are more accounts of human killings by tigers here than anywhere else; most villagers will have personally, or know somebody whom, lost friends or relatives to a tiger attack.

Most of the people living here rely on fishing as their livelihood, putting them in the tiger’s habitat. It is considered bad luck in the villages to associate with those who have lost a relative to a tiger and, normally because it is the men who come in contact with the tigers, you find groups of women who are tiger widows, living as outcasts on the edge of the village. I met with some of these women, they have very little and are the poorest of the poor but what affected me is that they didn’t hate the tigers. The tigers literally have ruined their lives; yet there is no animosity. I asked them if they would be happy if there were no tigers and they were vehement that the tigers are part of their environment. They are in the tiger’s home and the tigers are just doing what tigers do. Despite the fact that their lives have been irrevocably changed they showed more ecological awareness than you so often find in the Western world. 

It made me believe, more than ever, that people can live with these cats.

What high priority conservation challenges do you feel the natural world is facing at the moment?

The greatest conservation challenge, what I believe is holding back the preservation of the natural world right now is perhaps a little controversial; it is a lack of partnership between conservation organisations. So often they don’t work together, they are territorial, don’t share data and don’t pool resources. These are well meaning people, working towards a common goal but everyone is reinventing the wheel, doing the same studies.

Conservation lacks funding. People are moved by messages they see in the media and maybe contribute a little but that isn’t enough. People don’t realise how important it is and that it costs money, a lot of money. Saving a species is no small endeavour. If organisations pooled funds they would go further.

The second big challenge is that there is much rhetoric from governments but this isn’t followed by intent or funding. Punishments for flouting conservation laws aren’t treated with enough gravity. Often there just isn’t the moral certitude to follow things through; animals have the right to exist but they are always seen as lesser beings, and this goes back to them not having a voice of their own. There isn’t enough value placed on animal lives.  

For example, the Government of South Africa allow the legal export of lion bones to China for the medicinal trade. [NOTE: From 2008-14, the bones of more than 4,900 African lions, from both wild and captive sources, were traded from South Africa to Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and China. An attempt to end this last year failed with the compromise that South Africa is able to continue with captive-lion bone trade source: voices.nationalgeographic]. Fundamentally there needs to be more action behind words. 

Can we as members of the public do anything that genuinely helps preserve the natural world?

It’s easy to say donate money but in reality it is how we live our lives.

Ecotourism for example has become a money making word. You’ll find 30 jeeps surrounding one tiger; that isn’t eco-tourism. People who travel should do so with really good organisations. Research and see if they give back to the landscapes they are exploiting.

Make conserving the natural world an everyday choice. Buy every day products and research which companies are anthropic. Business reacts to consumers and will do the right thing if it is forced to. Be more cognisant about your everyday life. 

You’ve written a children’s book “A boy and a Jaguar”; how much of this is an autobiography and how can we encourage children to become conservation heroes of the future?

The future hinges on children. It’s harder to change adults but children represent our best chance at saving the natural world if they are brought up with an in-depth awareness of and feeling that wildlife is part of our natural living system. It’s not just that wildlife has the right to exist, but that it is part of and critical to the complex system that we have evolved from. 

The natural world and wildlife that inhabits it is a firewall for a lot of human diseases, which we are seeing jump into the human world as the natural world degrades. Saving wild lands has to be part of what we do to keep our own species alive and well and children can make a difference.

I wrote this book (aimed at age 4-7) which is entirely autobiographical, so they can understand it. I wanted to send the message that anyone can do this, conservation has to become part of our mind-set. Forests are given to us for free but are among the most valuable things we have.  

What were the biggest challenges you faced when co-founding Panthera and how did you overcome them?

I had no desire to start a new NGO but I was getting increasingly frustrated by the bureaucratic nature of being part of a large organisation. Panthera allowed me to bring passionate people together to try and work without being embedded in bureaucracy. It is always a challenge for a new NGO to be taken seriously, although having “big-named” people helped. Perhaps our biggest challenge is to stay small and focused, to make the money count. Again, we’ve found it very hard to partner with people. 

Too often in this world the matrix of success is the money raised and not animals saved.

In your experience, what is the most effective approach to human-wildlife co-existence and conflict? How can they live in harmony more effectively?

This is very difficult and something I have thought about my whole career. There is no easy answer. We obviously need movement corridors, through the human landscape. We need to zone in on existing land use practices such as plantations where animals can’t necessarily live but look at how they can safely move through them.

It can’t come down to protected areas with people on the outside and animals on the inside, we do need to co-exist. Where we are successful at increasing numbers this can in turn increase conflict and we can’t choose one over the other. We can’t put a wild animals rights over those of a farmer who needs to keep their livestock and families safe so we need to look at best measures for coexistence. Where there are villages on the periphery of wild areas we can look at benefits for the children in these families; scholarships, training and employment programmes to reduce population growth pressures within small villages. We can look at ways to keep livestock safe such as keeping water buffalo with cattle which has been shown to reduce livestock mortality associated with big cats.  

Big cats will generally avoid people, they don’t like conflict, and they want to sneak through unobserved. Cats are relatively easy compared to other species such as elephants. For example there are thousands of mountain lions living in the hills of San Francisco, areas people regularly use for leisure pursuits yet the cats are rarely seen. They want to stay away from humans, we just need to find a way to best facilitate this in shared spaces.

Which is your favourite of the big cats and why?

Each species has its own characteristics but the one I associate most with, and have the most history with is the jaguar and they are still my favourite. It goes back to the young boy whispering to the jaguar at the zoo. They aren’t exhibition animals, you’ll never see them as a “circus” animal. They just want to be left alone by people, just like I did as a child. I’ve spent 1000s of hours tracking jaguars with radio collars on and still not seen them.

At the same time they are the only big cat to occupy 3D space. Some cats are great in water, others are great on land or at hunting in trees. Jaguars are resilient and exploit all three spaces, something no other cat does.

The big cats are only part of the story though; they are the apex predators that people are willing to save but their habitat is of critical importance for so many other species of flora and fauna. 

Who is your own personal Natural World Hero and why?

I was lucky to have an amazing mentor in Dr George Schaller, one of the last living truly great field naturalists. He saw my potential and became my mentor.

As a child I didn’t really have any heroes, I had more of a dislike of the human world but I always had admiration for Albert Einstein. As a child he was also labelled as dumb yet he was the person who opened up the world and how we view it. I admire his thinking and see a lot of truth in it. He said the only thing holding back science is scientists, people thinking in a box yet all things are possible with new thinking and creativity. 

What is your dream natural world destination that you haven’t visited yet but would like to?

A place that fascinates me is Tasmania. I like to think that maybe, just maybe, there is a pocket deep within this large island, that is still vastly natural space, that the thylacine, more commonly known as the Tasmanian tiger, might still exist.

The Tasmanian devil, although endangered, is still found in the wild so it isn’t inconceivable that the thylacine, last seen in the wild  in 1930, might just still exist somewhere on Tasmania. [NOTE: Thought to be the thylacine’s closest living relative, it is estimated that there are 10,000 to 25,000 mature Tasmanian devils left in the wild].

What natural world insight would you like to leave us with?

Follow your heart. Follow your passion where it takes you and don’t let practicality override it. The natural world is critical to our species; it goes beyond conserving beauty but comes down to our own survival.

To find out more about the work of Panthera and Alan's conservation stories click here.

All images credited to Steve Winter.

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