The Last Days of the Big Cat Survivor

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Last August, big-cat conservationist Alan Rabinowitz returned home to Mahopac, New York, from an 11-day expedition to Colombia’s remote Darien Gap. He was in the region, on the border with Panama, to survey the health of the forest, which had recently been targeted by miners, prospectors, and poachers—a development that threatened the area’s jaguars, the Americas’ largest feline. When I talked to Rabinowitz afterward, he sounded excited about the expedition, despite the many challenges.

“If we can help the government in Colombia, it sets a good example,” he told me. “Protecting the big cats will save the whole ecosystem from the top down. I realized early on in my career that the way to protect areas most expediently is to work with the sexiest, most charismatic large carnivores, which were the cats.”

 

 

His enthusiasm, though, belied an underlying reality: Rabinowitz’s body was failing him, the result of an ongoing fight with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. In August, the 64-year-old scientist and conservationist succumbed in a Manhattan hospital room, leaving behind a wife and a teenage daughter and son. He also left behind a remarkable environmental legacy.

“Conservation has lost a dedicated, passionate, and powerful voice,” Jane Goodall wrote after his death. “On behalf of the big cats, especially the jaguars, thank you, Alan.”

Collaring a jaguar in Brazil Steve Winter / Panthera

 

During his four-decade career, Rabinowitz was often called the Indiana Jones of wildlife conservation, having spent most of his adult life in the jungles of South and Central America, trekking across Myanmar and Mexico, risking snakebite, plane crashes, and violent drug cartels to protect the animals he loved. “In Thailand, I almost lost my foot when I stepped into a bamboo trap laid by poachers,” he told me last November while talking about his trips. “In Burma, we came across a shotgun trap leading to opium plantations.” It was a life of adventure and purpose that he had always dreamed about.

He traced that passion back to his childhood in Queens, New York. He’d suffered from a stutter so severe he could barely communicate. Instead, he hid in his bedroom closet and whispered to his pet turtles, lizards, and snakes. He saw himself as the guardian of those voiceless animals. When his father took him to the Bronx Zoo and he locked eyes with a jaguar, he knew what his life’s mission would be. “I wanted my life to be searching out all the wildest places on earth and getting them protected as much as possible,” he said.

After earning a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Tennessee in 1981, Rabinowitz spent two years in the jungles of Belize. No one had successfully studied jaguars there, and he set out to determine just how many lived in the tiny Central American nation. In those early days, his bravado sometimes went too far. One of his Belizean trackers died after being bitten by a fer-de-lance. In 1984, Rabinowitz’s plane clipped a wing on the forest canopy and crashed. He smashed through the windshield, breaking his nose and suffering a subdural hematoma that caused debilitating headaches for years. His time in Belize nearly killed him, but it also opened his eyes to the right way to approach wildlife protection. An outsider barking orders wasn’t the answer.

Rabinowitz on an expedition in Costa Rica
Rabinowitz on an expedition in Costa Rica Steve Winter / Panthera

 

“People are part of the equation,” Rabinowitz told me. That meant an increasing willingness to take risks in the political realm, working with governments and (often corrupt) politicians.

In the 1990s, he directly lobbied Myanmar’s military junta to survey the country’s unexplored highlands, advised the despotic government as it established a protected park, and caught a lot of heat back home for doing so. “Most conservationists don’t do what I do,” he said. But like his mentor, George Schaller, the German godfather of modern field biology, Rabinowitz was no stranger to realpolitik.

“You don’t set up a reserve by yourself—you have to have government involvement, and to do that, you have to be a good politician,” says Schaller, who worked with Rabinowitz in Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. “When you are a foreigner, there are always people who don’t like you, so you have to be extra sensitive. That’s the way Alan fought.”

It was in 1988 that Rabinowitz met Salisa Sathapanawath, a graduate student. They connected in Thailand while working with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Four years later, they married.

In 2001, Rabinowitz was diagnosed with the leukemia that would claim his life, and yet he never slowed down. In 2006, he teamed with billionaire businessman Thomas Kaplan to launch the conservation organization Panthera and began work on an uninterrupted jaguar corridor that would stretch 2 million square miles through 18 countries, from Mexico to Argentina. In typical Rabinowitz fashion, he mixed charm, grit, and boundless energy, convincing nearly every nation in the range to consent to the project. Rabinowitz envisioned the corridor as “a potentially hikeable stretch, like the Appalachian Trail,” an eco-tourism incentive for locals. His enthusiasm was contagious, even though he was well aware of the dangers of advocating for preserves in countries where foreigners had been specifically targeted.

“I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and conservation has changed,” he told me. “I always saw it as a battle. Now it’s a war zone. There were insurgents and drugs in the early days, but it didn’t feel as dangerous as it does now.”

A jaguar in the wild
A jaguar in the wild Steven Winter / NatGeo

 

Rabinowitz kept fighting until the end. The Darien Gap trip was especially risky, because until the FARC guerrillas laid down their weapons, the zone was essentially lawless. It also served as an ad hoc preserve—an area so dangerous that no one would go into it. But in the wake of the peace accords, the area was opening up to outsiders, and the jaguars’ home was being threatened. Rabinowitz needed to know how many cats were left and how healthy their ecosystem was. He spent months in the jungle, collecting data that he could use to persuade the Colombian government to create a protected reserve.

The trip was typical Rabinowitz, dismissing his personal safety in an effort to help the big cats he loved. “These kinds of things are taking bigger tolls on me than they used to,” he told me afterward. “My immune system is compromised. I recover more slowly, and I feel it. That’s why the journey of the jaguar is so urgent. I don’t have the energy I’ve had. Passion is still there, but the energy isn’t.”

Rabinowitz had been accompanied on the trip by Howard Quigley, an executive director at Panthera who had worked with Rabinowitz since they studied together in the late 1970s. Quigley says that up to the end, Rabinowitz was doing what he loved, even knowing that he didn’t have long left.

“He could have been home more, but he chose to be away, because that was his passion,” says Quigley. “Next year, we were sup- posed to go to Mexico or the Amazon to have a jaguar ceremony with a shaman.”

Rabinowitz was Jewish but was fascinated with shamanism, and he hoped an ayahuasca purge would let him step into the skin of his spirit animal as he faced his twilight. Says Quigley, “He wanted to see like the jaguars.”



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