Alan Rabinowitz: Voice of the wild cats
Novia D. Rulistia
The Jakarta Post
Conservationist Alan Rabinowitz speaks loud and clear about safeguarding big cats in front of an audience, fulfilling his childhood promise to stand up for them if he ever found his voice again.
Rabinowitz was born with a very bad stutter, where anytime he tried to talk, his mouth would freeze.
'People in the schools in New York didn't know what to do,' he told The Jakarta Post after the award ceremony to recognize Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation's long-term commitment to anti-poaching efforts. 'They thought I was retarded, mentally disturbed, so they put me in special classes for mentally disturbed kids. But I knew in my head I was normal but I couldn't talk.'
But when Rabinowitz came home after school, he would find himself talking to his little pets at home. 'When I talked to animals, I was relaxed because they didn't judge me, they didn't think I was crazy or stupid,' he said.
When Rabinowitz's father found out that his son would talk to the animals, he would take the lad to the zoo if he had a bad day at school.
The one section at the zoo that the boy enjoyed visiting was the tiger section.
'I felt like they were like me; they were big, strong, powerful, stronger than humans, but they're locked inside a cage by humans. And I felt that was just like me: I was locked in my head, I was a strong young man but I couldn't talk and my cage was my head,' Rabinowitz said.
He would then get close to the tiger cages and whisper to them, telling them about his day at school.
'I would lean in a little, the cats would lean in a little, too, and I remembered promising them that if I ever found my voice, and I really didn't know if I would, I would try to help them,' he said.
Rabinowitz then studied biology and chemistry at McDaniel College in Maryland, in the US, where he also started to learn how to eliminate his stutter. 'I was 19 in my senior college, and I went to an experimental class where they taught me how to use my mouth to speak.'
Rabinowitz then continued graduate studies at the University of Tennessee, earning his doctorate in ecology in 1981.
While working for Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) at the Bronx Zoo, a colleague asked him to go to Belize to survey jaguar behavior in the wild, as less was known about the great cats than tigers in the late 1980.
'I did all that so when I wanted to try to save them, I already had all the data to go to the government and told them about things they needed if they wanted to save a jaguar,' Rabinowitz said. 'Big cats are top predators, and saving them will also conserve the landscapes upon which many species depend.'
In addition to conducting a survey, he set up the world's first jaguar preserve in Belize. He then went to Brazil, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica and Venezuela to do more surveys on jaguars.
Young and eager for more adventure, he traveled throughout Asia to study clouded leopards and spent years in Thailand to save tigers ' and also guided the establishment of Huai Kha Khaeng Sanctuary, which has since become a UNESCO world biosphere reserve.
Dubbed the 'Indiana Jones of wildlife conservation' by Time, Rabinowitz created five protected areas in Myanmar, including that country's first marine national park, the first and largest Himalayan national park and the world's largest tiger reserve in Hukaung Valley, where he discovered four new species of mammals, including a new type of leaf deer.
Rabinowitz has also studied Asiatic leopards, Sumatran rhinos, bears, leopard cats, raccoons and civets.
After working for 25 years with WCS, Rabinowitz quit and cofounded Panthera, a non-profit organization devoted to protecting wild cats, with Thomas Kaplan and became its CEO.
With Panthera, Rabinowitz initiated the creation of the 'Jaguar Corridor' from Argentina to Mexico to ensure connectivity between key jaguar populations so that the cats can move safely and breed.
He also initiated Panthera's Tiger Corridor Initiative, which aims to identify and protect the world's last remaining large interconnected tiger landscapes in the remote Indo-Himalayan region of Asia.
However, being CEO has limited his time to be in the wild with the animals ' the world where he feels most comfortable. 'I studied animals in order to avoid that kind of thing and now I do all that. But now maybe it's the time to help younger people to do what I did, and that also feels good.'
'But I have to sometimes get in the field. I used to travel about 10 months a year, now it's just six months a year, and of the period, I'm in the field about three to four months,' the 60-year-old said.
Rabinowitz has written eight books about big cats, hoping to help educate people about the importance of saving the animals.
The most recent one is the release of a children's book titled A Boy and a Jaguar. 'If I really want to save these big cats, it's not enough just to get a new protected area or to have new laws, I have to tell people stories, educate the public about the truth that these cats aren't all dangerous,' Rabinowitz said.
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