Saving the tigers of Myanmar

A boy with a stutter from Brooklyn came to love fearsome exotic predators and set out to save them



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, April 30, 2007


Alan Rabinowitz was on a routine mission deep inside Burmese jungles when news reached him of the attack. In a nearby camp of vagrant rattan gatherers, he was told, a juvenile elephant had just been set upon by a tiger. Tigers generally shun the hulking pachyderms, so the Jewish wildlife expert from New York decided to investigate. Sure enough, the foragers’ still-jittery elephant calf had telltale rake-style claw marks in its flank.

Rabinowitz quietly peeled off from his obligatory escort of government soldiers and began tracking the attacker. Near a bank of thick undergrowth, he had “a gut feeling,” he says. “I was looking at the jungle and sensed a presence in there watching me,” he elucidates. “I don’t think it was intuition; it was knowing my animal so well.”

He picked up a rock and flung it into the tall grass. Suddenly there was a mighty rustle, followed by the receding sound of a large animal sprinting through the forest. A closer inspection revealed the fresh pugmarks (paw prints) of a tiger that had been lying in wait.

Rabinowitz was relieved — but not for the reason you or I would have been. Friskier tigers may mean the beleaguered species is on the rebound. “When we start bringing the number of tigers up,” he says, “they’re bound to have some run-ins with people.”

Alan Rabinowitz, the world’s leading expert on big cat conservationism, during a visit to Burma’s remote Hukawng Valley (photo courtesy of Alan Rabinowitz)

And that’s great, he adds. Admittedly, the striped predators’ reinvigorated verve may come at some cost to villagers in the area, but so be it. “I didn’t go to Myanmar to help people,” Rabinowitz notes during an interview in Bangkok, where he’s reacclimatizing to civilization after two months in the jungles of neighboring Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. “I went there to save tigers.”

And save them he does (or tries to). Yet, ironically, saving tigers invariably entails helping people.

For the past decade, Rabinowitz, 53, who works as director of science and exploration for the Wildlife Conservation Society based at the Bronx Zoo, has spearheaded a dogged campaign to try and convince Myanmar’s government and citizens alike of the virtues of conservation. That’s no mean feat in an isolated, war-torn, impoverished land where dispossessed ethnic minorities eke out a hand-to-mouth existence while corrupt officials of the ruling iron-fisted junta enrich themselves by despoiling natural resources. Logging licenses and mine concessions for precious mineral propsectors in pristine forests are lucrative income sources for government officials; engaging in slash-and-burn cultivation locals, too, damage their environment.

Then again, the spirited biologist who made his name in the 1980s by trapping jaguars on the Yucatan Peninsula for his pioneering field study there while facing down hunters with hard-nosed determination is not one to shirk from a challenge.

During his latest visit to Myanmar between December and January, Rabinowitz doubled as envoy, diplomat and itinerant tutor all in one — on top of his original mission to survey wildlife in the world’s largest tiger reserve he’s single-handedly created. Bushwhacking his way if need be, Rabinowitz braved malaria, typhus, amoebic dysentery and venomous snakes to call on Lisu hunters, Naga shamans and Kachin guerillas around the Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, a scenic yet forbidding region of deep jungles, swamps and rugged mountains prone to flash floods and landslides. It was at his insistence that in 2001 Myanmar’s generally intractable government declared the area a wildlife sanctuary, to be policed by a local team of WCS rangers trained by the American.

Encompassing twice the size of Israel and Lebanon combined, the Hukawng Valley lies in a triangular wedge of land between northeast India and southwestern China. Its name means “cremation mounds” in a local dialect and superstitious villagers fear its interiors as a treacherous realm populated by beastly ogres and vindictive forest spirits. During WWII, the area became known as the Valley of Death, so named because a winding trail through it claimed “a man a mile” as Allied soldiers succumbed to ambushes and disease while escaping from Japanese-occupied Burma to British-held India.

Yet for Rabinowitz it’s a biologist’s paradise protected by its very inhospitability. He’s the first foreign naturalist in a half century to have managed to survey the isolated region’s abundant indigenous wildlife. To his relief, he discovered that Indo-Chinese tigers still roam in the valley; though, barely just. In his estimate between 80 and 100 striped cats (which belong to a more gracile genus than their robust Bengali cousins) are left in Myanmar’s remaining virgin forests — the last remnants of a once proud species reduced to skulking forlornly within deep forest cover while dodging poisoned arrows and bamboo-stake traps.

If Rabinowitz has his way, seven to eight times as many may yet flourish there.

* * *

Compare the fearless adventurer with the child he once was. A chronic stutterer with spasmodic jerks of the head, he was a routine target for playground ridicule in the rougher parts of his native Brooklyn. Because of his speech impediment, young Alan was placed in a special class for slow learners — what other kids called “the retarded class.”

At the encouragement of his father, Frank, now 84, who was a physical education teacher in  a public school attended by the likes of future talkshow host Larry King (then “a goofy Jewish kid,” according to Frank Rabinowitz), Alan began lifting weights and taking boxing lessons from age 10, the better to brave his tormentors.

Between kindergarten and sixth grade, he stopped talking altogether. To people, that is. After school, he’d lock himself in his room and pour his heart out to his pet hamsters, gerbils and turtles, which always obliged him by listening patiently. “I made a promise that if I ever got my voice,” says Rabinowitz, who still stutters occasionally but has learned to control it, “I’d use it to try and save animals. That’s how I got into conservation.”

In his late 20s, Rabinowitz met Schaller, a German-born naturalist who had done pioneering field work with mountain gorillas in Africa and giants pandas in China. The young Jewish biologist never looked back.

Today, fittingly, Rabinowitz looks the part of intrepid explorer-cum-tiger-savior. National Geographic magazine, reflecting on his appearance, likened him (“compact and tightly coiled”) to a big cat, and the analogy seems spot on. His muscle-bound shoulders, handsomely rough-hewn features, and limpid, gray eyes with their piercing gaze — all of them, yes, remind you of a top-of-the-food-chain carnivore. Still, a fitness buff trained in ancient Thai sword fighting, he doesn’t appear the least bit ferocious; gregarious and straightforward, if he ever roars it’s with laughter, although a brooding temper may lurk just beneath the surface.

His talisman is a jade sun god pendant from the ruins of an ancient Mayan temple he stumbled upon in the world’s first jaguar reserve he set up in 1984 in Belize’s Cockscomb Basin. Armed with tranquilizer darts, the Brooklyn-born Jew was hunting jaguars for his radio-collar survey alongside a Palestinian-born rancher in Belize, surviving on corn tortillas and naming collared jaguars after Mayan deities. His other mementoes from his time there include an arthritic, badly deformed pinky and a boxer’s nose -- legacies of a crash landing in the jungle on his way back to base camp. “To this day I have scar tissues in my brain and get pounding headaches,” Rabinowitz says. “My nose was crushed, so I had to snap it back into place. I still get terrible sinus infections.”

Rabinowitz, who has an M.S. in zoology and a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from the University of Tennessee, is a hands-on explorer of the old school. He’d far sooner launch an exploration into the unknown heart of some treacherous exotic terrain than attend a lavish soirée in the Grand Hyatt (which he also does occasionally when receiving another of his many awards).

In 1997, while studying wild tigers in western Thailand’s Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuary (which, thanks to his work, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and after several years of pestering Myanmar’s secretive government for a travel permit, he launched a 600-mile, month-long expedition on foot to the 20,000-foot Mount Hkakabo Razi in the eastern Himalayan foothills of northern Myanmar.

It was a sight unseen since the halcyon days of geographical exploration. Negotiating rickety rattan suspension bridges, limping badly from a swollen knee and subsisting on Power Bars and impromptu bowls of gruel, Rabinowitz was leading a bedraggled, footsore caravan of soldiers, Burmese government officials and myriad porters recruited en route from tribal villages. Stunned by the rich biodiversity, he found a biological transition zone (“a living laboratory of evolution”), where lush tropical jungles home to gibbons and pangolins segue seamlessly into coniferous alpine forests harboring red pandas and elusive snow leopards.

He also discovered that local tribes like the Lisu were hunting rare species to extinction in order to exchange their kills for locals’ most prized commodity obtained from cross-border Chinese traders: salt. A unique ecosystem was on the verge of collapse, Rabinowitz realized. Henceforth he’d dedicate himself to saving it. First step: setting up a system whereby villagers, many of them suffering from goiter, cretinism and other symptoms of iodine deficiency, could have easy access to subsidized stockpiles of ionized salt.

While inspecting local hunters’ wall-mounted “trophy board” of interlaced bamboo decorated with animal skulls, Rabinowitz came across a peculiar specimen. Villagers called it phet gyi, or “leaf deer,” by virtue of the animal’s diminutive size that allowed it to be wrapped in a single large frond. It’d turn out to be a living fossil: a prehistoric species of deer (an evolutionary “missing link”) hitherto unknown to science. Rabinowitz also located the last dozen remnants of the Taron tribe, the only known Asiatic pygmies, now in their final generation.

Any such discovery would be a biologist’s dream. Yet they were mere footnotes on Rabinowitz’s resume, which already included a survey of an unexplored biological hotspot in the Annam Cordillera range of Laos (where he located an odd forest-dwelling bovid) and the creation of Taiwan’s largest nature reserve for clouded leopards, so named for the palm-sized, “cloud-shape” marks edged in black on their tan coat.

“Alan has done a tremendous job in conservation,” says Schaller, who launched Rabinowitz on his career in the 1980s while the younger biologist was studying black bears and raccoons in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. “He’s very focused and dedicated, working toward what needs to be done with local people, officials, donors, scientists and whoever can help.”

* * *

“You have suffered much, [but] you people are straight,” a Burmese minister of forestry told Rabinowitz when the scientist first approached him for permission in 1996 to survey biodiversity in Myanmar’s remote, picturesque hinterlands. The army general meant the Jews.
Rabinowitz discovered that in a country where the ruling military elite viewed westerners with suspicion, his own Jewishness was an asset. Powerful generals lavished praise on Israel, a country they cited as a paragon of robust defiance amid great political isolation and whose example they intended to emulate.

Their admiration doesn’t necessarily redound to Israel’s prestige. Myanmar is a pariah state under international sanctions because of its military government, which styles itself the State Law and Order Restoration Council. The junta is notorious for clamping down on any dissent, oppressing citizens and cleansing ethnic minorities. The country’s most prominent pro-democracy activist, Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been languishing under strict house arrest for years, while her supporters are routinely rounded up and beaten. In a bid to further delegitimize Myanmar’s recidivist regime, international human rights groups promote a complete isolation of the country, including voluntary refusal by foreign tourists to travel there. 

Then here’s Alan Rabinowitz, a world-renowned conservationist, not only traveling there but working tirelessly for Myanmar’s long-term benefit. Advocacy groups, like the U.S. Campaign for Burma, have labeled the scientist a pawn of the regime, accusing him of providing it with an excuse to further dispossess minorities by appropriating their lands under the pretext of creating a wildlife reserve. In its newly published report “The Valley of Darkness,” a Bangkok-based exile group representing Kachin hilltribes in northern Myanmar is adding to the charges. The group’s undercover researchers insist that far from being a protected virgin forest, Rabinowitz’s Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary is undergoing unprecedented environmental degradation and social turmoil with rampant HIV infection and drug abuse inflicted on locals by government-sanctioned precious mineral prospectors flooding the area.

By implication, Rabinowitz is an unwitting accomplice.

A tiger cub growls at a ‘tiger farm’ in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. For the growing populations of captive animals, roaming in the wild is a distant memory

(photo: Tibor Krausz)

The charge brings the tiger out of him. “How have they [the Burmese government] been using me?” he growls. “I have to beg them just to issue a press release.” His detractors have it backward, he counters. Corrupt officials don’t need him as cover to exploit their country’s natural resources: they can do that with impunity. Rather, his trademark brand of relentless, on-the-ground engagement is the only way to prevent full-scale despoilation. His modus operandi of conservation is to “take whatever you can get under whatever conditions are mandated,” and make the best of it. “It’s fine that some people prefer to sit in their air-conditioned offices in New York or wherever and go after a conservationist, but I have a job to do — save an ecosystem,” he says.

Besides, he doesn’t need to be reminded about the precariousness of protected wildlife habitats. On his return to the Hukawng Valley last December he learned that two land concessions (300 square miles apiece) had just been granted to tapioca and sugar cane growers inside the wildlife sanctuary’s putatively inviolable 2,500-square-mile interior. So off he stormed for Myanmar’s new administrative capital named Naypyidaw (Abode of Kings), a secluded bunker-barracks of a town built by the paranoid generals in a remote hinterland 200 miles north of Rangoon. He was there to cajole Forest Department officials, though he rather felt like banging on some tables instead.

“I was furious,” Rabinowitz says. “If I’m gonna raise millions of dollars and risk my reputation, then the government has to show me it means business, too.”

Forestry officials insisted they did, blaming an interdepartmental oversight. So he promptly returned to the valley to coax a promise out of the concessions’ beneficiary, a local Kachin developer, not to encroach unnecessarily on wildlife.

And that was just for starters.

He set out for outlying communities, where in bamboo-and-thatch hamlets he told tribesmen through interpreters about the long-term ecological benefits of livestock husbandry over traditional ways of hunting. He then gave them domesticated, fast-breeding piglets. “Turns out pigs there can’t just wallow in their filth like back home because they get killed by parasites,” he observes. “But now locals know how to raise pigs in the jungle. As do I.”

Rabinowitz also brought along slide shows and printed posters with pictures of mammals (of the type preschoolers in the West use for learning about animals) to showcase endangered species: the Asiatic black bear, the clouded leopard, the sambar deer....

Predictably, his drive to save wildcats and their diminishing habitat across Southeast Asia doesn’t always endear him to locals. On a forest trail in western Thailand disgruntled poachers once set a trap for Rabinowitz with poison-tipped bamboo stakes, which nearly cost him a leg.

* * *

Time’s running out, Rabinowitz says, and not just for big cats. In 2001, he was diagnosed with chronic lymphatic leukemia.

“I live between tests,” he notes. Every six months, he needs to have his white blood cell count checked. The numbers are going up again, he laments. “I’ll be okay until my lymph nodes start swelling up. Then they’ll hit me with chemo.”

Undaunted, he pushes on. His young son and daughter (7 and 4) born to Salisa, his Thai wife, will need him. So will tigers and jaguars. “While everyone’s declaring gloom and doom for big cats, I say we can still save them,” Rabinowitz asserts.

Barely back at home in New York, he’s already working on another project: the creation of ample roaming grounds for jaguars in South America. Through the combination of good forest habitat and edges of cultivated land where jaguars can traverse undisturbed, Rabinowitz wants to set up a “genetic corridor” for them stretching from Mexico to Argentina.

Yet the thought persists: How did a Brooklyn-born Jewish boy once come to love such fearsome exotic predators, in the first place?

“The irony is,” he says, “I’m allergic to cats. Whenever I handle jaguars, my face gets swollen and my eyes start watering. People think I’m getting all emotional.”


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