Alan Rabinowitz, Wild Cats' Champion and Protector, Dies

Famed conservationist Alan Rabinowitz spent his career studying and advocating for the big cats that he credits with giving him a voice.

Published 8 Aug 2018, 10:00 BST
Conservationist and biologist Alan Rabinowitz first learned to talk by speaking to jaguars. He dedicated his ...
Conservationist and biologist Alan Rabinowitz first learned to talk by speaking to jaguars. He dedicated his life to studying and protecting these animals, and other big cats.
Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic Creative

Alan Rabinowitz, one of the world’s leading experts on wild cats, died of cancer on 5th August. He was 64. Rabinowitz stuttered badly as a child, but found fluency when speaking to animals, and ultimately found his voice as a wildlife conservationist.

His death was announced in a statement by Panthera, the organisation he co-founded, which is dedicated to the conservation of big cats worldwide.

Growing up, Rabinowitz's stutter was devastating and debilitating. “My body would spasm. The air would block,” he said. But there was one place where he found relief—the Bronx Zoo. He would visit the big cat building, known as the Lion House—and stand in front of the cage with a lone jaguar. “I would stay there until he came up close to me,” he said. “And I would start talking to it.”

Though he couldn’t speak a full sentence to a human, he could talk to the big cat. He promised the jaguar that if he found his voice, he would try to be a voice for the animal, and other cats. And that's exactly what he did as a biologist, wildlife advocate, and co-founder of Panthera.

“The conservation community has lost a legend,” said Fred Launay, the CEO of Panthera, in a statement. “Alan was a fearless and outspoken champion for the conservation of our planet’s iconic wild cats and wild places. As a lifelong voice for the voiceless, he changed the fate of tigers, jaguars, and other at-risk species by placing their protection on the agendas of world leaders from Asia to Latin America for the very first time.”

Alan Robert Rabinowitz was born in Brooklyn on 31st December, 1953. His father was a physical education teacher who taught his son to wrestle and box—skills he resorted to when teased about his stutter.

Biologist Alan Rabinowitz measuring a jaguar's pawprint. Rabinowitz is remembered as a fierce advocate and protector of wild cats and wild places.

“Every day I’d be called out of class" to go to a class for kids with developmental difficulties, he told National Geographic Adventure in a profile.

By his 20s, he had the tools to manage the stutter and found his path. He graduated with a M.S. and Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Tennessee, where he wrote his thesis on black bears and raccoons. The work attracted the attention of biologist George Schaller, who invited him to study jaguars in Belize.

“He changed the direction of my life,’’ Rabinowitz said.

Rabinowitz was a master problem solver who understood the interrelatedness of wildlife, habitat, and humans.

“He had the ability to think and act big,” said conservation biologist Thomas E. Lovejoy, a former director of the World Wildlife Fund-US program and a National Geographic Fellow.

He travelled the world studying jaguars, clouded leopards, Asiatic leopards, tigers, Sumatran rhinos, bears, leopard cats, raccoons, and civets. His work in Belize resulted in the world's first jaguar sanctuary. In Taiwan, his work helped establish the country's largest protected area and last piece of intact lowland forest. In Thailand, he generated the first field research on Indochinese tigers, Asiatic leopards, and leopard cats, in what ultimately became the region's first World Heritage Site. And in Myanmar, his work led to the creation of five new protected areas, as well as the discovery of the world’s most primitive deer, the leaf deer, in the northern part of that country. He wrote more than 100 scientific and popular articles, as well as eight books, including a children’s book entitled A Boy and A Jaguar.

Rabinowitz had a passion and ferocity for conservation—and an irascible impatience with organisational grandstanding.

“When he was trying to save tigers, he came to the determination that the biggest problem with tiger conservation was tiger conservationists being more focused on the success of the organisation than the tigers themselves; it drove him crazy,” said Steve Winter, a National Geographic photographer who worked with him. Rabinowitz, he said, was critical of organisations seemingly intent on having meetings, spending money, and having good PR.

“He was quick to be critical, and he had a few rough edges in how he did things, but he never got confused about what was quality conservation and what was quality science,” Lovejoy recalled.

Scientific excellence and the ability to think big was exemplified by his work on jaguars. He studied jaguar genetics and realised there was no subspecies of jaguar. The animal was connected in its range from Arizona to Argentina. In the largest carnivore conservation effort ever undertaken, he came up with a model that defined the connectivity of the animal throughout its range.

“It wasn’t just him at the table. He brought others to the table, and came up with new approaches to conservation based on accountability,” said Howard Quigley, the executive director of the jaguar program at Panthera, who knew him when both were graduate students at the University of Tennessee. Working with local communities, governments, and other conservation organisations, Panthera was able to secure the long-term presence of jaguar populations and, in creating the model of a corridor for the species, to ensure their safe passage from Mexico to Argentina.

He was also a defender and supporter of indigenous peoples, which had a direct bearing on that project—and others. “He wanted to show people it wasn’t just a biological corridor, but that the jaguar linked cultures, and is revered by tribes from Argentina to the Amazon,” Quigley said. “If we are talking about epitaphs, Alan’s is ‘I made a difference.’”

He is survived by his wife Salisa, a daughter, Alana, and son, Alexander.

Cathy Newman is a former editor at large for National Geographic magazine. Follow her on Twitter.

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