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Alan Rabinowitz's Fight of His Life
Biologist Alan Rabinowitz battles the status quo and the ticking clock of his health to make Myanmar a refuge for tigers.   Text by Michael Shnayerson
Photo: Alan Rabinowitz in Myanmar
PROMISED LAND: Day breaks over Hukawng Valley Tiger Reserve, one of five reserves Alan Rabinowitz helped to establish in Myanmar.

Listen to free daily expedition
updates from the jungles of Myanmar with Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, as he continues his life's mission to save wild tigers.

Download the dispatches at >>
Discover Alan Rabinowitz's plan for the jaguars of Central America in a segment of
Wild Chronicles, National Geograhic's news magazine airing on public television.

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Alan Rabinowitz isn't afraid of the village strongman or a military dictatorship. He shrugs off 600-mile (966-kilometer) treks through malaria-infested jungles. That's all part of the job when your job is saving the last of the world's big cats. What Rabinowitz does fear, now that cancer has taken hold of him, is running out of time.

No one in northern Myanmar had ever seen anything like it. Gathered under one roof in
a frontier town last December were the Naga, Lisu, Shan, and gun-toting Kachin Independence Army—jungle-dwelling insurgent groups, all wary of each other. Here, too, with resentments of their own, were local police and federal forestry officers from the military junta that rules the country once known as Burma. These fractious groups had come together for the first time in living memory to discuss the one thing they all agreed on: establishing an 8,452-square-mile (13,602-square-kilometer) tiger reserve in the rain-forested Hukawng Valley. The American wildlife biologist who had worked toward this day for more than a decade stood out among them in more ways than one. The sole foreign participant and still visibly muscled at 51, Alan Rabinowitz looked like a graying action hero in a Hollywood sequel: Indiana Jones and the Tigers of Myanmar.  

The urgency of the issue was all too clear. Seemingly overnight, a village called Shingbwiyang, deep within the Hukawng Valley, had experienced a gold rush. More than 10,000 hopefuls had swarmed to the site to aim high-powered hoses at the soft riverbanks and use mercury and arsenic to separate small balls of surface gold from rock and sediment. Since the initial excitement, four more mines had been dug in the Map: Myanmar, in detailarea, each one a heartbreaking gash in the jungle, each one muddying and poisoning downstream waters.

Time Line: Rabinowitz's Irresistible Force

Adventure Guide: Myanmar:
Use our guide to plan a trip into tiger country >>

Meanwhile, hunters were scouring the area for game to sell to the hungry hordes, endangering both those species and the tigers that prey on them. Establishing the reserve was a first step. Persuading the government to outlaw gold mining was another. Rabinowitz had importuned every official he could, and now the government had decreed that all gold mines on the wide Ayeyarwady River would be closed by the end of 2005. But no amount of soldiers could protect the biggest tiger reserve in the world from poaching and mining, not to mention clear-cutting and slash-and-burn agriculture. The locals would have to cooperate to make the reserve work.
"It doesn't matter what we mandate," Rabinowitz declared. "The reserve won't work unless you believe in it. I don't expect you to do this for me. I expect you to do it for yourselves and your children."
There had been mutterings that the plan was nothing more than a trick to steal the insurgents' land. But under Rabinowitz's unflinching gaze, everyone in that room of nearly a hundred pledged to make the reserve a success. It was an extraordinary moment.
But a fleeting one. Just a year later, the reserve's future is in doubt. Hard-liners have come to the fore in the Myanmar government, engaging with Asian neighbors who seem to care more about clear-cutting Myanmar's jungles than preserving them. Across the country, and particularly in remote, rural areas, the government has conscripted locals into forced labor to build railroad lines and military outposts, raising doubts as to their intentions with this large new reserve. And even as he plans his return trip to help salvage his life's work, Rabinowitz feels an added sense of urgency. Four years ago the robust scientist was diagnosed with incurable leukemia, and there's always a chance that his next trip may be his last. 

Photographs by Steve Winter/National Geographic Image Collection; Thomas William Moore

Maps by Computer Terrain Mapping

Time Line: Rabinowitz's Irresistible Force | Adventure Guide: Myanmar

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