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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

EXPEDITION UPDATES FROM AUDIBLE.COM:
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 www.audible.com/tigerman >>
VIDEO EXCLUSIVE: 
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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Time Line: Rabinowitz's Irresistible Force

| Adventure Guide: Myanmar

Continue: 1  |  2  |  3  Next >>

A series of winding roads leads from the Taconic State Parkway up the highest hills of New York's Putnam County to the simple wood house where Rabinowitz lives with
his wife, Salisa, a geneticist, and their two small children, Alexander and Alana. Rabinowitz bought the place years ago for the view from its deck: forested hills cascading south as far as the eye can see. Yet the house is less than an hour's drive from the Bronx Zoo, where the Wildlife Conservation Society is based. Rabinowitz is WCS's director of science and exploration, a title that doesn't begin to describe his achievements. Rabinowitz is one of the world's foremost protectors of jaguars, tigers, and leopards. All are endangered; all prowl habitats diminished daily by the depredations of man.
 
Beginning in Belize in 1984, when he talked the government into establishing the world's first ever jaguar preserve, Rabinowitz has known exactly what he wanted to do—and has done it. His surveys of big cats helped establish a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site in Thailand, a mountain reserve in Taiwan, and a biodiversity hotspot in Laos. His fieldwork has helped biologists map the zones of various big mammals and see where those zones overlap. He has even discovered a kind of deer unknown to science—a missing link, it turns out, between extinct and existing species.
 
"He's done a tremendous job," says George Schaller, Ph.D., 72, whose own legendary achievements in field biology, including seminal mountain gorilla research that propelled Dian Fossey's conservation efforts, had inspired the younger Rabinowitz. "But he's done far more than help big cats. Big cats are intriguing, people pay attention to them, but what Alan has been fighting for is the preservation of big landscapes. He's been superb at finding local solutions to conservation problems."
 
Maurice Hornocker, Ph.D., whose fieldwork with mountain lions in Idaho has put him, too, in the pantheon of great wildlife biologists, says of Rabinowitz: "He has an uncanny ability to promote conservation causes in unlikely areas.
 
His career has paralleled George [Schaller's], and yet his approach is a bit different. George is much more reticent and doesn't seek the crowds. Alan is very outgoing and very socially oriented. Neither way is better than the other; it's just their personalities."
 
Compact and tightly coiled, Rabinowitz is a bit like a big cat himself. When he walks, he rolls on the balls of his feet. When he sits on the edge of a sofa in his downstairs office, he looks ready to pounce. On the walls around him are ceremonial swords and spears, mostly from Thailand. As his friends and colleagues can attest, Rabinowitz has never shied away from a fight. For two years he studied Thai sword fighting, a martial art in which actual knives are used. Once, after arriving at a new village and needing to make a good impression, he beat the village's strongest man in an arm-wrestling competition and was challenged to a crossbow contest, which he intentionally lost.
 
"It's never been about just science for me," Rabinowitz says. "And yet it's never been just about adventure. I could not fathom being just an explorer and exploring for the sake of just saying I've been there. But the combination of exploring and being physically challenged and being able to come away with data or make discoveries—to me, that is the best of all."
 
By the early 1990s, Rabinowitz was in Thailand but obsessed with Myanmar. Of the world's last great unspoiled places, none promised as much discovery as the former British colony bordered by India to the west, Thailand to the south, and China to the east. No country in Indochina had as much standing forest and so few people within it. Since 1988 a military regime had kept it even more isolated than it had been before. Much of northern Myanmar had never been zoologically surveyed. Within these thousands of miles of jungle roamed tigers and clouded leopards, elephants and Asian black bears, wild boars and sambar deer. But all were being poached. Tigers, which should thrive in Myanmar's jungles, were especially threatened. Their body parts prized for Asian medicines, these cats had been hunted to the brink of extinction.
 
Without even a name to write to in the cloaked central government, Rabinowitz addressed letter after letter to "Your Excellency, Director-General of the Forest Department." The letters went unanswered. Finally, in frustration, he got a two-week tourist visa and sneaked away from the obligatory guided group tour one day. "I just showed up at the Forest Department, and of course they couldn't speak English," Rabinowitz recalls. "I just pointed to a piece of paper as if I had an appointment, and they let me in because any foreigner who came there had to have special permission. I basically walked the halls until somebody stopped me."
 
All that followed—the wildlife surveys over ten years, the growing trust in his work by the government, the eventual designation of a marine park and four forest reserves in Myanmar totaling 13,500 square miles (21,726 square kilometers)—would never have happened if the man who stopped him in the corridors of the Forest Department that day had thrown him out. Instead, he listened with curiosity as Rabinowitz explained who he was. And then, in perfect English, with a British vocabulary from the country's colonial past, the government official said, "So, you must know William Beebe."
 
Beebe, the Bronx Zoo's first curator of birds, had written a seminal book on Burmese pheasants. Rabinowitz thought it best not to say that Beebe was long dead. "I said, 'Well, you know, he's not working with us anymore. . . .'" He plunged on about the need for Myanmar to inventory its wildlife, and the official nodded sympathetically. Rabinowitz knew that Burma had once had the premier forestry department in Asia. What he didn't know was that the military government wanted to reverse a long decline in wildlife conservation and increase the country's puny 0.1 percent of land set aside for reserves to 5 percent or more. Perhaps Rabinowitz could help the government do that. But he would have to return to Thailand and apply for an official visa; no one in the government would meet him on a mere tourist visa.
 
Rabinowitz did as he was told, sure that this request, too, would lead nowhere. But the official was true to his word. Weeks later the Brooklyn, New York–born scientist was ushered into an exotic sanctum of fascinating contradictions. The Myanmar government was indeed a dictatorship, roundly criticized for human rights abuses ever since it killed an estimated 3,000 pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988 and subverted the results of a public election in 1990. The year before, the government had put the elected president, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, 60, under house arrest, where she remains today. Yet the generals were all devout Buddhists. "They all meditate!" Rabinowitz marvels.
 
How could a Buddhist be a dictator? "I know! It's interesting," says Rabinowitz. "That's the thing about Buddhism. You could say, How can a monk eat wildlife?"
The military leaders of Myanmar, he came to feel, somehow separated their actions from the possible consequences of those actions—like dead demonstrators. "They truly believe they are working in the best interests of the country," Rabinowitz says. "I mean, they work day and night. At least they're in their offices day and night." Specifically, the generals Rabinowitz met seemed to care about preserving large swaths of the country.
 
Conservation, oddly enough, appeared to fit nicely into their paternalistic plans for the nation—long-range plans in which they saw themselves retaining power and doing what they deemed best for their people. In the years that followed, Rabinowitz's experiences with the generals would reaffirm a strange truism: "It's much harder to get conservation done in democracies than in communist countries or dictatorships," Rabinowitz observes. When a dictatorship decides to establish a reserve, that's that.
 
Yet on both sides, trust took time. For nearly four years, Rabinowitz made small forays outside the capital city of Yangon (Rangoon), accompanied by forestry officials and armed soldiers as "protection." Finally, in 1996, the persistent American was given permission to explore an unsurveyed northern reach of Myanmar called Hkakabo Razi. He was the first scientist to do so since British botanist Frank Kingdon Ward, in the early 1900s. Rabinowitz flew to Putao, the country's northernmost town accessible by air, with 600 pounds (272 kilograms) of rice, enough to last his team of a dozen forestry officials, soldiers, and 115 local porters for a month of hard walking on a 600-mile (966-kilometer) round-trip. And then, setting a pace that soon exhausted his military handlers, he headed into the wild.
 
The goal of that first trip was to find enough rare species of large mammals and birds to persuade the government to set up a reserve, perhaps even a large one. At every village they encountered, Rabinowitz and his team visited with the headman, sitting at hearths in soot-stained, thatch-roof huts and going through the slow, decorous process of establishing trust. They bestowed on the villagers not kyats—the national currency, useless this far north—but the commodity most prized in the jungle: salt. A close second were medicines, which the travelers meted out in daily doses, otherwise the villagers would pop all the pretty, colored pills at once. What Rabinowitz sought in exchange was information. He would bring out his picture album of animals and point to one after another. Was this one still hunted? Had that one ever been seen?
 
Often the best hunters had a gallery of animal skulls hung on their walls. Rabinowitz was especially intrigued by a small deer skull that seemed to have antlers; he'd never seen it before. This, he learned, was the "leaf deer," so called because it was small enough to be wrapped in one leaf of a certain plant. Rabinowitz felt sure this was a species uncataloged by science.
 
Most of the time, before his knee grew sore from exertion, Rabinowitz loved the hiking. The hilly, temperate forest made him feel right at home. For two years he'd lived in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, writing his Ph.D. thesis on black bears and raccoons in woods much like these. That was where Schaller had found him. Even then, Schaller was known as the greatest naturalist of modern times. His work with big cats, from tigers and lions to jaguars and cheetahs, prefigured Rabinowitz's own. Schaller was studying giant panda bears in China, trying to determine whether to classify them taxonomically as bears or raccoons, when he heard about similar work being done in the Great Smoky Mountains by a young doctoral candidate from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Schaller came to meet the student and liked what he saw.
 
"Most people get their Ph.D. and want to be settled into the university system for life," Schaller says. "Alan seemed different; he was interested in being in the field."
 
Schaller got Rabinowitz started with a Wildlife Conservation Society grant to study jaguars in Belize. Eventually the two worked together: In Laos, they discovered the rare saola, a forest-dwelling bovine. Schaller was a pioneer of persuading governments to establish large preserves—the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, in Alaska, for one; the Chang Tang Reserve, in Tibet, for another—and, for Rabinowitz, this trip to northern Myanmar might yet lead to a Schaller-size victory.
 
As the hills rose toward the Tibetan Himalaya, Rabinowitz saw the animal life change with the topography: first to a rare transition zone where creatures of the tropical lowlands, such as  the sun bear, overlap with the Himalayan black bear from the north; then to a higher clime, home not just to black bears but to takins, musk deer, red pandas, and goral. Eventually he would find species no one had ever documented in Myanmar, including the minklike stone marten and the blue sheep, both from China.
 
Even more compelling were the stories Rabinowitz began to hear about a race of Burmese Pygmies, called the Taron, who were said to live nearby. He hesitated: A side trip at this point, after four weeks in the wilderness, with dwindling supplies and more than one member of the team struggling to keep up, might be foolhardy. Yet this may be his only chance to document a rare race of indigenous people unseen by the outside world for nearly 40 years. Rabinowitz couldn't resist.

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

Continue: 1  |  2  |  3  Next >>




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