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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
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Time Line: Rabinowitz's Irresistible Force

| Adventure Guide: Myanmar

Continue: 1  |  2  |  3  Back >>

At a village of the Htalu, another indigenous but fairly widespread tribe, there was silence when Rabinowitz asked about the Taron. Later he learned that other tribes in the jungle had often taken the Taron as slaves. The Htalu were wary of the foreigner and his intentions, but when he made it clear he was just a scientist, a dozen Taron materialized from the shadows.
 
Small, ungainly, and shy, the Taron had almost died out; only these 12 remained. Generations of inbreeding had left their bodies frail and misshapen. Finally, confided a Taron man named Dawi who was about Rabinowitz's age, the survivors had decided not to propagate. So there would be no next generation. As a scientist, Rabinowitz was stunned: He'd never heard of an ethnic group willing itself into extinction. But Dawi's sorrow, when he talked about not having a child, hit the wildlife biologist on a deeper level. For several years, as Rabinowitz would acknowledge in his book Beyond the Last Village (Island Press, 2001), he and his Thai-born wife, Salisa, had struggled to sustain a marriage of intermissions between his long trips. Salisa had miscarried before his departure, and among the emotions Rabinowitz had felt as he set off for Myanmar was a guilty relief at escaping the gloom at home. Now here was Dawi, wanting a child more than anything else but too genetically flawed to risk having one. The pang Rabinowitz felt, he realized, was one of self-recognition.
 
In a small cabin on his property, a short walk from the house, Rabinowitz has a private gym: barbells, a bench press, a few machines, and, hanging in the middle of the room, an old Everlast punching bag. It's not unlike the bag his father taught him to work out his anger and frustration on when his classmates in Queens ridiculed him because he stuttered.
 
"When I was a child, I literally could not get a sentence out," Rabinowitz recalls. "I was the only stutterer I knew, and . . . every day I'd get called out of class at a certain time, and I would go to what all the kids called the retarded class."
 
Today only an occasional hint of his childhood affliction mars Rabinowitz's speech. He has tools, as he puts it, to control the stutter. But as a child in the public schools of New York City, Rabinowitz endured years of torment and self-loathing. His father, a physical-education teacher with a towering build, started Alan weight lifting when he was seven, as if that would solve the problem. In one sense it did.
 
"He taught me to wrestle and box when I was seven years old. So when people made fun of me, I would fight them instead of crying and running away. I was in a lot of fights."
 
His father was deeply frustrated by his son's impediment. "My father would get so angry, he would say, Why are you doing this? Why can't you stay in a normal class?" In retrospect he seems like a father out of a Philip Roth novel. As a basketball coach in Brooklyn at one time, Alan's father tried talking a student named Sandy Koufax out of playing baseball. "You'd be better as a basketball player, kid," Rabinowitz remembers his father telling the future baseball Hall of Famer. Another of his students was a runt named Larry King. "Just a goofy kid," Rabinowitz says his father would say of the future broadcaster. "He'll never amount to anything." Put down in the same way, Rabinowitz became a loner, worked out furiously, went through college without a single date, and immersed himself in the company of animals, who didn't care whether he stuttered.
 
By his late 20s, Rabinowitz had lost the stutter and found his way, both as a scientist and as a man. With his newfound confidence and physical prowess, it became easy for him to meet women after all, and Rabinowitz seemed to revel in that. But under the swagger, a sense of himself as inadequate remained. Eventually, Rabinowitz did become a father. Dawi, when he heard the news, broke into whoops of delight.
 
On follow-up trips to help make the case for what he had started calling the Hkakabo Razi National Park, Rabinowitz would peer out the window of the little twin-engine Fokker F-27 as it droned toward Putao and see a whole other amazing landscape, the Hukawng Valley. Eventually he proposed that Hkakabo Razi National Park consist of 1,500 square miles (2,414 square kilometers). But while he waited for the government to judge that request, he started exploring Hukawng, too. Swampier and less inhabited than Hkakabo Razi, Hukawng was big enough to sustain a healthy tiger population (a 2003 count indicated that as many as a hundred tigers remained in the valley). It might also be perfect for adventurous travelers; travelers who don't mind risking malaria in exchange for once-in-a-lifetime elephant trips.
 
On his first foray into the Hukawng, in 1999, as he surveyed animals and birds, Rabinowitz made a special point of asking about leaf deer. In exchange for salt and rice, hunters offered up skulls and bones. DNA tests done in New York would eventually prove that the leaf deer was, indeed, a species new to science. The skulls and the hunters' stories meant that the deer roamed the Hukawng as well as the Hkakabo Razi: just one more reason to argue for another reserve.
 
By then the government had agreed to Rabinowitz's request for a Hkakabo Razi reserve of 1,500 square miles (2,414 square kilometers). Now he asked that a reserve of 2,500 square miles (4,023 square kilometers) be established in the Hukawng Valley. Again, the government was silent for many months. Then, it came back with a reply that amazed him. Instead of 2,500 square miles, the government said, why not 8,452 square miles (13,602 square kilometers)?
 
This was wonderful news, the capstone of Rabinowitz's career. Cruelly, it was followed, in November 2001, by an out-of-the-blue diagnosis that the fatigue Rabinowitz had begun feeling was, in fact, chronic lymphatic leukemia.
 
"Several doctors have said to me, 'It's the best cancer you could have,'" Rabinowitz says, "which to me is such an absurd statement."
 
The diagnosis came while Salisa was pregnant with their second child, Alana. "I wouldn't have had Alana if I had known before," Rabinowitz says morosely. "I'm glad I didn't know." The bad news, his doctors told him, was that chronic lymphatic leukemia is invariably fatal. "And the good news?" he asked, like the straight man in a very bad comedy routine. The good news was that the disease can progress very slowly. "I could have ten years; I could have 20 years," Rabinowitz says. "They don't know."
 
Every six months Rabinowitz goes in for a blood test to see how much his white blood cell count has risen. So far, the numbers have gone up slowly. His doctors have told him, "Look, we tell everybody not to change their lives; that's the best way to go about it. But we've never had somebody like you." In his travels Rabinowitz has often contracted typhoid and typhus. Quite possibly, the next debilitating illness might accelerate the rate of his leukemia.
 
Yet Rabinowitz has gone back.
 
In 2003 Rabinowitz returned to Myanmar with night cameras and tripods and trip wires. Twenty years before, he'd set up cameras in the Cockscomb forest of Belize and recorded stunning images of jaguars; it was enough to persuade the Belizean government to establish the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. This time he set them up to photograph tigers in the Hukawng Valley. Over a period of months, the cameras' infrared beams recorded a fair number of tigers. But they also took a lot of pictures of men in Kachin Independence Army (KIA) uniforms with guns.
 
One day last fall, not long before the meeting that he hoped would induce all of the jungle's groups to work together for the Hukawng Valley reserve, Rabinowitz set out on a four-hour boat ride to visit the local KIA headquarters. When he explained how everyone in the valley would have to work for the reserve, the commander said stiffly that the KIA had already agreed to cooperate. Quietly, Rabinowitz showed the commander a sheaf of pictures taken in the forest. Every one of them showed a KIA soldier, gun at the ready, in search of game. "We, too, must eat," the commander bristled.
 
At the meeting in December 2004, the KIA jeep was the last to arrive, and KIA commanders seemed sullen as they entered the town hall in Myitkyina, a town south of the Hukawng Valley. But over the next two days, the KIA chairman agreed that the army would stop hunting sambar deer and wild pigs to sell to the gold miners. And when Rabinowitz met privately with the KIA chairman, the man pointed to the green baseball cap he'd been given at the meeting. On the cap was an embroidered tiger and the words Hukawng Valley Tiger Reserve. "This must live," the chairman said with a grin.
           
When he goes back in January, Rabinowitz might meet with another insurgent group in northeast Myanmar, the New Democratic Army–Kachin (NDA-K), who have allowed massive logging in much of their area—save one rugged, mountainous region that was spared because it's so steep. But Rabinowitz is less worried about the NDA-K than the increasingly oppressive central government. Says Jeremy Woodrum of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, an advocacy group that publicizes abuses by the junta and lobbies for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi: "They've clear-cut all the teak; the gold mining goes on unabated.
 
Meanwhile, in eastern Burma, 600,000 people—ethnic minorities—are on the run from the regime. Thousands of villages have been burned or otherwise destroyed. And the Burmese military chasing them has up to 70,000 child soldiers—far more than any other country in the world." This past fall, citing many of these violations, Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu and former Czechoslovak President Václav Havel petitioned the UN Security Council to take unspecified action against the regime. At press time, the UN had not issued a response.
 
Rabinowitz, too, has felt the situation deteriorate. "Things are the tightest I've ever seen," he says. In the past several years, the government's view of Westerners, particularly United States and British citizens, has hardened—a direct result, he feels, of hard-line policies by the Bush and Blair administrations. President Clinton, suggests Rabinowitz, did what he could to engage Myanmar in trade, without ignoring the human rights abuses.
 
"I'm totally non–big business," Rabinowitz says. "But the fact is that business is what changes the world." As a result, he says, the military government was opening up and changing for the better. "And then Bush came in and he just shut the door. Human rights sanction—boom."
 
The policy had exactly the opposite effect of what was intended, Rabinowitz says. "The former prime minister, who I heard wanted to bring Aung San Suu Kyi into the fold, got arrested. He's in jail now. The people in power now are the most hard-line. They were losing under Clinton, and now they're absolutely at the top."
 
Some critics of the regime question whether Rabinowitz should be there in the first place. Woodrum argues that conservationists working in Myanmar are tacitly endorsing—and perhaps providing international credibility for—a government that is engaged in rampant environmental destruction and severe human rights abuses. "The ruling regime has launched a full-frontal attack against ethnic minorities within their own borders," he says. "They'll do anything they can, including create large forest reserves, to seize control of land that has historically belonged to a particular ethnic group."
 
For his part, Rabinowitz remains determined to retain the government's trust, certain its commitment to the reserves is firm. In his mind, it's Myanmar's Asian neighbors, not Myanmar, that deserve increased scrutiny. "All the administration did is lock us completely out of Asia. China said, We'll give you billions in loans, and [Myanmar] said, OK, we'll take your money. India said, Well, we can't let China just give all the money; Burma is our neighbor. Now India is engaging with Burma." And so is Thailand. All three countries, Rabinowitz feels, want access to Myanmar's resources, including timber. Reserve or not, how safe will its jungles be as that influence increases?
 
On a late summer's day, Rabinowitz sounds upbeat when he answers the phone. He should. The results of his latest blood test are good. "My doctor says I'm at a plateau; my white blood cells have stayed the same since last year, even dropped a bit." Rabinowitz laughs. "I told him it's the Qigong [breathing exercises] and green tea. He actually thinks it might be helping." Does that mean he has five years rather than two? Ten rather than five? All that his doctor will say is that for the next six months, until his next blood test, Rabinowitz's outlook is good. "That's why every blood test gets to me," Rabinowitz says, "because it's not like, well, after a year, they got your rate and that's your rate. Your rate could change anytime."
 
Inevitably, Rabinowitz now looks at his life in six-month stints. What can he accomplish before the next blood test? And if those test results are good, how much can he achieve before the one after that? Yet he finds he can't let go of the big goal that first possessed him a quarter century ago. "There are not many places left in the world," he says, "but there are some where you can get these landscapes—landscapes the size of the state of Vermont." Landscapes that are still unspoiled and can still be saved. What can he do but keep trying to save them?

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

Continue: 1  |  2  |  3  Back >>




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