Famed wildcat conservationist Alan Rabinowitz died of cancer Sunday (August 5). He was 64.
“Alan was a fearless and outspoken champion for the conservation of our planet’s iconic wild cats and wild places,” Fred Launay, CEO and president of the cat conservation group Panthera, says in a statement. “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.”
Rabinowitz cofounded Panthera with businessman and investor Thomas Kaplan in 2006 to develop conservation strategies to save the most endangered big cat species of the world, including tigers, lions, jaguars, and snow leopards. “For those who became part of his astonishing and inspiring journey to save the big cats and their ecosystems, the impact of experiencing the intellectual and animal spirits that defined Alan Rabinowitz was, not unlike the moment one sees a big cat in the wild, simply unforgettable,” Kaplan says in the statement.
Rabinowitz was born in 1953 in New York City. He stuttered as a child and found it impossible to talk. “I had very, very bad speech blocks and would spasm and shake, trying to get the words out,” he told National Geographic in 2014. To find comfort, he’d go to the Bronx Zoo, where he’d sit and watch the big cats, one lone jaguar in particular. “I would go to the bars, wait until nobody was around, and talk to the jaguar—tell it my hopes and dreams, whether it was a bad day at school or how stupid I felt people were because they didn’t try to understand me.” He promised the cat if he could learn to talk, he’d advocate for him and his fellow felines.
At Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College) in Westminster, Rabinowitz studied biology and chemistry and also conquered his stutter, according to The Washington Post. He graduated in 1974 and then became a graduate student at the University of Tennessee, where he earned a master’s degree in ecology in 1978 and a doctorate in ecology in 1981. He first studied the endangered gray bat, and then raccoons in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
While at Tennessee, Rabinowitz met biologist and conservationist George Schaller who encouraged him to study jaguars in Belize, and so Rabinowitz applied for and received a fellowship from the Wildlife Conservation Society, which was then the New York Zoological Society, to start his research in Central America. He then became a researcher for 30 years at the Wildlife Conservation Society studying wild cats, bears, rhinos, raccoons, and other animals. Rabinowitz’s work in Belize is credited with helping to establish the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. In Myanmar, also known as Burma, Rabinowitz convinced military leaders to create a tiger reserve nearly as large as the state of Vermont, and in Taiwan, he helped to establish the country’s largest nature preserve.
“Nobody goes to Belize, or anywhere else, and establishes a reserve — you convince the government to establish it. That takes a certain political sense,” Schaller tells The Washington Post. “It takes passionate people like Alan to be on the ground in these countries, sometimes for several years, to reach the trust of the government and convince them to protect something. And that’s not what you train for as a scientist.”
Rabinowitz was diagnosed with leukemia in 2001. In the film Tiger Tiger, he said, “I have two choices in my life now . . . I can play it very, very safe and sit at home, and maybe prolong my life by a few years and be there for my kids . . . Or I can be the person who I am, and who makes me feel best, and be the father I want them to know—but maybe cut my life short with them.”
He is survived by his wife, Salisa, his daughter, Alana, and his son, Alexander.