The Ghost of the Jungle

Alan Rabinowitz, one of the modern era’s great conservation scientists, passed away recently from cancer. It was something that we knew was coming, but the termination of what was termed his “journey with cancer” at the beginning of August still came as a shock. Among conservationists and the biologists who study the world’s great cats — lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, pumas and the rest — he was a legend. His contributions to preserving the world’s biodiversity are virtually second to none, and it’s easy to list his accolades. But I keep thinking about the Alan Rabinowitz I knew: he could be macho in the extreme and waited for no one. He had little tolerance for intellectual BS or disorganization, and wasn’t afraid to make it known. But beneath that exterior, there was also a deep well of emotion and profound empathy for the voiceless in the world, whether creatures under attack or people abandoned by society. 

The first time I met Alan Rabinowitz was on a sweltering morning in Cartagena, Colombia, almost exactly one year ago. I’d heard a lot about him, the so-called “Indiana Jones of Great Cats.” I was curious to see if he lived up to his reputation.

He did.

We were on the rooftop of a hotel with a small group of jaguar researchers, planning the upcoming leg of the “Journey of the Jaguar,” a multi-country trip through jaguar territory, with video, social media and journal entries published online to give the public a view into what Alan and the conservation group he founded, Panthera, were doing to save these ghostly predators of the jungle. My job was, basically, to do everything, with the help of a single cameraman. It soon became apparent that the biggest challenge was not going to be dealing with spotty cell phone service, mosquitos, withering heat, language barriers or bad food. The biggest challenge was going to be keeping up with Alan. 

Over the next week and half in Colombia, and then again a few months later in the Brazilian Pantanal, I was honored to be Alan’s shadow — filming him as he tore along on four-wheelers, stomped up jungle-choked mountainsides despite a recent bout of pneumonia, bounced along caiman-infested rivers and finished his evenings with a cigar and a glass of whiskey on ice. In many ways, he seemed like a character out of a pulp novel: swaggering, safari shirt open in the front, wearing a jade amulet on a necklace and always ready with an incredible story about finding a lost Mayan city or being stalked by jaguars in the night.

In the field, he could spot a jaguar print in the dust and tell you how old it was, identify every creature that crossed the path. He was equally comfortable talking with ranchers, farmers, and fishermen about the plight of their herds, their losses to predation, and the state of the forests and rivers around them. Language barriers did not bother him. As someone who had overcome a debilitating stutter as a child and who saw his conservation work as an effort to speak on behalf of voiceless animals, figuring out how to communicate across languages did not bother him in the slightest. The highlight of our trip to Brazil was, for him, an hour spent in deep conversation (with the help of translators) with Vicente, an ancient indigenous man and the last living member of the Guato tribe. 

In the introduction to the 2000 reprint of his memoir Jaguar, which recounts his efforts to create Belize’s first protected area for jaguars in the Cockscomb Basin, Rabinowitz writes that when he began his work “there were no substantial national parks or wildlife sanctuaries in Belize at the time; wildlife protection was in the hands of a chief forest officer whose job it was to cut and sell trees. But sometimes when you plant something at just the right time and in just the right place fate smiles kindly on your efforts.” Accolades that have poured out about him since his death have focused on his advocacy — the creation of national parks and the jaguar corridor, the elevation of conservation science. But above all, Rabinowitz was a communicator. He devoted himself to communicating the importance of conservation, and the debt of kinship that we all owe the animals that we share our world with. From a children’s book, A Boy and a Jaguar, which recounted his youthful struggles with a stutter and how a jaguar at the zoo helped him find his voice, to his various memoirs, especially Jaguar, first published in 1986, he advocated for animals, children, and the dispossessed using a potent and heartfelt mix of science, reason, personal accountability, and a belief in the universal value of life.

The image of Alan that sticks in my mind, more than any other, is a moment after a bruising 10-day trek across Colombia by bush plane, boat, horseback, ATV, and on foot. The entire team was exhausted, but also giddy at the completion of the journey. By all accounts it had been a success, taking us into ELN-held territory to visit a community growing jaguar-friendly coffee and down narrow paths to recover camera trap footage of jaguars in the wild. After all this, we found ourselves in a strange city, ringed by oil refineries which sent gouts of flame pouring into the heavy, tropical night air, illuminating the spires of a Spanish colonial church in stark relief. On the rooftop of the hotel, which had seen better days to be sure, it was celebratory steaks, a cigar for Alan. From somewhere a bottle of Johnny Walker appeared. Alan graciously toasted the team and sat back in his chair. He was gregarious when with his friends, often cantankerous with the world, but for a moment, as I watched him hold court, I caught a glimmer in his eye: a part of him already missed the forest and perhaps already saw what his coming year would hold. And he already knew how he would meet it.

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