Conservation Biology Obituary Wildlife Conservation

The Voice of Jaguars: Remembering Alan Rabinowitz

Top photo: Alan Rabinowitz, PopTech 2010 by Kris Krüg (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Ben Lybarger

Last month Alan Rabinowitz – zoologist, conservationist, and co-founder of Panthera – passed away at the age of 64. When he was just a painfully awkward child locked inside himself by a debilitating stutter, he’d often visit the big cats at the Bronx Zoo. There he forged a special connection with a jaguar in particular, whose eyes peered into his: a similarly caged but “indomitable beast,” pained yet still proud, subdued but still powerful. It is not hard to understand why this troubled boy would whisper to the big cats, promising to find his own voice on their behalf. This was a promise that he kept, and a mission that appears to have given him both strength and purpose.

Rabonowitz was also spokesperson for the Stuttering Foundation of America, and in this children’s book he tells his own story as someone whose speech difficulties did not prevent him from becoming a powerful advocate for animals — one who even spoke before Belize’s prime minister and cabinet on behalf of jaguars.

Much has been written about his many contributions to science and conservation.  He was instrumental to the creation of the world’s first jaguar preserve, and he tirelessly campaigned for the protection of transnational jaguar corridors throughout Latin America. His concern for felids also extended far beyond the Neotropics as he worked to establish preserves for tigers and other wildlife in Myanmar, Thailand, and Taiwan. In the field, he studied everything from his beloved jaguars to Indochinese tigers, Asiatic leopards, and leopard cats. In 2006, he co-founded Panthera, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of wild cats and their habitats around the world.

What bonds me most with this man whom I never met, though, is not his role in advancing research and conservation. It is not even his adventuring spirit, nor our similar struggles to fit in with fellow human beings. At its root, the feeling I had when I heard of his death was the loss of someone who had felt the same wonder and electricity that comes from standing face-to-face with a jaguar. Like myself, he was certainly forever altered by that experience of being scared, elated, and intrigued all at once by the inscrutably intelligent eyes gazing back at him, whether this happened at the Bronx Zoo or deep in the jungles of Belize.

Pantanal jaguar photo by Charles J Sharp [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons
There is no doubt that Rabinowitz comprehended the gaze of the jaguar far better than I ever will — both academically and intuitively — but that spark which propelled him down his life’s path is something I think I can understand quite easily. His experiences with jaguars seem to have transformed him profoundly, leading to a lifetime of accomplishments arguably as worthy of admiration as the cats themselves.

I had met my first jaguar in 2012 while volunteering at Parque Ambue Ari, a wildlife sanctuary in Bolivia operated by Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi. He was a very large, full grown male named Rupi who had become a refugee from the pet trade. His temperament was typically genial, but he never let anyone forget exactly who was in control. Nobody who was lucky enough to work with him ever returned unmoved by the experience, forever haunted by the humbling effect of witnessing such natural nobility, archetypal beauty, and unwavering confidence.

Rupi, a former pet jaguar (Panthera onca) now living at the Ambue Ari sanctuary in Bolivia.

Although the jaguar certainly impresses as the apex predator wherever he or she may roam, there is something much deeper about these animals that leaves a mark on those who spend time in their company. In part, it is the difference between engendering fear and inspiring respect. But there is also an ineffable quality in the way a jaguar sees you that invites an almost spiritual interpretation. In a 2014 interview with National Geographic, Rabinowitz explained: “[…] I think jaguar-ness is like how some people define the Tao. If you try to explain it or put it into words, you’re not getting it, because it can’t be defined by words. Indigenous people understood it better than we do because they never saw a clear line between people and jaguars, people and nature. It was a less anthropocentric view of the world.”

At this point it probably seems less like I am eulogizing a man than I am exalting a cat, but maybe the one cannot be fully disentangled from the other. As a misfit kid who found his salvation in trying to save the natural heritage of our planet, I like to think that something of the man Rabinowitz grew up to become continues to live on in the dense riparian channels of the Amazon… or perhaps silently stalking caiman in the Pantanal. Bold. Curious. Indomitable.