Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle To Establish The World’s First Jaguar Preserve
Reviewed by Julia Worcester
Author: Alan Rabinowitz
Published by: Arbor House, New York, 1986
Price: U.S.$32.70 Paperback
During the summers of 2012 and 2013, I worked as an intern in a beautiful office in midtown Manhattan. With a stunning view of Bryant Park and unusual decorations, this is no ordinary office. The bookshelves are lined with scientific papers and books on topics ranging from saving wild tigers in Myanmar to field guides of carnivores. Shelves and tables house statues and skulls of big cats, including the skull of a saber-toothed tiger. On the walls hang striking photographs of jaguars, tigers, snow leopards, and all manner of other wild cats. This is the office of Panthera, the world’s only non-profit conservation organization focused on the range-wide preservation of the world’s 37 species of wild cats.
Panthera’s CEO, Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, is the author of many books, including Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve. Jaguar was published in 1986, after Dr. Rabinowitz had returned from studying jaguars in Belize. Though published nearly two decades ago, this is still a seminal work in the field of wildlife conservation. To understand Dr. Rabinowitz’s experiences in Belize, the incredible discoveries he made, and the significance of Jaguar as a memoir and a piece of scientific writing, it is helpful to know more about Dr. Rabinowitz himself.
Alan Rabinowitz grew up in Queens, New York. Throughout his childhood, he felt ostracized because he had a severe stutter. He could hardly talk, even to his family. He grew to resent the human world and found solace in the company of animals, including the childhood pets he kept in his room in his family’s New York apartment. Incredibly, as sometimes happens with people who stutter, Dr. Rabinowitz could talk to animals without stuttering. He would come home from school and sit in the closet of his bedroom and talk with his pets. He also loved going to the Bronx Zoo, where he would watch the tigers, lions, and other beautiful cats pace back and forth in the Wild Cat House. Feeling trapped himself, Dr. Rabinowitz connected with those wild cats imprisoned in cages and made those cats, and all animals, a promise. He promised them that if he ever found his own voice, he would use it to speak in their defense because they could not.
Dr. Rabinowitz began following through on this promise after he learned to master his stutter at the age of 19. He attended the University of Tennessee, where he received an M.S. in zoology and a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology. As his studies drew to a close, he met Dr. George Schaller, a scientist who is credited as one of the founding fathers of wildlife conservation. Dr. Schaller asked Dr. Rabinowitz if he would like to conduct the first field study of jaguars in Belize. Dr. Rabinowitz immediately said yes and boarded a plane headed to Central America a few weeks later.
Dr. Rabinowitz faced many challenges in Belize. Before he could begin his research in the jungles of Cockscomb, he had to become acquainted with the people of Belize, including Maya Indians, Creoles, Black Caribs, East Indians, Lebanese, Chinese, North Americans, and Europeans. Dr. Rabinowitz’s camp was near a Mopan Maya village, and he found them interesting neighbors. He also found the Maya invaluable in helping with his research in the jungle and worked with several Maya men from the village. He found an ancient, unexplored Maya ruin in the jungle, which he named Kuchil Balum, the Mopan Maya words for “Place of the Jaguar.” Among other reasons for reading Jaguar, his writing on the Maya is riveting.
Although Dr. Rabinowitz met many amazing people in Belize, had harrowing and even near-death experiences, and explored beautiful, pristine jungle, he was in Belize to learn about and protect the jaguar. During his two years in the country, Dr. Rabinowitz trapped, tracked, and studied many jaguars (known as “tigers” by the Belizean locals), pumas, margays, and other small cats and animals. Dr. Rabinowitz had to learn how to safely trap jaguars, and once he did, he would sedate them, put a collar on them, and take note of their sex, age, total length, tail length, head circumference, and weight. He would track these jaguars, and through this data he learned valuable information about their habits, ranges, and social behavior. To understand the beauty and danger of Alan Rabinowitz’s work in Belize, one simply needs to read passages like the following:
I walked over and looked up. The foliage was thick, but through that mass of green there was no mistaking the large spotted head and the green piercing eyes that shone golden when the light hit them. I was looking into the face of the animal I had sought for so long. I heard nothing but my heartbeat. I felt naked and alone, as I confronted wild, untouchable beauty. Those eyes were watching me with no trace of fear or anger, but with thoughts I’d never know, and listening to voices I’d never hear.
One especially important part of the project, and what would be the final roadblock to protecting the Cockscomb Basin from deforestation or agriculture, was the issue of cattle-killing jaguars. Dr. Rabinowitz collected data on this subject and discovered that no healthy jaguars killed farmers’ cattle. Every single jaguar he tracked or heard of that killed cattle had been shot at least once and was not able to hunt normal prey. This discovery enabled people to better understand the problematic dynamic between jaguars and farmers. It encouraged a friendlier relationship between people and jaguars, and ensured fewer cattle deaths caused by jaguars, and fewer retaliatory jaguar killings. For these reasons it helped lead to the protection of Cockscomb.
Jaguar vividly sums up the two years Dr. Rabinowitz spent in Belize studying jaguars, learning about the local wilderness, culture, and people, and creating the world’s first jaguar preserve, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary. His research on the behavior and density of jaguar populations was groundbreaking and remains important in conserving jaguars and other wildlife to this day. This book is an important piece of scientific writing. Through his work in Belize, Alan Rabinowitz pioneered the study and conservation not only of jaguars, but wild cats and other wildlife around the world. He has helped lay the scientific groundwork that we need to understand and preserve the natural world. Dr. Rabinowitz and his mentor Dr. Schaller are pioneers in this field, and have made enormous strides in convincing people to conserve wild places and animals through their scientific research. I believe this is a critically important role science must play in the world today: the role of educating the non-scientific community about the true marvel, complexity, and fragility of wild nature.
Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve
Author: Alan Rabinowitz
Publisher: Arbor House, New York, 1986
Price: U.S. $32.70 Paperback
Reviewed by Julia Worcester, Mount Holyoke College, October 2013.