Alan Rabinowitz, Defender of the Big Cats (Podcast)
TH: Can you give us a sober status report on the state of species extinction on our planet? How bad is it?
Rabinowitz: Well, it’s not good. We don’t have a firm handle on just how many species there even are, no less how many we’re losing day-to-day. There are a lot of different theories and hypothesis on what the current rate of extinction is and how much higher it is than the norm, but really, we don’t know what the norm is. Every species extinction is a major blow.
I can speak for the larger cats, the apex predators, much better. They’re some of the animals in the most danger of extinction, and we’re working really hard to try to stop that. It would be unthinkable to be part of a world where we watch species like the tiger or the snow leopard go extinct. To my mind, it’s been outrageous that the subspecies of Javan rhino in Vietnam has just been documented as extinct. The last one was found dead. That kind of thing should not be allowed to happen in these days.
TH: Expand more on where we stand as far as extinction for the so-called apex predators, these big cats which are your specialty.
Rabinowitz: Tigers are in the worst shape. Tigers are down to more than 98 percent of their historic range. That means that today they’re occupying less than two percent of what they used to occupy at the beginning of the 20th century. In terms of numbers, frankly, we have some of the best handle on the numbers of tigers left because when you get down to such low numbers, you can count them. We think there’s something between 3,000 and 3,200 tigers left in the wild on the planet. There’s at least three or four times that number in captivity. But unfortunately that doesn’t really help the wild population.
Lions, the second largest cat in the world, we don’t know exactly what they’re down to. Believe it or not, we don’t have a good handle on exactly how many lions might be left. Estimates range anywhere from 12,000 to up in the tens of thousands. It’s probably some place in between.
So none of the big cats are doing well. Some are doing better than others. But as long as we keep our eye on them, I don’t feel that anything is going to be going extinct any time soon. But it’s a hell of a fight.
TH: We’ve got poaching, loss of habitat, climate change. Are these the main threats, and is one bigger than the rest?
Rabinowitz: Well, that’s a good question. To the immediate future, these cats are being lost at such a rate that climate change doesn’t play into it. Climate change will play into it in the future as we try to save some of these populations and what they might have to do in order to survive later, but right now, climate change is not our concern. The three major concerns is killing of the cats themselves, killing of their food, and habitat loss.
A lot of people do not hunt the cats, but they actually hunt the animals which the cats need to feed upon because they can eat those animals or sell them as meat. So killing of the animal’s food base is a major problem. But of those three, the first two are the worst, especially for the tiger. The tiger is so valued by the Asian medicinal trade, specifically the Chinese traditional medicine trade, that individual tigers are sought, and they provide a lot of income for somebody who can kill them. So killing of tigers, killing the animal itself, that’s the number one threat of tigers.
With the other larger cats, often it’s the killing of the prey and loss of habitat. But all these cats are often killed on site. Most of the places where they live it’s illegal, but it doesn’t matter. Law enforcement is very poor.
TH: Do we have a sense of how many tigers get killed on a yearly basis for medicinal purposes?
Rabinowitz: Oh, the market is so gray. It’s so underground. It is still illegal to traffic internationally in tiger parts, but of course it’s a huge, thriving market. It’s supposedly a thriving market, I’ve heard for years, even in New York’s Chinatown. So if we don’t take care of it on our own front steps, I don’t see how we can expect other countries to jump in and be taking care of it. All I know is that when I’m in the field and I meet people who have killed tigers or who are seeking to kill a tiger, no matter how remote I am, if it’s in the furthest reaches of Burma or Northeast India, in Assam, or Arunachal Pradesh, those people know they’re killing tigers in order to trade the parts to a middle person who is getting it over the border into China.
They know why they’re killing that tiger and where that tiger is going. They don’t know how much it ultimately sells for, but they know what they’re going to be able to get for it, which even at the lowest end is enough to change one of these poor peoples’ lives.
TH: The traditional approach to animal conservation is you pick an area, you draw a big line around it, and you say, “This is for the animals, and everyone else stays out.” But you’ve challenged and overturned that. How did you arrive at this conclusion?
Rabinowitz: Well, that’s right, and I didn’t challenge it or arrive at it through some great epiphany or through believing that I’m smarter than others working in my field. I’ve worked many, many years in the field and I’ve been to many parts of the world trying to save the world’s apex predators and wildlife. It took me a while, but eventually, what I learned after about 10 or 15 years is that in the traditional paradigm of wildlife conservation, we were setting up for failure. We were setting up a bunch of mega parks, many safari worlds. We were basically fragmenting the animal’s own habitat if it hadn’t been done so already. So I realized it just wasn’t working. Not with the biggest animals on earth.
Every animal has to have a home, just like a human being. A place which is theirs and is inviolate. When I explain this to people it’s pretty easy because every human being has a huge area which they travel over, work in, go shopping, do their daily activities. But they don’t own that area; many other people use it. But when they come into their house, that house is theirs. It’s inviolate. If anybody tries to come in, they can stop them, even with force.
That’s what animals need as well. That’s what the big cats need. But if that’s all they had, that would be equivalent to us being locked inside of our own homes to where we couldn’t leave. Our children wouldn’t be able to find mates and breed and have babies and go out and build their own homes. You would eventually disintegrate. You would breed with each other, maybe with a neighbor. You would die.
Eventually, the things we were trying to protect in these protected areas, no matter how big, would die out. So it became clear that though we still needed the old paradigm component of inviolate protected areas, that paradigm had to be expanded. We had to give more than just words to the concept of people living with wildlife. There had to be permeable boundaries where wildlife could be roaming through the human landscape in order to be getting to other areas, corridors if you must. They could be forest corridors, they could be rivers. They could even roam through peoples’ backyards or sugar plantations or citrus groves. As long as an animal could get to the next area and not be killed.
So the new wildlife paradigm that came about is that if conservation is going to truly take place long-term and in a sustainable manner, you need to have these connected corridors. They’re basically genetic corridors. Pristine forests are the ideal, but they don’t have to be. They can be places where people have cattle ranches, backyards, farms, vegetable gardens. Just mosaics of land where animals can go through undisturbed. And if the animals are undisturbed, generally, they don’t bother people. That’s the new paradigm.