Alan Rabinowitz, Defender of the Big Cats (Podcast)
TH: What does it look like when this actually comes into play?
Rabinowitz: The good thing about it is cats and other large carnivores are usually pretty adaptable. They can sneak through areas. We call our jaguar corridor the underground railway because they move through places that if you interview local people, they will swear that jaguars don’t live around there and haven’t been around there in years. And yet, we’re tracking a jaguar moving through their cornfield.
And that’s perfect. That’s exactly the way we want it. So first of all, the corridor consists of identifying the kinds of land use that these animals can move through. So take a jaguar, for example. We identify on maps that these jaguars are moving through cattle ranches, citrus groves, oil palms, rubber plantations, peoples’ vegetable gardens.
We identify what those are and then where they can’t move through, what stops them. And what stops a jaguar are things like a four-lane highway. It could eventually get by, but it will actually make a jaguar turn around. A huge dam that floods a large area. Again, a jaguar swims well. It could potentially swim, but it’ll no more swim than you and I would if we were trying to get from point A to point B and all of a sudden came upon a reservoir. We’re not going to just jump in and swim to the other side. Jaguars don’t either.
So those are things we identify as possible barriers, and then we identify all the things that they could use to travel. Then we go to the government. In the past, in traditional wildlife conservation, people like me have always worked with the national parks part of the government or the minister of environment, which we still do.
But now I work with the ministries of agriculture. Now I work with the land use people who actually zone for development. Usually, conservation and development have never worked hand-in-hand, but this is perfect, and they love it because now conservationists are coming and saying, “How can we work with you so that your development can still occur, but land is zoned properly so that jaguars or other animals can move unharmed through that environment?” They then zone the land, zone where corridors are being used, not so that it’s protected. It’s still human use. It’s private or government. But they zone its use so that maybe a factory couldn’t be built there. Or a big dam could not be built there. Or maybe a four-lane highway becomes a two-lane highway, or there are speed bumps. As long as we know how to mitigate so that jaguars can still move through there.
TH: So conservation becomes part of the human landscape. But don’t people continue to see animals like this as a threat? And what do you do when a jaguar commuting through somebody’s backyard eats a goat or a chicken, or a tiger eats somebody’s cow?
Rabinowitz: Absolutely. In fact, the irony is that our success can almost be measured by levels of conflict. The more successful we are, the more inevitable it will be. There won’t be a lot of conflict because it’s just not in their nature. This is not some cure for saving all species. I would not know how to design a corridor that could be effective for elephants, which is what many people are trying to do because there’s no such thing as having elephants sneak by anything. Elephants do huge amounts of damage just by walking. So it’s not a panacea for all the different species which need help, but for the cats which are generally solitary or secretive and basically don’t want to bother people, this generally works. But yes, there will be conflict.
And as it works better and populations come back to more sustainable numbers, there will probably be more instances of conflict. We’re never going to be able to stop that. What we have to be able to do is to make people feel that they gain better things for their themselves an, for their children by being in a jaguar corridor. So in these areas which are designated jaguar corridors, the next step is to try to bring services into the jaguar corridor. Things like medical benefits, scholarships for kids.
And imagine, there are places in the jaguar corridor where these people have never even seen a jaguar. And they get extra benefits as long as that corridor is maintained. If those jaguars go away, their benefits go away. If a jaguar hits a person, kills somebody’s dog or a tiger takes a cow, if these are one-off situations then there will probably be some kind of a compensation fund involved. We don’t really like compensation as a long-term tool, but all of these things will be part of a toolbox so that people living in the corridor feel they’re better off, even though there are negative aspects.
Here’s an anology. I ask people, Why would anybody want to live in New York City? Why would you want to live in any big city where your chance of being murdered or raped or mugged or beat up are so much higher than living in the countryside where the air is fresher and it’s beautiful?
People will tell you. There are lots of reasons because of all the other benefits they get from living in the city. But you have to still bring down that murder and rape rate to where people with families know it’s there, it’s a presence, it could happen to them, but it’s acceptable. It’s an acceptable risk given that it’s low, and it’s balanced by all the benefits. It’s no different from how people live all the time with the world around us. So asking people to accept large predators roaming through their area with an occasional bad incident happening, even if it could be very bad like a child being taken, is no different from people choosing where they live all the time.