Life on the Edge


Undergraduate Research Symposium keynote speaker Alan Rabinowitz explores the world's wildest places

By Gerry Boyle '78
Photography by Wildlife Conservation Society

It was a skeleton unlike anything explorer/scientist Alan Rabinowitz had seen before,a tiny primitive deer with canine teeth and inch-long antlers. Rabinowitz, huddled in a village in the remote mountains of northern Myanmar, turned the skull and bones in his hands. "While I was examining all these pieces, a hunter walked right into the village where I was. He was carrying the deer."

This was in 1998, and Rabinowitz, director for science and exploration for the Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society, was venturing into a region long off-limits to foreigners and even to the Myanmar people themselves. His mission was to explore and survey one of the world's last wild places in hopes of protecting the wildlife there. He ended up protecting a species,the shy and diminutive leaf deer,previously unknown to the outside world.

Explorer and conservationist Alan Rabinowitz, who spoke to student researchers at Colby in May, is shown in a remote area of northern Myanmar. Rabinowitz's work in the area resulted in formation of a national park that is home to many rare species of plants and animals.
"Not only was this a new species," said Rabinowitz, the keynote speaker at the fifth annual Colby Undergraduate Research Symposium in May, "not only is it the most primitive deer in the world but it's the missing link for deer species. It's a living fossil."

The lecture, and the showcasing of Rabinowitz's research accomplishments, offered a benchmark for Colby undergraduates from all disciplines, though the lecture was attended mostly by aspiring scientists. They listened raptly as the renowned explorer explained that the leaf deer was just one of the discoveries he and his Myanmar colleagues made in this rugged region. In this single excursion Rabinowitz, best known for his preservation of jaguar and tiger habitat, found new populations of the endangered red panda and black barking deer. He also came upon the last dozen members of the Taron, a nearly extinct group of Mongolian pygmies.

Now, thanks to Rabinowitz and the Myanmar government, the habitat is protected for indigenous wildlife and humans alike.

This feat, let alone Rabinowitz's career as scientist, explorer and author, might not have been predicted by those who knew him as a child. Hindered by a severe stutter, he was considered developmentally delayed in school in New York. However, he found that he could speak when he was alone with his pets, he said, and would hide away with them in dark closets for hours.

That inauspicious beginning motivated Rabinowitz to be the best student possible (he was high school class valedictorian and went on to earn a doctorate from the University of Tennessee) and to repay a debt to animals, his first friends. "In a way, I wanted to give something back," Rabinowitz said.

#undergraduateresearchers933#left#350#He's done that on a grand scale. His work has resulted in creation of vast sanctuaries for big cats in Belize, Taiwan and Thailand and a wildlife sanctuary in Myanmar that sprawls over 2,500 square miles of mountain wilderness. "Believe it or not, as attractive as it may seem, it's not an easy commitment in life," Rabinowitz said. "We need people to help do it."

Potential recruits at Colby listened as Rabinowitz narrated a slide show of his Myanmar trip into a forbidding region bordering China. Rabinowitz said he ultimately learned most about the region's wildlife not from exploring the forests but by spending time in remote villages. "What was a godsend to me was that the local people, after they made a kill, believed they needed to hang it on the wall on their hut with the other skulls. . . . This was great because this allowed me to clearly see everything that they were killing." Species included the leaf deer and others that were being killed for food and to be used as barter with Chinese traders who sought parts of the animals for medicinal use. Parts of some of the most rare animals in the world were being traded for the most sought-after commodity in the region,salt.

"I said, 'Perfect,'" Rabinowitz recalled. "'This is great because people are not killing animals for TV sets or for DVDs or gold chains.' That gave me a whole basis for a management strategy."

The strategy, since implemented, involved providing salt (at a cost of less than $1,000 a year) for people in the region if they agreed to hunt animals only for food. Rabinowitz said the local people agreed, though they had no concept of a wildlife preserve. "What they did understand is that they were doing more hunting than they would have liked," he said. "They would have liked staying home with their wife."

Wildlife managers provide salt and also modern medicines sorely needed in the region. Local residents continue to live in the protected area, hunting for their own sustenance. Endangered animal populations are stabilizing, said Rabinowitz, who described the Myanmar project as one of the best things he's done in his life. "It's very unusual in the field of conservation to find a situation where you have local people and wildlife living as they have for generations, and you can really make it so both benefit," he said. "It's working. It's working right now."