Superman of Conservation


Life in the Valley of Death: the Fight to Save Tigers in a Land of Guns, Gold, and Greed . Rabinowitz, A. 2008 . Island Press , Washington , D.C. 242 (xiii + 230) pp. $25.95. ISBN 978-1-59726-129-6 .

Few people probably had any idea about the political challenges facing Alan Rabinowitz's monumental efforts to establish a tiger preserve in Myanmar's isolated Hukawng Valley until tropical cyclone Nargis ripped apart southern coastal regions of the country on 2 May 2008. The cyclone's path was through the populated Irrawaddy delta, where the official human death toll was 80,000. Up to 2.5 million people were in urgent need of food, water, and shelter as of late May 2008, and in some areas an estimated 95% of homes were destroyed. What was most striking about this devastating event was the reaction of the military junta, who for 3 weeks afterwards refused to allow international aid agencies entry into the country to assist besieged areas. Suddenly this secretive regime was thrust into the glare of the international spotlight.

Given the current diplomatic turmoil in Myanmar (formerly Burma), it is all the more striking how effective Rabinowitz has been as a conservation biologist working with this isolated regime. His most recent book chronicles his successful efforts to establish a 647,500-ha wildlife sanctuary in Myanmar's Hukawng Valley, thus creating the nation's largest protected area. Rabinowitz is executive director of the Science and Exploration Program of the Wildlife Conservation Society. He ranks among the world's top conservation biologists in working diligently to protect large tracts of land for wildlife preserves. In particular, his conservation efforts have focused on wild cats, which serve as umbrella species to protect scores of other biodiversity. His research and conservation efforts have taken him to Belize, Borneo, Taiwan, Thailand, and Laos, where his legacy is the conservation reserves he helped establish.

Life in the Valley of Death is a book that I could not put down. Rabinowitz represents a rare breed of conservation biologist because his skill set is impressive and comprehensive. He is an excellent field biologist, who is obviously incredibly knowledgeable about the local fauna, particularly large mammals. The treks he documents in this book make it clear that he is used to dealing with arduous field conditions in remote areas. His stories of his initial surveys of this isolated valley are inspiring. Few among us have the courage, fortitude, or field skills to attempt the excursions that he tells us about.

Rabinowitz is an artful writer, who intertwines his struggles to save wildlife in Myanmar with his own personal battle with leukemia. More than anything, what is clearly evident about Rabinowitz after reading this book is his ability to deal with humans. He is obviously a skilled diplomat who is adept at dealing with leaders who cover the gauntlet of socioeconomic classes. In the early chapters, he documents his adventures and struggles working to assess the condition of tiger populations in Hukawng Valley. He interviewed local hunters and established modern systematic surveys with government biologists and rangers to assess tiger populations in the region. At the same time, he was successfully working with the upper echelons of the government regime to establish the Hukawng Valley Wildlife Sanctuary within the over 2 million-ha Hukawng Valley Tiger Reserve, which is larger than 45 of the world's countries.

In a country where foreigners are rarely trusted, Rabinowitz's hard work and dedication to saving the region's tigers gained the respect and admiration of the military junta. This is no doubt because during his original forays into the valley, his every move was watched by military escorts. His dedication to protecting endangered large wild cats is inspirational, particularly given his ongoing simultaneous struggles with leukemia.

I highly recommended this book to my students and colleagues as something they must read. It articulates the challenges we face and the hope that conservation biologists can be successful given the right leadership. If we are to protect our natural heritage, we need dedicated biologists like Rabinowitz to lead the way.