Oct 28, 2019


One Man's Struggle to Establish the World's First Jaguar Preserve
by Alan Rabinowitz

I'd heard of Alan Rabinowitz before, a leading scientist in big cat conservation, but this is the first time I read one of his books. After university he studied black bears in the states, then met George Schaller who asked him to go to Belize and do a survey of jaguar numbers. Rabinowitz spent two years in the Cockscomb basin in Belize trapping and tracking jaguars while living with the Maya people. It was extremely difficult work in rough conditions, frequent misunderstandings with the locals, terrible diseases, parasites, bad or non-existent roads, deadly snakes (encountered many times) and so on. The study site was a logging area, so there were conflicts there to deal with as well. One time he survived a plane crash, and had to deal with the PTSD of that in order to continue working- as it was often only possible to locate the jaguars' tracking signals through the air.

In spite of all the hardships and suffering, the author fell in love with the place, especially the jaguars. The people did not understand this. He tried to work closely with them- lived alongside them, learned some of their language, ran a small clinic out of his house providing medicine for common illnesses they had no access to otherwise- and hiring men to help him maintain roads, trap the animals and track them through the forest, but they still didn't get it when he got upset that one of his study animals had been killed. He took every opportunity to educate the people about wildlife- showing them sedated ocelots up closer, for example- but it took a long time for this to make an impression, the people had deep-seated beliefs and fears about the animals. Reading about their traditions, lore and native remedies was interesting too. He also shares some Maya history and while tracking jaguars through the jungle sometimes came across ancient ruins. Discovered the site called Kuchil Balum which sounds very impressive in scope (he contacted an archeologist to come and survey the ruin). So the book is just as much about the place and the locals as it is about the wildlife, a full picture of what the work was like, and I enjoyed it very much. Rabinowitz doesn't shy away from sharing his own frustrations and failures. When he left the area after two years, he wondered if all the effort had been worth it; it's hard to enforce laws protecting animals when the local policeman brags about killing a jaguar with his car! But the afterword, very much appreciated, shows that it did work after all. He returned years later to find the preserve intact, wildlife abundant and the attitudes of the people markedly changed. Great read.

This quote from the book sums up the author's work and urgency very well:
We sit by and allow massive destruction of the jagura's habitat, forcing it into situations where death is the inevitable conclusion. Yet even as we are destroying it, we admire the animal - in zoos, on television, in books- and we wonder how it lives, what it eats, not even stopping to think it might soon no longer be living or eating at all. Then when the jaguar's gone from the wild, we'll carve its image in stone and speculate about how magnificent it must have been. Is there hope for animals like the jaguar? In our greed and fear we are destroying them, as the ancient Maya were subjugated and destroyed. 
Though remnants of the spirit of both the jaguar and the old Maya still survive in isolated pockets, how long can they last? . . . When the jaguar no longer walks the forests, there will never be anything like it on earth again.
Just have to say, this kind of book is a big step up from Pink Boots and a Machete. While the former is probably accessible to a lot more readers who wouldn't normally be interested in depictions of scientific fieldwork, this one is a lot more satisfying to me.

Rating: 4/5              378 pages, 2000

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