Life in the Valley of Death
Tiger conservationist battles Myanmar regimes, leukemia and cat allergies
By Sam Cha
Alan Rabinowitz is no shrinking violet. A quick search of the internet brings up a series of remarkable images and tales. Item: Alan Rabinowitz at 26, kneeling over an unconscious jaguar. Item: Alan Rabinowitz at 43 sitting around a campfire with two of the last twelve Taron pygmies. Item: Alan Rabinowitz at 51 staring down the camera — grizzled, flinty-eyed, a machete in his hand. He is in Myanmar, and has established the largest tiger preserve in the world.
Life in the Valley of Death is the story of the establishment of the Hukawng Valley Tiger Preserve, under the gaze of a brutal regime, and of Rabinowitz coming to terms with his incurable leukemia. It is a remarkable story, told in a voice that is unassuming and erudite, pointed and compassionate. “In fact, I am allergic to cats,” said Rabinowitz from his home in New York City. “Even when I was collaring jaguars in Belize my face would swell up every time.”
The tiger preserve he established in Myanmar encompasses human habitations as well as wilderness. In order to make it work, he has to organize the shipment of medicine and school supplies to impoverished local communities. In effect, he has to conserve local communities as well as tigers. “Tigers don’t get to choose what sort of regime they live under,” he says with a chuckle. “My priority is to save them any way I can that doesn’t involve brutality and repression on my part. People [say we put the animal over the community], but I don’t see them flying in supplies and medicine. We do.”
Rabinowitz is a kind of superman of conservation, and a hero to many, but not the best writer. For example: “I wander from group to group, staying in the shadows, understanding nothing of what is being said, but watching in amazement at the dynamics taking place.” Luckily, sentences like this are few and far between.
For every run-on sentence and flat exchange, there are dozens of keenly observed, evocative details and movingly honest moments. Newly diagnosed with leukemia, Dr. Rabinowitz visits a specialist: “I park five blocks away… I linger at a Dunkin’ Donuts sipping coffee, not wanting to go closer, not wanting people to think that I am one of ‘them,’ another damaged, broken person not as good as everyone else.” An admission like that takes extraordinary courage. Later, the family dog develops leukemia, and has to be euthanized. The sparseness of the prose works well here — the parallel between the author and the animal is clear but not overstated or manipulative, and the result is quietly devastating.
This sort of resonance runs throughout the book, moving from the personal to the global, and indeed is its main theme. Early in the book, Dr. Rabinowitz stalks a tiger, only to realize that the tiger has circled around and is now stalking him. Later, he relates the Naga belief in were-tigers: that there is an essential affinity between some tigers and men, so that if the tiger is killed or wounded, the man dies as well. “Big cats are beautiful awe-inspiring animals,” he said. “No government wants to lose their big cats.”
It is a model that he believes should absolutely serve as the future paradigm for global conservation. “It’s my life’s goal to preserve wildlife,” he told me. “I work with big cats not because I have a special affinity with them but because they are apex predators, and protecting them means protecting whole large wild systems.” And that cannot be done, Dr. Rabinowitz says, without human-dominated landscapes that also work as multipurpose conservation areas. In order for mankind to truly flourish, he believes, tigers and sambal deer and wild pigs and forests must flourish as well.
The author grew up a severe stutterer. “As a child,” he tells me, “I felt like I couldn’t talk to people, only to animals. So I’d come home from school and talk to my little New York animals. A turtle, a garter snake. I could see that they had thoughts and feelings — they just couldn’t talk. Just like me. So I wanted to be a voice for animals.” In Life in the Valley of Death he speaks for animals — and himself — passionately, and extraordinarily well.
For The Tiger
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