(First published in The Massachusetts Sierran, March, 2002 )
Beyond the Last Village: A Journey of Discovery in Asia’s Forbidden Wilderness
by Alan Rabinowitz
Alan Rabinowitz has the best day job in America. The Bronx Zoo pays him to fly to parts of the world that have been off- limits to western scientists for generations. He assembles a team and walks into the forest where he treks beyond the point at which effective government ends, beyond the last road negotiable by Land Rover, beyond the last village. He comes back to report the existence of new species of large mammals previously unknown to science. Then he arranges to have vast tracks of wild land set off as protected nature reserves.
Rabinowitz works for the organization that runs the Bronx Zoo, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and he doesn’t actually find an entirely new species of large mammal every time he steps into the bush. But the delicate Burmese leaf deer he discovered for science in 1997 is flourishing in forests that his Burmese scientific and administrative collaborators are working to conserve. Their efforts have resulted in the protection of 3.2% of the land area of Myanmar as national parkland or wildlife refuge. And the adventures in Myanmar recounted in Beyond the Last Village are merely the latest exploits in a career spent mapping the last refuges of the nearly extinct Sumatran rhino, tracking tigers in Thailand, and determining how large a jaguar preserve need be to succeed in preserving jaguar.
No one is perfect. Rabinowitz has a great story to tell, but the attempt to combine a sensitve exploration of his inner self with real-life adventures that play like an Indiana Jones movie. The outcome can be bad enough to make you wince. Here is Rabinowitz, the sensitive male, awaiting the birth of his child.
“The due date came and went, and I was surprised at how rattled I was. I had helped deliver a Mayan baby in the back of a pickup truck on a bumpy dirt road in southern Belize. I had sewn up my dog, Cleo, after his neck was ripped open by a jaguar. I had ridden for help on a motorcycle in Thailand with a broken leg and a bamboo stake through my foot. I had had to find my way out of the jungle with a subdural hematoma after a plane crash. But nothing compared to this. This was my child.”
When Rabinowitz discovers a species unknown to science, he takes evidence to the Director of Genetics at the Bronx Zoo for expert confirmation. If he had taken the account of his trip to a professional writer for similarly expert help he would have a best seller on his hands. Make no mistake, Rabinowitz has a first-rate story to tell. The sort of story that might have reached millions of readers around the world and persuaded them of the importance of saving the world’s last wild places. Instead we have a book that is almost wonderful.
This is a great read nevertheless because Rabinowitz is the real deal. He goes to places where we cannot go and sees things that we would never see. Had I somehow gotten permission to hike into upland forests of Myanmar off limits to outsiders, I would have seen some pretty little deer. Rabinowitz saw an undescribed species. And while the writing may be clunky, the adventure is real.
E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Future of Life, is an elegant statement of the importance of preserving the biodiversity of this planet by protecting large, intact ecosystems from exploitation. Rabinowitz takes the problem down to cases.
His new species of leaf dear, along with bear, tiger, rhino and a bevy of southeast Asian species whose names I failed even to recognize, are endangered by poverty, and by a voracious Chinese appetite for bogus medicine and chimerical aphrodisiacs. Sometimes it can take surprisingly little to save them.
In the remote highlands of Myanmar Rabinowitz and his Burmese colleague, Dr. U Saw Tun Khaing, discovered villages with no access to salt. The only way that they could obtain this vital commodity was by hunting and selling wildlife parts to Chinese traders. Rhino, the species most prized by credulous Chinese men, were extirpated in the area decades ago. Dr. Khaing has now set up a system in which payment in salt and other goods is made to villages that preserve the wildlife around them. Erstwhile hunters are employed as game monitors with the cost picked up by the Wildlife Conservation Society. Salt and self-interest will surely do more to induce local people to preserve game than any number of wardens could.
The pity is that poachers serving the Chinese market continue to hunt Asian rhino elsewhere. My son, the college student, suggests that the only way to protect the last wild Asian rhinos from poachers is to provide free Viagra to every middle-aged man in China. He just might be right. Meanwhile, I’m glad that Alan Rabinowitz is on the job.
• Diana Muir lives in Newton, Mass., and is the author of ‘Reflections in Bullough’s Pond: Economy and Ecosystem in New England’ (University Press of New England).