Protecting Tigers in a Troubled Land

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Burma is best known to the West as the home of one of the most repressive military regimes in the world, a country where more than 2,100 political prisoners remain behind bars. The U.S. has strict economic sanctions against Burma—a policy President Obama just renewed last week—and the country’s most famous citizen, democratic icon and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been under house arrest off and on since she won the last free elections, held in 1990. Even the Southeast Asian nation’s name is controversial—the military junta changed the country’s name to Myanmar in 1989, but dissidents and many media organizations, including TIME, continue to use the title Burma.

But as bloody and tragic as Burma’s history is, the land itself is just as beautiful, home to dense tropical forests and lush river valleys. Wildlife that has been all but wiped out in other Asian nations—rhinos, crocodiles, Asian elephants—are still at large in Burma, in part because the country’s repressive politics have stunted economic development. (It’s people have paid the price for that, however—more than 90% of Burmese are poor, and the country’s medical system is the second-worst in the world, behind only Sierra Leone.) Most amazingly of all tigers still roam  in Burma, a rarity today, when there are less than 3,000 tigers left alive in the wild. If you want to save big cats in Asia, Burma is your best bet—if you can navigate the politics.

No one can do that better than Alan Rabinowitz, a wildlife biologist, big cat lover and the CEO of the conservation group Panthera. (No, not Pantera.) Yesterday Panthera and the Wildlife Conservation Society announced the creation of the world’s largest tiger reserve in Burma’s Hukuang Valley, where over 8,400 sq. miles in northern Burma will now be under protection. Hundreds of tigers are believed to live in the region—Rabinowitz himself discovered the populations when he led the first scientific expedition to the area in 1999—along with clouded leopards, Asian elephants and hundreds of species of birds. The reserve extends the 2,500 sq. miles the Burmese government protected in Hukuang in 2004, after personal lobbying by Rabinowitz, and it may be the most meaningful step ever taken to protect tigers in Asia:

“Myanmar now offers one of the best hopes for saving tigers in Southeast Asia,” said Colin Poole, Director for Wildlife Conservation Society’s Asia Programs. “The newly expanded protected area in the Hukaung Valley will be a cornerstone of tiger conservation throughout this iconic big cat’s range.”

For Rabinowitz—a passionate, driven scientist and a legend in the conservation community—the creation of the reserve is the pinnacle of his career, the result of years of tireless lobbying and single-minded determination:

“I have dreamt of this day for many years,” said Rabinowitz. “The strides we made in 2004 were groundbreaking, but protecting this entire valley to ensure tigers are able to live and roam freely is a game changer. This reserve is one of the most important stretches of tiger habitat in the world, and I am thrilled that the people and government of Myanmar understand the importance of preserving it.”

It will also be controversial. While many Burmese dissidents still believe that the best way to bring about change in Burma is to continue the isolation of its government, Rabinowitz has never let politics get in the way of protecting tigers. But there would be no way to create a reserve in Burma of this size—or any size—without getting buy-in from the country’s leaders, despite the blood on their hands. There’s an argument to be made that wildlife are innocent of politics—that it would be a mistake to pass up the chance to protect one of the most endangered species on the planet because of problems with a country’s politicians. I think that’s the case here—and given that isolation has failed to bring about change in Burma, perhaps connection will work. Then two troubled species might be helped: tigers and human beings.

Update: I had a chance to talk with Rabinowitz about many of these issues—and his passion for cats—a few years ago in the Bronx Zoo.