Hopes and Dreams and Reality Checks

11/14/18
by Howard Quigley, Ph.D.

One aspect of human thought that sets us apart from other animals—including the forty wild cat species—is our ability to plan, to aspire, to have hopes and dreams. As far as we know, wild animals don’t do this. They don’t think about, for instance, where they’d like to live, or how many offspring they want to have when they grow up. Such thoughts are particularly human. Some people have modest dreams, while others aspire to lofty goals. There’s a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that I’ve always liked: “Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

In the late 1970s, a young Alan Rabinowitz arrived at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville from New York City. I arrived about the same time, coming from the San Francisco Bay Area. We were at UT to pursue our graduate degrees, Alan’s in ecology and mine in wildlife. We became fast friends. Perhaps we bonded so quickly because we were different from many of the other graduate students: “outsiders” from New York and California. We got together often, comparing class notes, working out at the gym, inviting each other to group get-togethers with other students, discussing new scientific papers, or new books. At some point, we began having Sunday barbeques together when we weren’t in the field, and we didn’t invite others to join.

Our Sunday barbeques were full of friendly banter and small debates, comparing notes on our research, and the future. In retrospect, we were very full of ourselves, confident that we were going to save every species in the world. These were the hopes and dreams of two young biologists. We fed off of each other in a way that fired us up about the next steps in our careers. It was at one of these Sunday dinners that I mentioned I’d seen that the renowned biologist, Dr. George Schaller, was going to start a project on the giant panda. I flippantly suggested that I had just the field experience he needed. Alan pushed and prodded me until I wrote to George with my lofty idea. That letter developed into an offer to travel to China to help start the giant panda project, and then into my first fieldwork on jaguars in Brazil. Months later, George invited Alan to study jaguars in Belize. Alan and I ran parallel tracks for several years, studying jaguars in Belize and Brazil, living out the farfetched dreams we hatched at those barbecues.

Through the 1990s and early 2000s, our paths diverged, but we always stayed in touch. During this time, while at the Wildlife Conservation Society, Alan gave birth to the idea of the Jaguar Corridor, a novel concept for range-wide conservation based on the scientific discovery that jaguars in Mexico were very closely related to jaguars in Argentina.

It was at Panthera, which Alan co-founded with Dr. Thomas Kaplan in 2006, that Alan’s idea began to take on the weight of a mandate: if we can keep this ancient corridor and the jaguar’s genetic integrity intact throughout its range from north to south, we can save the species. In 2008, Alan brought me aboard to build the Jaguar Corridor Initiative, one of the most ambitious conservation projects ever conceived. Talk about living the dream!
While we lived and breathed jaguars, Alan lamented the lack of attention this great cat was getting on the global stage. He chafed at the idea that jaguars, still relatively abundant, didn’t need the resources or the PR that critically endangered tigers received. And, he argued, “The fact that jaguars have been more resilient and, in many ways, more lucky in their survival than other big cats is EXACTLY why we should focus our attention and conservation efforts on them.” It was a heretical idea—and so uniquely Alan.

Alan, who wrote two seminal books about jaguars, and several scientific articles, wanted the jaguar to write its own happy ending. He was convinced that if people in Latin America and the world over could know the jaguar’s mystique, its might, and its adaptability, they would channel it to save it. Thus, was born the Journey of the Jaguar, an epic endeavor to shine a light on jaguars and, using social media, to amplify awareness of their plight, their place in human culture, their role in the ecological systems they inhabit, and the solutions to their persistence into the future.

In February of 2017, we set off to visit some places where we’re making remarkable progress, and some where challenges to the jaguar’s survival abound. It was part adventure and part reality-check. Was the Jaguar Corridor concept working? That’s such a signature part of Alan’s legacy for those that encountered him: he asked the reality-check question.

We completed five journeys in 2017, two in Mexico, and one each in Honduras, Colombia, and Brazil. As always, Alan was happiest in the field. He was energized by the commitments of support we received from government officials, business people, and local citizens to advocate for jaguars. And he was especially hopeful about the future when he met with young people: students, teachers, artists, activists, and bright-eyed biologists who believe that they can change the world. We covered nearly 3,000 miles before he became seriously ill, and we continued to lay our plans for our next treks right up until he succumbed to cancer in August.

Alan left many trails for us to follow as we resume the Journey of the Jaguar in his name. We will honor his legacy by building a movement to preserve the jaguar and its essential wildness—a wildness, Alan argued—that is also essential to us and the human spirit.

Join us! And help us make the dream a reality.

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