The COVID-19 pandemic is still devastating the world. While hope is on the horizon, we must never forget the lessons of the past. For this reason, we are republishing Panthera Founder and Chairman of the Board Dr. Thomas Kaplan's letter from our 2019 Annual Report, originally written in the spring of 2020. The letter's insights still sadly ring true today, and the letter offers an illuminating peek into the past when late Panthera Founder and CEO Dr. Alan Rabinowitz first began exploring the devastating potential of zoonotic diseases with Dr. Paul Klotman back in 2009.
The power of nature is an awesome thing to contemplate. Nowhere is this more obvious and inspiring than when one is privileged to encounter in its own habitat a big cat, for many of us the most iconic and charismatic member of the animal kingdom. Such awe is well evinced by the grandeur of a pride of lions on the savannah and the majesty of a solitary tiger or jaguar patrolling the perimeters of its range. As that range has shrunk, depending on the species, by upwards of over 90 percent over the last century, and with multiple subspecies now extinct, sightings sadly have become more reserved to a fortunate few who can travel to the fewer and fewer patches of land in which many of these cats have effectively been herded. That does not mean all is lost – it is not. The pages of this Annual Report, along with Panthera’s numerous publications and media appearances, capture the truth not only of the daunting challenges we face, but also of our passionate – and often successful – fight to give nature some critical “wins” as well.
Events of the past months have shown that the conservation of wild cats, indeed of wildlife in general, is not a discrete series of isolated interventions. It is of a piece with the revelation of tears in the fabric of our co-existence with nature that are now understood to threaten the very foundations of modern human society. We have witnessed the phenomenon of billions of people under lockdown due to the blowback from an all-too-predicable pandemic that was triggered by man’s mismanagement of his dominion over the planet. It may perhaps – just perhaps – cause us to consider that with power... comes responsibility. As we at Panthera have said, written and deplored for years, some things are simply not meant for consumption. While we ourselves tend to focus on the tigers (and, increasingly, jaguars and lions) being poached or harvested for their body parts, closest as they are to our hearts, they nonetheless represent but a few examples. From elephants and rhinos through to pangolins, golden coin turtles and bats, Nature has been slaughtered – for far too long – without regards to its direct and rather dramatic consequences.
There is an expression – the tragic pun in which is genuinely not intended – that “Nature bats last.” At no time in multiple generations has this aphorism been more apt than it is now. Unlike most people, I had a fairly decent understanding of pandemics before our current crisis. I received my first real education about the risk of zoonoses – pathogens that can be transmitted from animals to people – from a conversation I had more than a decade ago with our partner in creating Panthera, the late Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, and one of our closest friends, Dr. Paul Klotman, now President and CEO of Baylor College of Medicine. Several of us had gathered in the Brazilian Pantanal, looking to buy up tracts of land to connect a few patches of the Jaguar Corridor. Over dinner and caipirinhas, these two excellent minds began to discuss the interrelationship between the disappearance of the apex predator and the flourishing of diseases that could impact humans. Out of this particular discussion was born an innovative initiative that saw Paul send students from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine to work with the local population where we were active and perform research that might one day be of use in forestalling a pandemic the likes of which we are now experiencing
This little vignette of Panthera in action is particularly moving at this time. It reminds us of Alan, of course, who we all wish were here to see Panthera’s growth. It also reminds us of the brilliant collaborators such as Conservation Council Member Paul Klotman, our Council co-Chairs Glenn Close and Jane Alexander and the many others who offer their service and counsel to our shared cause. And in light of current events, this anecdote is evidently just as gripping – and striking – for its premonitions. Candidly, we should do more such projects. But life is a trade-off, and we cannot be all things to all people. I would like to add “Yet” because we truly believe that, in the words of Marcus Aurelius – words that I used in my very first Chairman’s Letter – “a man’s worth is no greater than his ambitions;” our organization has ambitions that are indeed far greater than where we are today. I strongly suspect that we shall achieve many of them under the leadership of Dr. Fred Launay, whose organizational transformation of Panthera so that it is positioned for precisely that future has been nothing short of remarkable.
Fred fully understands, as Alan did, that there is both a powerful thrill and an enormous burden to one’s mission being nothing less than to save the world’s wild cats. The delight inherent in studying and being in the presence of these living paintings is only – and in fact, entirely – matched by the weighty responsibility of keeping beauty alive in a world determined to tame anything wild into production, conformity and consumption. As caretakers for the gods of old, the fates of myriad ecosystems, communities and cultures are shaped by Panthera as we speak. With this notion always nipping at our heels, there is simply no space for small thoughts, no oxygen left for “adequate.” To us, wild cats – and undoubtedly the future generations that should never have to ask us what happened to those cats – deserve no less than a worldwide concerted effort to ensure their safety and perpetuity.
It is not often that I meet others that both share, embody and empower such a creed and can have a transformational impact on our planet. To welcome two in the same year into the Panthera family is practically – and I know our scientists will bristle at this word – a miracle. I have no doubt whatsoever that we will look back on 2019 as a watershed year for cats; the year when champions stepped forward for the leopard and for the 33 small cat species.
First, The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia approached Panthera with one of those big ideas that animates all of our work: together, we could save the Arabian leopard subspecies from inescapable extinction using a combination of traditional conservation methods and a new captive breeding and wild release program. Not satisfied to stop at resuscitating one of the most iconic animals of their region, RCU also wanted to conserve leopards – a species oft-ignored by the conservation establishment but near and dear to my heart – across their range, from Southern Africa to Southeast Asia. The resulting Arabian Leopard Initiatives (ALI) are supporting scientific research, the aforementioned captive breeding program, international collaborations, community-based conservation projects and a global fund dedicated to the protection and enhancement of remaining wild leopard populations. With a vision for the future that is so rare to observe nowadays, RCU committed $20 million over 10 years to ALI and we happily anointed this outstanding organization as the newest member of the Global Alliance for Wild Cats.
Our other champions, Jonathan and Helaine Ayers, have been giving to Panthera since 2017 and helped us form the Small Cats Program in 2018. But in 2019, they created The Ayers Wild Cat Conservation Trust and effectively took their commitment to Panthera and the Small Cats Program to the stratosphere. While he may love small cats, Jon’s ideas and passion are anything but small. I am filled with immense excitement at the mere thought of all that we will learn about clouded leopards, fishing cats, flat-headed cats, Pallas’s cats, African golden cats, sand cats, Canada lynx, jaguarundis and the rest of the 33 small cat species. More importantly, we will be able to create and implement comprehensive conservation plans for the most threatened species and fight for their existence from a position of knowledge and strength.
RCU and the Ayers were drawn to Panthera because, put simply, we are the leading scientific authority on wild cats and their conservation. We are also now gaining a reputation worldwide for our expertise in – and willingness to deploy – emerging conservation techniques. This includes captive breeding and rewilding, as in the initiative taking place in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We are also in the planning stages of translocating two genetically suitable lionesses to Gabon’s Batéké Plateau National Park and attempting to build a new pride with Gabon’s only lion.
Most cutting-edge, however, are our ongoing discussions with the government of Taiwan and local Rukai people towards reintroducing clouded leopards to the Taiwanese mountains. Not only would such a program have a positive impact on the Yushan Range ecosystem in southern Taiwan, it would also bring back a cultural touchstone of the Rukai people. Lastly, we are looking into possibilities for reintroducing cheetahs in India and Pakistan. While there is no consensus in wildlife conservation about whether or not these techniques should be employed given their great cost, the stakes are just too high for these species to leave any option unexplored.
Finally, we will bring our expertise to scale through establishing a Global Policy Program under Chief Scientist Dr. John Goodrich and new Senior Director of Global Policy Karen Wood. This decision comes amidst a great clamoring for Panthera to weigh in on both the emerging conservation techniques discussed above and controversial policy issues around the illegal wildlife trade, hunting of cats and prey and others. While we certainly will never diminish our focus on in situ conservation and research in favor of policy, meaningfully entering the policy arena provides a significant opportunity to broaden and sustain our impact for cats.
Big cats have ruled and roamed entire continents. Some, like the jaguar, can still trace their reign unbroken – though fragile – through dozens of nations and cultures, uniting poor with rich and friend with enemy. Since our founding, Panthera has sought to mirror big cats’ global ambitions and imprint. With new partnerships, a new organizational model focused on local presence and, of course, our supporters behind us, we are closer than ever to fulfilling that vision. In 2019, we staked new claims in Asia with programs and offices opened (or prepared to open) in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia and Thailand. I expect even greater things in 2020.
I am so sincerely grateful for everything you do for Panthera. Our supporters make possible our biggest swings and the precise execution of the smallest details. Even after decades immersed in this work, I still feel deeply the joy of every cat cub or kitten born as well as the gloom of every cat killed. Seeing so clearly Panthera’s trajectory, I can genuinely say that it now feels more thrilling than daunting, more Herculean than Sisyphean, to protect these creatures through turning the next impossible idea into the headlines of tomorrow.
Talk of “headlines” brings me back to the project that Alan and Paul created in the Brazilian Pantanal to identify those intersections when man and nature meet, for good…or for ill. A Time Magazine piece of April 3, 2009, which was fittingly entitled “Getting People to Coexist with Cats,” put it very well. So well indeed in describing the many facets of our mission reflected in this initiative, including the emphasis on zoonotics that still resonates today, that I shall reproduce it here:
As the human population has grown in the Pantanal, the vast wetland in central Brazil, people and big cats — namely the South American jaguar — are encroaching increasingly on each other’s territory. When conflict occurs, as it inevitably does, the cats are usually the ones who lose. (…)
This is the kind of situation to which conservationists might have responded by cordoning off protected habitats and reserves — building a fence, in effect, between the wild animals and the people. But in the Pantanal, and in much of the rest of our once wild, once underpopulated world, total separation is simply not a sustainable option. That’s especially true for jaguars and other big cats, which need a lot of room to roam, far more than could be fenced off. “The big cats’ territory is crossing over to the human landscape,” says Alan Rabinowitz, a renowned conservationist and the president of the new wildlife group Panthera. “At its root, we have to get people to be able to live with the big cats.”
That’s why Panthera, whose conservation efforts focus exclusively on endangered cats like jaguars and tigers, will be launching an innovative program in the Brazilian Pantanal this summer. The program will be carried out jointly with New York City’s Mt. Sinai Medical School and will involve a unique exchange of services that includes conservation, health care and disease research. Mt. Sinai’s medical students and researchers will come to Panthera’s 270-sq.-mi. (700-sq.-km) Pantanal ranch (which includes a jaguar habitat), where they will give free medical care to locals. That care, along with a free school that will be built for local children, will come under Panthera’s banner, and the hope is that Brazilians will learn to appreciate both the medical care and the conservation work for jaguars. “People are given better schools and better health care, and the connection between the two is made,” says Rabinowitz.
For Mt. Sinai, which has made global health a priority for its medical students, the Panthera project presents an opportunity to explore another consequence of the increasing proximity of animals and people: zoonotic diseases, which can pass back and forth between wildlife and human beings. Several major human diseases have originated in animals, including Ebola (which began among primates in Africa) and avian influenza (which started in wild and domestic birds in Southeast Asia, but has also infected big cats).
As human beings, wild animals and domestic animals begin to live in closer and closer [proximity] to one another, the chance of pathogens jumping — and amplifying — between species will only increase. Sinai’s researchers will be able to monitor the population in the Pantanal for zoonotic diseases, providing a needed early warning system for new and emerging pathogens. It will also be a valuable learning experience for Mt. Sinai’s students. “We see a really close interface between the health of human populations and conservation efforts,” says Paul Klotman, chairman of the department of medicine at Mt. Sinai.
“This will allow us to do surveillance to look for potential pathogens that could be important for both wildlife and people.”
The Panthera-Mt. Sinai collaboration is atypical, but not for long; it is the shape of things to come for conservation work around the world. Critics who accuse environmentalists like Rabinowitz of protecting animals at the expense of human well-being have got it wrong. Wildlife experts are aware that in a world of 6.7 billion people and counting, the only conservation efforts that have potential — and the only plans that will be truly sustainable — are those that benefit people as much as lions, tigers and bears. “Big cats won’t survive unless people want to live with them,” says Rabinowitz. “You have to show how they can benefit.” In the 58,000-sq.-mi. (150,000-sq.-km) Brazilian Pantanal, there should be room enough for both.”
Amen to that.
DR. THOMAS S. KAPLAN Founder and Chairman of the Board
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