The Complicated Politics of Myanmar Tigers Renowned biologist Alan Rabinowitz worked with the military junta in Myanmar to create its largest tiger conservation area, prompting criticism. Rabinowitz discusses this experience, detailed in his book Life in the Valley of Death.
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The Complicated Politics of Myanmar Tigers

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The Complicated Politics of Myanmar Tigers

The Complicated Politics of Myanmar Tigers

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Okay. From polar bears, now to tigers, and a wildlife biologist who is in trouble with some human rights activists. He is Alan Rabinowitz of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Mr. ALAN RABINOWITZ (Wildlife Conservation Society): When tigers are able to vote under what governments they can try to survive, then maybe I'll consider the political framework under which I have to save them.

BRAND: Alan Rabinowitz is trying to save them in Myanmar, or Burma, run by one of the most notorious military dictatorships in the world. It brutally put down protests by Buddhist monks a few months ago.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

But Myanmar also has some of the best wildlands left anywhere. And working with that notorious government, Alan Rabinowitz has established large wildlife reserves, including the world's largest for highly endangered tigers. He tells the story and acknowledges his critics, who say he shouldn't be there, in his new book, "Life in the Valley of Death."

Mr. RABINOWITZ: To say that I won't work somewhere, especially somewhere which may be able to save the last tigers of the world, because of the politics, I think that's an incredibly selfish view, actually. So we wait for a regime which is subjectively satisfactory to a certain group of people and in the meantime we have no more tigers, no more Asian elephants, no more primates. What have we accomplished?

CHADWICK: In setting up this massive tiger reserve in northern Myanmar, you recount in your book how you've been dealing with these people in the forestry department and suddenly on one of your trips there the forestry department is suddenly aligned with the head of intelligence. Now, this is maybe the number two or three person in the entire country, and you're dealing at a whole other level there.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Everything from the village head men to the prime minister or to the head of the military intelligence at the time. It's very funny because I never planned it in any certain sequence or in any way. I never sought to go after any particular individual in order to further my agenda.

CHADWICK: You're a biologist. I mean, you're a wildlife biologist.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Well, I wonder sometimes. I am trained as a wildlife biologist. Now I'm trying - I'm trying to figure out what I am. Sometimes I feel more like a politician of sorts than a wildlife biologist. But that is my training.

CHADWICK: Why is it that the military dictators of Myanmar, people who are shunned by almost all of the world, why is it, do you think, that they have an interest in creating these conservation areas?

Mr. RABINOWITZ: The bottom line is they truly like tigers. They actually don't want to be in charge over a country which has lost its tigers under their watch. And it's a very interesting mindset because no matter what else people think of them, they see themselves as guardians of the people, as ironic as that might sound.

CHADWICK: What did you think when you saw the recent demonstrations by the monks there in Myanmar, demonstrations that were put down quite severely by the military with the imprisonment of, well, reports of thousands?

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Well, I wasn't there so I really didn't see anything firsthand. How it was handled by the government is something I actually can't speak to because I've heard different reports. My own people in Yangon tell me that the crowds were not nearly as large as the media reported, that the shooting was not nearly as intense. But I don't know what's true and what's not true.

CHADWICK: You know, Alan, some people listening to this would say right there Alan Rabinowitz is crossing the line.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: I know. I thought that as I was saying it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHADWICK: He is saying I don't know what's going on there when we have reports and videotape of people being shot and we have many reports of people being imprisoned, and how can you not know?

Mr. RABINOWITZ: How can I not know - you do not have videotape of many people being shot. There's no videotape of many people getting shot there. There's videotape of a Japanese reporter getting shot. This is what I get very disturbed about, is that when it comes to Myanmar, people seem to want to deal in a lot of rhetoric, in a lot of pre-conceived notions rather than pure facts.

Yes, this government is not the nicest government in the world, but what I have seen in that country doesn't match up with what the media tries to portray is happening in that country. And I don't quite understand why people love to hate Myanmar. I'm not an apologist for them. If anybody reads my books, they see that I talk very strongly about some of the bad things which are occurring in that country. But I balance everything. We're talking about what - what's happening that's good and what's happening that's bad. And the government seems to respect that kind of balanced honesty.

CHADWICK: Alan Rabinowitz of the Wildlife Conservation Society based in New York. He's the author of "Life in the Valley of Death."

Alan, thank you.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Thank you, Alex.

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