An Asian Pygmy and his Pal from Far Rockaway : Krulwich Wonders... Alan Rabinowitz, a scientist from New York, felt compelled to walk 600 miles into the Himalayas to visit one of the last surviving Asian pygmies and show him a picture of Rabinowitz's baby son.
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An Asian Pygmy and his Pal from Far Rockaway

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An Asian Pygmy and his Pal from Far Rockaway

An Asian Pygmy and his Pal from Far Rockaway

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Now, a man who lives in the Himalayas meets a scientist from New York and the meeting changes both their lives in a quite dramatic way.

Here's NPR's Robert Krulwich with a story he calls The Last Asian Pygmy and His Friend From Far Rockaway.

ROBERT KRULWICH: When Alan Rabinowitz was five, maybe six years old, his father took him to the Bronx Zoo and to the cat house with the lions and the tigers and the jaguars, and what he remembers that first time when he walked through the door were the sounds.

Mr. ALAN RABINOWITZ: All those noises of like 20 cats all together, growling and roaring. And that kind of energy, that kind of power fed into me.

KRULWICH: Even now if you hear a bunch of cats -

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Oh, it gets to my most basic inner being.

KRULWICH: That thrill has never gone away. For 30 years now, Alan Rabinowitz has traveled the world protecting wild habitats in Central America, Taiwan, the Himalayas so that tigers and jaguars might have a future for a little while longer on this planet. That is Alan's job, to help living things make it to the future. Which is why it was so startling when entirely by accident one day, Alan Rabinowitz met a man - actually it was a group of people - who had decided together not to have a future, who had chosen extinction.

For a conservationist who fights for life and continuity, that was a shock, but the shock changed Alan. And here's the story.

It starts back in 1997 in Rangoon, the capitol of Burma, or Myanmar as it's now called, when Alan wandered into a bookstore.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: I come across a book, an old book that's just hidden away, tiny thin volume. I barely saw it. I'm glad I spotted it. And it was called "The Tehrone(ph)."

KRULWICH: The Tehrone or tribe or a race of pygmies who live in Asia on the China/Burmese border.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: They were discovered in the 1950s.

KRULWICH: And then described in the book that Alan found and then they disappeared.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Aside from this book, nobody ever heard about them.

KRULWICH: So Alan thought, you know, I want to find them.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: I wanted to be the first who has seen them in thirty-some-odd years.

KRULWICH: So since he was going up to that area near the Chinese border for conservation reasons, it was a 600-mile hike up the mountains.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: We're talking snow-capped mountains, hiking up in the snow.

KRULWICH: And then down those mountains into the valleys, the jungle valleys, and then up again.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Three months of walking one way.

KRULWICH: And so finally he got to a canyon described in the book and arrived at the village where the pygmies supposedly lived.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: And something was off right away.

KRULWICH: Because when Alan asked the locals -

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Where are the Tehrone?

KRULWICH: The pygmies.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: They wouldn't answer me.

KRULWICH: He showed them pictures, pictures from the '60s.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: And they got quiet. That was - something was up and I couldn't quite get it.

KRULWICH: Until a few days later, the village headmen finally took him up a path to one shack deep in the woods and said -

Mr. RABINOWITZ: They're here.

KRULWICH: But they looked awful.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: First of all, they had huge goiters. One of them is clearly very retarded.

KRULWICH: But most of all, there were only five of them. Because you were expecting to see 50 people or 60 people?

Mr. RABINOWITZ: I was expecting to see an entire village of them, because that village originally in the '60s had been all Tehrone.

KRULWICH: But then it was explained that these people before him were the last intact pygmy family in the valley.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: They were the last full family of Tehrone left.

KRULWICH: And who knows, maybe they were the last full family of Tehrone in the world.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: And I found that very strange.

KRULWICH: So just as he was wondering how to ask them, well, what happened to you, one more pygmy arrived. He was a man named Dowi(ph). He was short -

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Four-eight.

KRULWICH: But he was different from the others.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: He was strong. He was clean. But the thing that got me the most was the look in his eyes.

KRULWICH: It was just -

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Anger. He wouldn't shake my hand.

KRULWICH: He wouldn't join Alan by the fire.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: He clearly didn't like the fact that we were there.

KRULWICH: But unlike the others -

Mr. RABINOWITZ: He wasn't scared, and that's what attracted me to him.

KRULWICH: Well, that plus Alan's hunch that if anybody could explain what had happened to all those pygmies, it was probably Dowi.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Dowi had what I wanted.

KRULWICH: But he wouldn't talk. Instead he sat in a corner in the dark.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: I could feel his presence just like an animal in the shadows.

KRULWICH: And just when Alan was thinking well, I'm never going to get this thing figured out because he won't talk to me, he smelled an odor coming from his own feet, which were by the fire.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: I didn't even think about how warm my feet were getting and all of the sudden, one of my sneakers burst into flames and my foot's on fire and I jump up and I start dancing around and stomping. And Dowi's all of the sudden howling over with laughter.

KRULWICH: Figuring, these white guys, they're like just so dumb.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: I really believe that, you know. They can't possibly be here to -

KRULWICH: So by accident, Alan got Dowi's attention and while they couldn't talk to each other, they could walk together and look together and hunt together.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: And we got close.

KRULWICH: So when they finally sat down together with their translators, Alan did ask -

Mr. RABINOWITZ: You know, why are there so few of you? You know, I said, where did they all go?

KRULWICH: To which he answered very simply -

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Well, there are no babies.

KRULWICH: So why no babies?

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Because our babies are born not good. Now, I didn't know what that meant.

KRULWICH: But over the days, Dowi told him -

Mr. RABINOWITZ: For many generations, these Tehrone ended up being enslaved by a lot of the groups around them.

KRULWICH: Because they were short and different and weaker.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: For awhile, they lived in caves because they were afraid of outsiders or anything.

KRULWICH: And because they were so isolated, they bred only with each other and too often the babies who came, died. Or weren't right. So the Tehrone got together and made a community decision to -

Mr. RABINOWITZ: - not have anymore. That Tehrone couldn't have a baby with another Tehrone.

KRULWICH: And if anybody broke that rule?

Mr. RABINOWITZ: The result would be you'd be banned from the village. And if you were banned from the village, it's death. So the threat of what would happen was so fearsome that there were no more Tehrone babies.

KRULWICH: Dowi was free to mate with a non-Tehrone, but it was kind of clear that no non-Tehrone woman would have him.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Literally, they'd made a decision as a race to take their race to extinction. I said, did you understand that really, by doing that, that there'd be no more Tehrone? That you'd be gone forever?

He said, yes, but we have to do that because we're not good.

It was very - you don't know how much that word resonates with me.

KRULWICH: Because for Alan being a conservationist, all things are good, certainly good enough to keep on living. And yet, Dowi's words had touched a nerve in Alan. It was a very private nerve.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Dowi's sadness, his answer sort of just threw me back on my feet so much that I just started talking to him. I just started saying, well, you know, I don't have any children either.

KRULWICH: And that was a choice, he said. I chose not to.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: I was unhappy, I told him, and sad with a lot of parts of my life and that my woman wanted a baby, and I didn't know if I should have a baby because I didn't think I was good enough to have a baby.

KRULWICH: But as Alan heard himself talk, he realized his worries about becoming a father were so trivial compared to Dowi's.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Every time I tried explaining it to him, in a way I thought well, he just doesn't really get it. But he got it. He just felt that they were pitiful excuses.

KRULWICH: And then when he left the village and then later left Burma and flew back to New York, they remained pitiful excuses. The story that Dowi told changed Alan, changed him enough that within a year, he had some news.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: Yeah, about having a child.

KRULWICH: Alan had a baby boy. In good part, he thought, thanks to Dowi, but the only way he could say thank you since Dowi has no phone, no link to the outside world, was to walk back 600 miles into the Himalayas, which eventually Alan did. Though he wondered what would happen when he got there, because he knew that Dowi also dreamed of being a father.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: I asked, I said, do you want a baby? And he said, yeah, he really wants a baby. He wants a wife.

KRULWICH: So because he had done this before - this is, after all what a conservationist does - Alan got the government of Burma to establish the wildlife park where Dowi lives.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: And his home is inside the national park.

KRULWICH: And what's more -

Mr. RABINOWITZ: He has been hired as Mr. Big. He has been hired as the person to bring salt up to all of the people.

KRULWICH: And since this is an area where people don't use money, salt is currency there, so Dowi has become one of the richest men in the valley.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: So he's doing pretty well. And he's got - I've seen recent pictures of him. He's all cleaned up. He looks so good in his uniform, but he hasn't married yet.

KRULWICH: And so as Alan headed back to thank his friend Dowi, he wondered a little if his thank you might hurt. So he came to the village and he found his friend.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: We kind of, you know, we didn't hug or anything. We shook hands, which is as close to a hug as Dowi would get.

KRULWICH: And then they sat down to talk.

Mr. RABINOWITZ: And he asked me how I was and I was waiting for that. And then I pulled out the photograph of my baby son. And I'd never seen that kind of emotion in Dowi.

KRULWICH: And then when Dowi looked at the picture -

Mr. RABINOWITZ: He just threw back his head and laughed. And this time it wasn't, you know, a laugh of thinking you're an idiot. This time it was a laugh of - I felt it was a laugh of pride. There was pride there and true happiness that I was getting to do it even if he couldn't.

KRULWICH: That was three years ago. Today, Alan Rabinowitz has a young daughter, as well as a son. But Dowi, he understands, has lost his mother and lost a sister, and is now almost the very last Tehrone in the valley.

Robert Krulwich, NPR News, New York.

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