My Path in Big Cat Conservation: A Work in Progress Inspired by Alan Rabinowitz

By Chele Martinez Martí, M.Sc.
Senior Program Manager, Panthera Senegal


What happens when you combine a passion for big cats and adventure with the influence of Panthera’s late co-founder Dr. Alan Rabinowitz? The answer: a career in wildlife conservation that spans continents.

It had already been a week since Guari found me in the vicinity of his ranch trying to keep his pack of dogs at bay with a stick. Satisfied and motivated by the amount of information that the old "tigrero" had given me, I now had 25 km of march ahead of me to the Colonia de Santa Rosa. It began to rain and without further delay, I started up a narrow ridge, leaving the hills of Calilegua behind me. I had already been walking for more than 2 hours when, with my gaze fixed on an increasingly slippery floor, I began to have the feeling that someone was watching me.

I stopped and looked ahead. Nothing. I kept moving forward and when I took the curve, I said to myself, "There you are.” Some 80 meters away a dark mass approached in the rain. A tapir? I stayed still, waiting for it to get a little closer. The animal stopped for a few seconds and then it started walking again, turning to leave the path and leaving a spotted flank that vanished into the forest.

Drinking mate while watching fire

Six years have already passed since that jaguar encounter and since I finished the on-the-ground evaluation of jaguar corridors through the Yungas and the Gran Chaco of Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. Today I am far away from there, in Tambacounda, a remote town in Senegal where I arrived ten months ago to run a fantastic conservation program in one of the West African lion’s last strongholds. Preparing a retrospective on the events that have led me here is undoubtedly a selective process. Fortunately, all of us doing conservation treasure stories about the events and people that inspire us.

In my case, one of those events was the casual reading of a series of zoological discoveries from the early 1990s in the Annamite range in Southeast Asia. Alan Rabinowitz’s name was already familiar to me as a teenager but reading about his work in Thailand made him synonymous with tiger conservation in my mind. Some years later, I came across that name again in a magazine. Rabinowitz was trying to create a vast tiger reserve in Myanmar's Hukawng Valley, where he had also discovered a new species of muntjac (a type of small deer).

"This guy hits hard," I thought. The magazine story was full of unexpected events, challenges and remarkable achievements and I must confess that after reading it, I was so excited that I could hardly sleep that night. What I could not suspect at that time is that this person who would always surprise me with his trailblazing conservation efforts would end up becoming a powerful source of inspiration for me, to the point of being a decisive factor when I decided to dedicate my life to which is probably the most meaningful work in these times of eco-social crisis.

Pulling boat

I was in my 20’s at that time and although I had always been passionate about animals, I had never considered studying for a university degree and dedicating myself to conservation. I loved escaping to the countryside and looking for traces of stone martens and wildcats in my native Spain, but getting involved in the preservation of my favorite animals, the big cats, was a daunting prospect. I saw this as an activity destined to only a chosen few and where I would never have a place.

Alan's story completely changed my perception and helped me understand that my passion for wild cats was what would make me find my way to help protect them and "pay my rent" for living in our beautiful planet. Our strong emotional bonds to these animals are not weaknesses; rather, strengths that allow people like Alan and myself to do what we do. Watching this man achieve such impressive feats helped me realize that the individuals who truly drive change in conservation combine strong academic qualifications with a passion for the outdoors, wildlife and rural societies, and have a long history of dedication to ensure their ideas work. In short, if I ever wanted to make a positive impact as a conservationist, I had (and will always have) plenty of room for improvement!

In 2006 the news of a new organization called Panthera that aimed to protect all wild cats captured my attention. It seemed to be a very risky bet, knowing the critical situations of many of these species. I thought, “These people are crazy!” Shortly after I discovered that (again!) Alan was behind the creation of this game-changer for cat conservation and I began to wonder if maybe they could achieve it after all. I was sure that with Alan at the helm, this organization would not just stop bad things from happening but help great things come about. Seeing what Panthera set out to do and the caliber of the people joining the organization made it clear to me that I wanted to be a part of the effort of these "crazy geniuses.”

On the morning of December 2, 2009, I had one of the greatest joys of my life; Panthera agreed to support my proposal to assess the conservation status of the leopard and the African golden cat in Equatorial Guinea. I had just graduated from the University of Murcia with a degree in Biological Sciences and this was definitely a promising start to my career as a cat conservationist!

Meanwhile, Alan was about to unveil what would be the most daring and visionary of his initiatives. Tailor-made to his favorite animal's ecological needs, the Jaguar Corridor Initiative finally made Alan's unorthodox vision the norm and cemented him as part of conservation history. Alan always stood out from his contemporaries; his "bravura", combined with a strategic mind to realize his visions and extraordinary energy and ability to motivate others, laid the foundations for many of the great big cat conservation programs we find today in Latin America, Asia and Africa.


Alan Rabinowitz's legacy is not only apparent in the natural environments and the wild creatures he helped protect, but extends to those many of us conservationists that this extraordinary human being managed to inspire. I am lucky to have what I consider to be a crucial job and know that myself, and Panthera, will continue to protect the future of wild cats and the planet with all of our energy and resources as Alan did to his last day.