Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Good News for Tigers

Tom Kaplan: 'I have big plans for big cats'

US billionaire, Tom Kaplan, is funding a new Oxford University research centre in a bid to save endangered lions and tigers - and fulfill a childhood passion.

"It's time to put our asses on the line," says Tom Kaplan. "Otherwise we might as well give up." The American tough-guy slang sits incongruously with the soft voice and the immaculate business suit, but then a lot of things about Kaplan are incongruous.

Who could have predicted that a mild-mannered Oxford-educated historian, with a PhD in the politics of colonial Malaya, would make an absolute killing from mineral extraction, with assets valued at billions of dollars?

Who then could have predicted that, while still in his mid-forties, the billionaire minerals magnate would channel his energies and business acumen into saving big cats from extinction?

Peeping out from under his immaculate business suit is a bright orange wrist-band with the legend "Tigers Forever". His mission is to save tigers, he explains, not just by maintaining their present numbers, but by increasing their numbers by 50 per cent in the next 10 years. This unassuming businessman means business. Where others wring their hands, he acts.

New York-based Panthera, the charity which Kaplan founded in 2006, has rapidly become one of the biggest players in wildlife conservation in the world, with projects around the globe and spending on a scale – its various financial commitments are set to top $20 million in five years – which other agencies can only envy.

"I am a businessman because I am good at business," says Kaplan. "But big cats are my first love."

He first fell under their spell as a seven-year-old, when he was given a copy of The Maneaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett. Soon his bedroom was lined with posters of tigers and other predatory felids. By the age of 10, he was tracking bobcats in Florida. By 11, he was jaguar-spotting in Colombia with his mother. A life-long passion had taken root.

And his love of animals runs in the family. He has been married for 10 years to Dafna, whom he met at high school in Switzerland, and who was later serving in the Israeli defence forces while he was at Oxford. They are now based in New York. Only their daughter, Orianne's fixation was snakes.

"Pop, you know you always said we should try to give something back?" she said, when she was just five. "Well, why don't we try to save indigo snakes?" Project Orianne, a Kaplan-founded snake conservation project in Georgia, was the result. A billionaire father can be a girl's best friend.

But childish sentiment alone is not going to save the world's big cats – the tigers and leopards and jaguars and other felids on the endangered species lists. Nor is money alone. For Kaplan, conservation involves the head as much as the heart.
"When I founded Panthera, I set out to procure the greatest talent in wildlife conservation. And I use that mercantile image advisedly. Whatever you are doing in life, you have to build a high-class vehicle to deliver your vision."

To that end, he has appointed Alan Rabinowitz, a fellow New Yorker and world-renowned conservationist, to be the CEO of Panthera. Rabinowitz was the driving force behind the Jaguar Corridor that now extends from Mexico to Argentina and is regarded as a model of wildlife conservation in practice. It is not enough to talk conservation; it is necessary to provide viable habitats, often spanning many different countries.

Similar "corridors" – effectively offering the big cats safe passage between their various natural habitats – are being considered for tigers in Asia and lions in Africa. One of the tiger corridors alone could stretch from Nepal to Malaysia. It is a colossal, visionary undertaking.

But outstanding leaders, as Kaplan knows from his business experience, need outstanding lieutenants. To that end, he is investing millions of dollars in endowing the scholarships and research grants needed to inspire a new generation of conservationists.

He has donated millions to his alma mater, Oxford University, where last week he welcomed students from around the world – Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Bhutan, Bolivia – to study conservation at the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, which he is funding, and launched a new diploma course in international wildlife practice. "This is going to be the premier university-based felid conservation centre in the world," he says, with a note of pride.

When Kaplan talks about the big cats he has seen in the wild, it could be a schoolboy speaking. "I once saw a male and female tiger together in a reserve in Rajasthan. They must have mated about eight times in two hours! And after each time, the female cuffed the male, as if she was cross with him. Extraordinary."

Left to their own devices, he says, the animals would reproduce effortlessly. Unlike the giant panda, say, big cats are naturally prolific. But on a crowded planet, it can be hard to persuade people of the desirability of breeding more dangerous predators. There are now, dismayingly, more tigers in zoos than in the wild.

"People need to look at wildlife conservation in its totality," says Kaplan. "As soon as you lose the apex predator, it has harmful consequences right down the food chain."

Convincing others of that logic, winning the necessary hearts and minds, requires different strategies in different parts of the world. In Brazil, Kaplan has recently acquired huge cattle ranches on the edge of the forest. "Who would have thought it? Me, a vegetarian, buying 8,000 head of cattle?" But he knows that buying the land is the most practical way to protect his beloved jaguars. Under Brazilian law, the farmers would otherwise be entitled to shoot the jaguars if they preyed on their livestock.

He also knows that, at the intersection of forest and farmland, there will be what conservationists call an "edge effect": a flourishing eco-system at the point where two different habitats meet.

"Local communities need to be brought into the conservation process. They need to be treated as stake-holders. In a developing country like Brazil, there is huge scope for offering rural communities help with health care, say, in exchange for their cooperation."

Idealism may be at the heart of the projects which Panthera has undertaken, but Kaplan understands better than anyone the Realpolitik of conservation – the hard facts, the clinching arguments, the hidden interstices between money, power and land.

In Malaysia, he persuaded the government that they were not just conserving the tiger but, specifically, the Malayan tiger, a rare sub-species; he appealed to national pride, and did not just deal in wishy-washy slogans.

In Pakistan, he went one better, persuading then President Musharraf, not known as an animal-lover, to take a close interest in snow leopards: convening conferences and establishing leopard reserves. How did he do it? By quietly impressing on the Pakistani president how much kudos his country would get on the world stage from protecting its leopards, while India made such a hash of protecting its tigers.

Kaplan may be planning ahead, dreaming big dreams, making big plans, but he has not forgotten the lesson he learnt 20 years ago, when he was a history student at Oxford: it is the past of the planet that holds the key to the future of the planet.

"If you ask people to look too far into the future, they don't get it. You need to foster an understanding of the habitat destruction that has taken place in the past, and how we can avoid making the same mistakes. You need to explain and execute a strategy that shows people why wildlife is worth conserving."
For more information about the big-cats conservation charity Panthera, visit www.panthera.org


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