Discovery adds to success of ecologist's career

World traveler found a new species of deer

May 02, 1999|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

In the 25 years since he graduated from Western Maryland College, Alan Rabinowitz has traveled the world as a wildlife ecologist -- helping to establish nature refuges, including the world's only jaguar preserve in Central America.

He's pursued the elusive clouded leopard in Taiwan, Indochinese tigers in Thailand and Sumatran rhinoceroses in Borneo, and written a how-to manual for creating animal refuges that is now available in seven languages.

Rabinowitz is popularly known for his books on the jaguar and other big cats -- "charismatic species," in fund-raising parlance, he said in an interview from his home in Mahopac, N.Y., an hour from his office at the Bronx Zoo.

But his passion and his most likely claim to wildlife fame rests upon the knee-high leaf deer -- a new mammal and a relict of the Ice Ages that Rabinowitz found in 1997 in a wild region of Myanmar near the Tibetan border.

This afternoon, he is to receive an honorary degree as a distinguished alumnus at Western Maryland College's annual awards convocation.

Next week, Rabinowitz heads back to Myanmar to learn more about his little deer. Another population has been reported at Assam, on the border with India.

In the years since he left Westminster, Rabinowitz earned his master's degree and doctorate at the University of Tennessee and studied bats, raccoons and black bears in Tennessee and Kentucky. This work led him to his mentor, George Schaller, known for work on gorillas and giant pandas.

Rabinowitz now serves as co-director of science with Schaller at the Wildlife Conservation Society, which was established in 1898 and was known until recently as the New York Zoological Society. Both of them still traipse the world.

He wasn't looking for new species when he headed into the far northern forests of Myanmar in 1996, he said. He chose the area because it was largely unstudied by Westerners. But the unsettled politics of the region kept him waiting for 10 years in Thailand, a home base from which he traveled the region to establish refuges and study other endangered animals.

Once in the wild, Rabinowitz said, "I started seeing hunters with these little heads with little antlers that I thought were baby deer." When he questioned the hunters of the Rawang subgroup of the Kachin tribe, who use crossbows and poison-tipped arrows and trade the pelts for salt with China, Rabinowitz was told the skulls came from adult animals.

He didn't believe it, and offered the hunters more than the salt-traders, he said.

The new species -- named by current custom muntiacus putaoensis for the nearest town -- was confirmed a year ago through genetic analysis, he said. Rabinowitzensis under the old system might have been nice, but not to pronounce, he said jokingly.

The leaf deer now ranks as the smallest true deer in the world, weighing about 25 pounds and standing 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall, he said. It has been trapped in a transition zone between the mountaintops and the near-tropical plains, probably since the last Ice Age glaciers receded some 10,000 years ago.

"We call them Pleistocene refugees: They found an area where they could survive, and they did survive," he said, but "everything changed lower down and they couldn't come down." The area is now Hkakaborazi National Park -- Myanmar's largest park and one of the largest preserves in the Himalayas.

There are other creatures, too: the giant and the black barking deer (they woof), the pseudooryx, and the blue sheep.

"In this area [Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar], the animals could come out of Dr. Seuss," he said.

Pub Date: 5/02/99

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