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The King of Cats

Billionaire conservationist Tom Kaplan is pursing an audacious quest to save the world’s great cats from extinction

A concrete watchtower stands in a grassy field at the edge of a jungle in Assam, India. In one direction lies a dirt road where a small, lightly armed forest patrol labors on a rainy March morning—two rifles among the six of them. Ninety degrees to the right, another road leads into a grassy field with a second patrol, this one accompanied by a dog. From the watchtower 
at the crossroads, a commander of the Indian forest patrol watches both sternly.

Suddenly, the first party of rangers is confronted by a group of men brandishing clubs and knives. One of the ringleaders grabs a rifle from a ranger, striking him on the nose. Blood wells to the surface—it’s clearly broken. Simultaneously, the second forest patrol stops a sweaty, straining man pulling a cart piled high with wood. They discover the skull of a tiger—a poacher’s booty—hidden in the logs. The carter takes off at a breakneck run, and the Belgian Malinois is let off the leash with a shouted command: “Attack, attack, attack!” The dog hits the arm of the fleeing poacher and knocks him to the ground.

The clash is taking place at the center of a fight between international organized crime and global conservation philanthropy Panthera over the fate of the wild tiger. But this time, it’s just a drill. The commander smiles, shakes some hands and turns to one of the trainers: “This is something we need. The insurgency damaged the range for a long time, but now it will get better.”

Panthera, founded in 2006 by billionaire gold and silver speculator Tom Kaplan, is changing how environmentalists approach animal conservation. Focused on endangered big cats, the group trains and equips local authorities and conservationists to defeat international poaching networks. Working in 47 countries, the group has bridged the monitoring efforts of academic science and the enforcement efforts of policymakers and law enforcement. “Panthera’s people have a scientific way of looking at the problem,” says Hemendra Kothari, chairman of DSP BlackRock India, a joint venture between Indian financial firm DSP and BlackRock, and Wildlife Conservation Trust, one of India’s largest environmental NGOs. “We’ve learned a lot from them.”

Tom Kaplan at his home in Paris, September 2016. Photo by Dana and Stéphane Maitec

Much about how Thomas Scott Kaplan chooses to spend his substantial fortune seems to tie back to his childhood passions. Born in 1962 in New York, the son of a Jewish American businessman, Jason, and a homemaker, Lillian, Kaplan had a privileged upbringing. Jason Kaplan was a successful entrepreneur and retired when he was young, and he and Lillian encouraged Kaplan’s childhood fascinations. “I was able to keep snakes and turtles and all kinds of critters. It was the ’70s. She was cool.” When Kaplan was 8, the family moved to Pompano Beach, Fla., north of Miami, where they lived until he was 16. For his 11th birthday, his mother took him to the Amazon to see jaguars in the wild.

“I went down to Colombia to this basically CIA outpost called Leticia,” says Kaplan. “It was run by a smuggler called Captain Mike.” Though Kaplan and his mother didn’t see any jaguars, he does remember encountering “massive” anacondas and brought turtles and snakes home with him. “I was definitely an unusual kid.”

Kaplan attended high school in Switzerland, then studied history at Oxford, eventually completing a PhD. His thesis, completed in 1990 and titled “In the Front Line of the Cold War: Britain, Malaya and South-East Asian Security 1948–1955,” was about counterinsurgency, a topic that was out of vogue in the decades after Vietnam. But Kaplan felt that history was a tool that could be wielded like science.

While finishing his thesis and traveling in Israel, Kaplan met his future wife, Daphne Recanati, daughter of prominent Israeli banker Leon Recanati. Daphne was doing her military service as an assistant to the commander of the air force. The two fell in love, and Kaplan was soon flying back and forth between Oxford and Israel (they have been married 28 years). On one trip back to Oxford in 1989 he “had an epiphany, which was that Saddam Hussein was going to invade Kuwait.” By this time Kaplan—perhaps through Daphne, perhaps through others—had connections in the Saudi and Israeli intelligence communities. “They both reported that neither the Mossad nor the Saudi Mukhabarat believed [an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait] was possible,” Kaplan recalls. “They were senior people and very well connected. They came back with, ‘You’re a nice Jewish boy, but you’re delusional.’”

But Kaplan’s prediction caught the attention of Israeli investor Avi Tiomkin. Kaplan advised the hedge funder on what he should buy and sell in the event of an invasion of Kuwait. After the 1990 invasion, Tiomkin brought Kaplan on as a junior partner. Kaplan focused on currency markets, but as a sideline he began following precious metals. Silver was trading around $3 an ounce as people shifted away from using film in cameras, and Kaplan felt it was significantly undervalued. He looked for an institutional-quality silver company that he could recommend to the hedge fund, but couldn’t find one. “Sort of as a dare, my wife said, ‘Well, if it doesn’t exist, why don’t you just create it?’” Kaplan took her advice and in 1993 secured backing from George Soros and Jack Nash to found Apex Silver. “I took all of my private savings to build the company,” Kaplan says. And then the price of silver began to rise. “Over the course of that investment, I ended up making 250 times my money and then used that to go into platinum in Zimbabwe and South Africa. I made about 100 times my money there. Then I went to hydrocarbons in Texas and made about 100 times my money there.”

Kaplan’s strategic bets made him a billionaire, and while he continues investing—now through the Electrum Group, of which he is chairman—in the last decade he has been increasingly focused on philanthropy. He founded the Orianne Society to protect the endangered blue indigo snake in the southern U.S., and along with his friend, former CIA director David Petraeus, created the Recanati-Kaplan Foundation Fellows Program, which provides instruction in the historical method for intelligence officers at Harvard’s Kennedy School. But most of his energy is spent on Panthera. “I realized I had both the time and the resources to go back to what I really wanted to do when I was a kid, which was to save wildlife and particularly to focus on big cats.”

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Panthera’s mission is hugely ambitious: to protect big cat habitat and prey and stop poaching in every nation where the animals live, whether it’s Brazil or Honduras, India or Bangladesh. Panthera works to protect seven species in particular: lions, tigers, jaguars, snow leopards, leopards, pumas, cheetahs. In the case of tigers, poaching is the greatest risk factor, and their population has declined 95 percent over the past century, primarily due to high demand for their use in traditional Chinese medicine. There are only around 3,000 tigers living in the wild today, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2016 World Wildlife Crime Report. “Whether it’s lions or elephants, it’s for the parts,” Kaplan says. “Tigers are almost never the object of trophy hunting exercises. On the other hand, their penises are used as aphrodisiacs, their whiskers for migraines, their bones for rheumatism.”

To find out exactly how Panthera hopes to save the tiger, I spent a week embedded with the group’s anti-poaching team in Manas National Park, where the security training drills took place. In that time, we encountered not only rhinoceroses and elephants, but also gaur (a type of bison) and buffalo, wild boar, monkeys, pygmy hogs and king cobra. The park contains 622 species of plant and 32 highly endangered species of animal; of all the animals living in the park, fully 38 percent are categorized as near threatened or endangered, and a poacher kills a rhinoceros there every three months, according to Bibhuti Lahkar, an administrator with local conservation NGO Aaranyak. The park, roughly 600 square miles, rises into the foothills of the Himalayas. Its core is dense jungle. Grasslands bleed into farmland on its borders, and it’s crisscrossed by riverbeds, streams and a few busted-up dirt roads.

Manas National Park is in Bodoland, homeland of the ancient Bodo tribe. It is a nominally autonomous region administered by the Bodoland Tribal Council, and from 1987 to 2002 there was an active, armed rebellion against the central government in Delhi. During the conflict the forest service was driven from the park and their camps and watchtowers burned. The resistance officially ended in 2003 and Bodoland is by and large peaceful now, though it still experiences spasms of unrest. In 2011, six World Wildlife Fund employees were kidnapped hours after local tribal groups decided to renew the earlier campaign for independence. In 2014, 18 Muslims were killed in a moment of internecine violence. And on the first day the Panthera trainers were in Manas, they encountered a group of 35 armed men, although the standoff was diffused without violence. There are credible rumors that heavily armed separatists still operate in the deepest parts of the jungle, while the western region of the park remains under army control; the unofficial policy is that the forest rangers should leave separatists alone. “You never know what they can do,” says Lahkar. “Our rifles are very minimal.” Slogans such as “Bodo Popular Front” and “No Bodoland, No Vote” are blazoned with white paint on the walls of many buildings in the villages around the park.

Politics are as much a part of combatting poaching as actual forestry is. At the national level, Panthera works with the Indian army, forestry service and border patrol. In Royal Manas National Park, directly across the border in Bhutan, they’ve received assistance directly by order of the King of Bhutan, an acquaintance of Kaplan. In Bangladesh, Panthera works more closely with the army.

The complexities multiply at the local level. Impoverished locals often enter the forest to cut wood, graze cattle, hunt game or fish. These activities destroy the tiger ecosystem; the same animals that hunters want to kill are also tiger prey. And hunters are opportunists. They may enter the park planning on bagging a boar, but if they encounter a tiger, they might try to take it too. To deal with these overlapping issues, Panthera, Aaranyak and the forest service use law enforcement tactics to interdict poachers and deft community relations to discourage villagers from entering the forest.

While we didn’t see tigers, we did find evidence of them in 6-foot-tall claw gouges on gnarled trees, the world’s largest scratching posts. And there were piles of bones from old kills.

Another difficulty is that the wildlife the rangers are trying to protect is often dangerous itself. The last lesson the trainees receive before going out on patrol with Panthera is how to fend off an attacking tiger. Panthera’s senior director in the tiger program, John Goodrich, a Coloradan partial to sandals and Jack Daniels, spent years in Siberia trapping and tagging tigers and is one of the world’s most successful tiger trappers. He is also one of the few people to survive a tiger attack. Tigers are the largest of the cats, growing up to 10 feet from nose to tail and weighing close to 600 pounds, and they are deadly when they feel threatened. A Siberian tiger slipped out of a snare while Goodrich was trying to tag it and pounced on him, pinning him to the ground and crushing his right hand in its jaws. (To this day his hand, filled with metal, won’t close completely.) To fend the tiger off, he jabbed a flare into its neck. It didn’t injure the cat, but scared it enough to allow Goodrich to get away. In the park, he demonstrates the technique to the rangers. The flare takes a moment to ignite, sputtering, and the onlookers joke uncomfortably that it would already be too late.

Security around Manas National Park has been lax for years. “Anybody would say they’re poorly paid and under-equipped,” says Craig Fullstone, a Panthera site security specialist. The rangers live in crude conditions for weeks at a time in jungle outposts, towers of concrete and corrugated metal with a small garden plot, a mud-filled pot to filter water and no electricity. They patrol a set area twice per day, following well-established trails. This is the easy way to patrol, but it is also predictable. “You’ve got a massive landscape, very few men and no motivation to patrol,” says Rob Pickles, another Panthera trainer. Fullstone and Pickles have two primary goals for the patrols: to break these habits and communicate a sense of force to would-be hunters. “The idea is to manipulate the threat to get it where you can deal with it…and maximize spatial overlap between the patrols, the poachers and the animals,” says Joe Smith, director of the tiger program.

During the monsoons, access to the park is difficult. Rivers overflow their banks, and sucking mud makes movement challenging. The conditions provide some protection to the animals, and the rangers can still patrol atop elephants. But during the dry season, the rangers have lacked adequate transportation to move around the park and penetrate it quickly. One of the most important tools Panthera provides is transportation—24 newly acquired motorbikes. (Panthera also provides communications, GPS and surveillance technology.) It’s a little like an army carrying out a counterinsurgency campaign. On any given day, two patrols move along the edge of the park to interdict villagers entering the forest and shore up the boundaries, while two move through the deep jungle.

The first day of our patrol was mostly spent in a plain of shoulder-height grass with razor edges. While we didn’t see tigers, we did find evidence of them in 6-foot-tall claw gouges on gnarled trees, the world’s largest scratching posts. And there were piles of bones from old kills. We stumbled upon a mother rhinoceros and her baby. A herd of gaur charged through the undergrowth, which prompted a warning to climb a tree if they came closer. We followed trampled paths where elephants and rhinos had stomped through the tall grass. A herd of elephants became our companions as we moved in a similar circle through the park, passing at one point through a dormitory—a clearing in the trees where the animals sleep—and coming within a few yards of them.

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The only human encounter was with three men fishing in one of the rivers. They had pulled a few minnows from the water and told us they were day laborers from one of the forest service outposts. The patrol leader said it didn’t matter: Fishing in the preserve was still illegal. Each of the three men was photographed wearing a nametag hung around his neck with pink ribbon and made to sign a document saying he wouldn’t fish in the park again. Such violators are given numerous opportunities to reform. “If we had a zero tolerance policy, we’d have an armed uprising,” says Fullstone. Hunters, though, are arrested immediately.

On another day, we entered the heart of the park. The gravel on a riverbed sported two sets of giant tiger paw prints. Eventually our column of motorcycles reached a watchtower at the end of a side path with enormous trees arching up and over it, cathedral-like. A large leg bone from some sort of animal—perhaps an elephant—bleached white and pockmarked with time, stuck out of a bunch of flowers like a grisly garden gnome. From here we proceeded on foot. The forest is extremely dense, and the patrol was dive-bombed at one point by gigantic black bees. Vines twist around trees which compete with each other to reach the sun; life here is competition in its rawest, most Darwinian sense. Eventually we entered a large, flat clearing. It was completely silent except for the buzz of a few languid flies. In the center of the clearing a shallow pool reflected the green-tinted light filtering down through the trees above. During the dry season, watering holes are the only place to drink, and tigers, elephants, birds and buffalo alike must enter the clearing, making it a prime location for poachers. “Check all the trees for machans,” or hunting platforms, said site security specialist Pickles, an intense British biologist more apt to wade through a river than go around it. While we didn’t find any of the platforms at this watering hole, another patrol elsewhere in the park found and destroyed several.

The patrols are helped by a high-tech network of “poacher cams.” The cameras are camouflaged and hidden in strategically significant areas where both hunters and prey are expected to pass through. The motion-activated cameras use an algorithm to filter out images that don’t include a human. If they do include a human, the cameras email a time- and location-stamped photo of the person to the forest service, using the local cell phone network. This not only gives patrols actionable, real-time information about poachers’ movement, but it also helps them build profiles of criminals operating in the forest. “A conservation group wouldn’t ordinarily pursue this kind of thing,” says Chris Cline, Panthera’s chief technologist after 25 years at IBM. But governments including India’s know just how valuable this data is.

C entral to Kaplan’s philanthropic thesis is the idea that conservation fails if it is not collaborative. In a place like Assam, a New York–based nonprofit like Panthera is unlikely to have the deep social and cultural ties that local partners provide. “The organizations, which are actually in situ, indigenous, are usually the best in terms of being idealist, and many are often risking their lives,” Kaplan says. Scientists and field officers from Aaranyak, Panthera’s local partner in Assam, accompany the forest service patrols and operate a program fundamental to Panthera’s success in Manas: economic development. Most of the activity they’re trying to prevent, such as woodcutting and fishing, stems from poverty. And unless people have economic alternatives, they’ll keep coming back. Consequently, organizations frequently wind up trying to redesign a local economy, which can take decades, rather than spending limited resources on science and capacity-building for law enforcement. By the time the economy is fixed, the tigers may all be dead. “It’s really important to maintain focus on the problem,” says Panthera’s Smith. The organization provides Aaranyak with scientific and logistical support and helped it with a grant proposal for the German development fund KFW. In return, Aaranyak acts as on-the-ground ambassadors for Panthera and develops economic programs that parallel conservation efforts.

Manas is surrounded by some 120 villages, and in all of them, Aaranyak biologist Lahkar and his wife, who is Bodo, are celebrities. I accompanied them one afternoon to a community meeting. We met the villagers in an open-air, dirt-floored schoolroom across a yard from the communal granary. The crowd was small—a few dozen, mostly older men and children—as most of the village was attending the cremation of a recently deceased elder. Lahkar had brought a veterinarian with him from Guwahati, the largest city in Assam, four hours away (there are no vets around Manas) and the local farmers flooded him with questions, giving Lahkar an in to talk about the changes around the park. The Bodo, whose animist religion sanctifies the forest, generally support the new enforcement regime, although there are concerns over how it will affect them economically. One wizened, white-haired man in a traditional woven skirt spoke, through a translator, about the changes he had seen in the park over his lifetime. When he was a child, “the forest was much healthier, denser, with more big trees and animals. But then the Bodo insurgency happened, and the forest was degraded.” The new attempt at conservation is good, he said, “because the forest is for everyone.”

When Kaplan first began investing in big cat conservation in 2004, his plan was to simply find the best cat conservation organization he could and then pour money into it. One of his childhood heroes was jaguar biologist Alan Rabinowitz, then the executive director of science and exploration for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates New York City’s zoos as well as conservation projects globally. Few people in the world know big cats as well as Rabinowitz does. “You could put me anyplace, and I can tell you if there are jaguars in that forest or not,” he says. “It’s got to do with how everything is reacting, what you hear singing and how the forest is.”

“When you do a good deed for an animal, it is twice blessed. Because, number one, it’s a good deed. But, number two, the animal has no means of expressing gratitude.”
—Thomas Kaplan, Founder and Chairman, Panthera

Kaplan started funding Rabinowitz’s work at WCS, but soon figured out that he wanted an organization focused exclusively on big cat conservation. So in 2006 he hired Rabinowitz and much of his team to create Panthera. “I realized that cat conservation was really in a downward trajectory,” Kaplan says. “I felt a sense of urgency about extinction. And extinction can be defined as something completely blinking out, like the passenger pigeon or the dodo, or what I call functional extinction, which is that the fragmentation of habitat becomes so severe that you’re no longer going to be able to have genetic transference.” Panthera has helped fuel a “generational shift” among biologists “from behavioral science to site security,” Smith says.

The approach is having an impact. When the World Wildlife Fund issued a press release in April claiming the world tiger population would double in the next 10 years, the Wildlife Conservation Society in India responded with a “statement of concern” signed by Panthera’s Goodrich and lead scientists from WCS and Oxford: “Wildlife managers in parts of India and even in specific reserves in Southeast Asia and Russia have made commendable conservation efforts…[but] tiger recovery rates are slow and not likely to attain levels necessary for the doubling of wild tiger numbers within a decade.” The note concluded, “Rather than engaging in these tiger number games that distract them from reality, conservationists must now focus on enhancing and expanding recovery and monitoring…while protecting their remaining habitat.”

Kaplan has poured nearly $100 million into Panthera—and now he is spearheading a global alliance of like-minded philanthropists, including DSP BlackRock India’s Hemendra Kothari and Her Excellency Razan Khalifa Al Mubarak, secretary general of the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, who are willing to contribute $20 million each to the cause. Much of Kaplan’s money has been spent on developing anti-poaching programs, such as in India, or in creating land corridors to prevent the fragmentation of habitats. The largest protected habitat corridor in the world is Panthera’s “Jaguar Corridor,” which stretches from Argentina all the way to northern Mexico. It knits together national parks, land purchased outright by Panthera and private holdings (in the case of ranchers, for instance, Panthera will help build and repair fences to protect cattle). Rabinowitz has been the driving force behind the corridor’s creation. He “is about saving the landscape, preserving the entire habitat,” Kaplan says. “That kind of grander strategy or grand strategy, as we would call it in history, meshes perfectly with my own approach.”

Kaplan has increasingly aligned his business interests with those of Panthera, rather than the other way around. “I have never used wildlife conservation to promote my business ventures—never,” Kaplan says. “The other way has proved very valuable.” In his companies he has implemented the “Tom rule,” mandating that if the company has the option to purchase key habitat and prevent development, it should do so. In 2004, before the foundation of Panthera, Kaplan wanted to invest in mineral rights in Pakistan at a time when most American businesses were avoiding the country. He predicated his investment on the Pakistani government creating new programs for snow leopard conservation. “I became the largest holder of mineral rights in Pakistan,” he says. “Part of it was in the area that I wanted to control, and part of it was in an area that we really didn’t have that much of an interest in but it was snow leopard habitat.” This may seem like an unusual way to run a business, but it’s been part of Kaplan’s philosophy since his days as a student. He has long believed that people act for more than purely economic reasons. “One of the beauties of wildlife conservation,” he says, “is that when you do a good deed for an animal, it is twice blessed. Because, number one, it’s a good deed. But, number two, the animal has no means of expressing gratitude.”

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On my last day on patrol in Manas, the squad I was with went into a wide formation. They spread out in a line, with around 30 feet in between them. The goal was to look for signs of human activity—cigarette butts, pieces of trash, broken twigs, wood chips. We moved between a deep ravine with a river flowing at its bottom and a dry field with a small brush fire burning in it. The party soon split on either side of the ravine, and somehow one of the rangers and I became separated from the group. We stopped. The fire in the field popped and smoked. Across the river, monkeys called out. We found a piece of litter dropped on the trail and the ranger recorded it in his logbook. The forest was silent. It was easy to imagine a tiger stalking us through the trees or the tall grass. There was a profound sense of isolation and danger, but also a deep peace. Eventually, the rest of the patrol found us, and we moved on as before.

Contact: panthera.org

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