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Remembering George Rabb, a Driving Force Behind the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative

Last week, the National Geographic Society and the global community of conservationists writ large lost George Rabb, an iconic, stalwart advocate and icon for wildlife, the environment, and the biodiversity sciences.  Most recently, Dr. Rabb served on National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative (BCI) Grants Committee.  Since 2010 until mid-2017, he and seven other leading conservationists and scientists formed the committee that evaluated all proposals to the BCI, voting to fund more than 100 conservation proposals across 27 countries —  a total of more than U.S. $3.5 million for the protection of lions, leopards, cheetahs, tigers, and other big cats.

In a survey of BCI grantee impacts, the results of which were shared at last week’s International Congress for Conservation Biology in Cartagena, Colombia, these funds allocated by Dr. Rabb and the rest of the BCI Grants Committee were shown to have provided protection for big cats across more than 1,800,000 square kilometers worldwide, helping prevent more than 2,600 big cat mortalities, more than 2,000 of which were for lions.  With some recent scientific papers speculating that lion numbers may be declining to near 20,000 remaining in the wild worldwide, the positive repercussions of the BCI’s committee decisions couldn’t be more clear.

Dr. Rabb was always the committee’s most consistent and staunch advocate for the funding of grassroots environmental education and empowerment projects, often directing support for range-country nationals, swaying decisions to favor proposals that focused most heavily on engagement of the local human populace as a strategy toward conservation of big cats.

Early in our work with George on the Grants Committee, it surprised many of us that he, being the committee member that had worked most and had been most deeply involved with zoos and captive populations in the Western world versus the other members, would become that loudest voice for development opportunities and capacity-building for African, Asian, and South American nationals as a leading component of big cat protection and preservation.  In time, it became clear to us that his compassion and commitment for the human communities in big cat ranges were as strong or stronger than for even the big cats themselves.

In this way, he taught us all new lessons about the necessary synthesis between the human and the wildlife realms, in order to assure an integrated and sustainable ecosystem to support both.