Extreme Conservation: Life at the Edges of the World

  • By Joel Berger
  • University of Chicago Press
  • 368 pp.
  • Reviewed by Emily Strelow
  • August 28, 2018

This observant and witty book asks difficult questions about our role in saving species living in extreme climates.

Part memoir, part behavioral ecology, part adventure, Joel Berger’s Extreme Conservation: Life at the Edges of the World follows the author and his field techs as they traverse the world's icy realms in search of answers both scientific and social about how a drastically changing climate affects species at the edge.

The writing is bright and engaging, borderline “CSI” thriller at times, like when he encounters a mysterious "death assemblage" of muskoxen frozen in ice. Berger has written a book about conservation, yes, but there is something here for every type of reader.

Berger is a field biologist who aims to see the world from the perspective of the animals he studies. In the prologue, he writes:

“Whether Tibetan, Inuit, or others, animals enable subsistence. If one asked the animals, their first choice would not be to sustain us. We can’t ask them, but we can apply the concept of umvelt and thereby try to see through their eyes.”

Umwelt means “the world as it is experienced by an organism.” In Berger’s context, Umwelt also refers to a semiotic theory by Jakob von Uexsküll that theorized that animals experience different umwelten though they may live in the same environment. Berger places an early emphasis on this concept and at every turn considers the animal’s perspective as he observes them in order to more fully understand life at the climatic edges.

Berger travels from cold ecosystem to cold ecosystem as they undergo shifts due to climate change, trying to get inside the minds of the animals that inhabit these icy, desolate realms. He takes his reader to Alaska, Mongolia, Wrangel Island in Russia, Central Asia, the Tetons, and the crown jewel of the book, Bhutan.

His studies are primarily of ungulates that live in these extreme environments, including muskoxen, wild yaks, pronghorn, saiga, and takin. Berger takes a hard look at the economic factors that put pressure on these wild populations: big oil, the cashmere trade, cordyceps foragers, political roadblocks, and, of course, climate change.

In arctic Alaska, he employs a range of research techniques to study muskoxen, from GPS collar tracking, aerial darting, and photogrammetry to behavioral observation while dressed up as a bear or caribou.

With what I imagine to be a twinkle in his eye, he recalls dressing up as a bear to encounter a herd of muskoxen: “Issues of safety are also disquieting. What if I’m mistaken for a bear by a hunter or run into the real thing? At least mating season is not until June.”

What happens next is not to be missed.

Something that I appreciated, as a biological field tech myself, was how Berger questions protocols and the trade-off of ardent science and compassionate conservation.

“While data are the bottom line for scientists, the conservation line differs. Doing science is not conservation. Donning a human face, inspiring people to care, engaging people who listen, and ultimately persuading decision makers to act is.”

A good portion of the book is spent in the Third Pole — the mountainous, glaciated Himalayan region that provides biological resources for as many as 3 billion people in downriver basins. There he studies yaks in China and saiga in Mongolia, the latter of which’s populations plummeted by 95 percent in the decade after 1991 as their horns were marketed for medicinal purposes. That year was also when Mongolia transitioned from socialism to a free-market economy. Capitalism, and the way it bears down on wildlife populations, is a recurring theme.

The section on Bhutan is especially enjoyable, walking the line as the book often does between adventure tale and science writing. Bhutan, where Gross National Happiness is of official political interest, is a highly inaccessible and mysterious land inhabited by the cute-ugly takin.

The takin are shy forest dwellers with little available data on their behavior. Snow leopards, tigers, and other charismatic megafauna also prowl the steep slopes of the takin’s home territory. I found myself holding my breath at times during this section, so immersed was I in the drama and beauty of Berger’s field work there.

Berger ruminates on animal populations that have come and gone, like the North American cheetahs and monkeys. He samples from Paul S. Martin, noting that “Nearly 75 percent of species larger than a hundred lbs [sic] vanished between nine and thirteen thousand years ago.”

Animals come and go as history marches on. Berger then poses the question, “Can species persist in the advent of radical climate change?”

And, “Conservation, rather than being seen as fundamental to the survival of all of us, is regularly denigrated by too many as just another ‘special interest’ or as radical environmentalism. Can’t this change, and can’t we do better? Optimists say yes.”

While the weight of these questions strikes fear in our hearts, Berger delivers hope by way of clear recommendations for future action. He poses hard, important questions that demand not only answers but action.

This is not just a book for scientists or environmentalists, but feeling humans of all stripes. He says at the end: “Science digs deeper. When there is no room in our hearts for gentleness, and when sympathy disappears from our vocabulary, so does conservation. It’s then easy to imagine what path follows.”

This is a heavy yet humorous read of the most important kind. I challenge any reader capable of perspective and empathy not to feel inspired, not to consider the umwelt, and be spurred on to climate action by Berger’s vivid anecdotes of animals at the extreme edges of the world.

Emily Strelow's first novel, The Wild Birds, was published in March 2018. For the last decade, she combined teaching writing with doing seasonal avian field biology. While working as a biological field tech, she camped and wrote all over North America in remote areas of the desert, mountains, and by the ocean. She is a mother to two boys, as well as a naturalist and a writer.

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