Book review – Extreme Conservation: Life at the Edges of the World

Wildlife conservation and field biology are not for the faint of heart. Studying wild animals in their natural habitat brings with it long periods away from home, lack of comfort, and many logistical challenges. It calls for a certain kind of grit. But equally, it requires a persistent mindset to fight the cause of wildlife when conservation clashes with company’s bottom lines, political aspirations, and the wants and needs of an expanding world population. Even amongst this hardened bunch, few people would voluntarily venture into icy wastelands to study the animals existing at the edge of the world. Joel Berger is one of them and Extreme Conservation is his story, equal parts adventure narrative as it is a meditation on the value of wild nature.

extreme conservation

Extreme Conservation: Life at the Edges of the World“, written by Joel Berger, published by the University of Chicago Press in August 2018 (hardback, 392 pages)

 

Berger, the Barbara Cox Chair of Wildlife Conservation at Colorado State University and a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, has spent the last few decades on the various edges of the world. He takes the reader onto the frozen tundra of Alaska and Canada where he has studied muskoxen – shaggy bovids of the north that were almost exterminated when whalers reached the area at the end of the 19th century. And he ventures into the frozen highlands of Tibet and Bhutan to study yaks and lesser-known mammals such as chirus, saigas, and takin (all antelope species, see Bovids of the World: Antelopes, Gazelles, Cattle, Goats, Sheep, and Relatives), and kiang (a species of wild ass).

Though these areas might be thinly populated by humans, they are not immune to change. As mentioned in my review of Brave New Arctic: The Untold Story of the Melting North, the Polar regions are particularly sensitive to climate change, warming quicker than other parts of the planet. And though climate change affects the countries around the Himalayas, there are other threats to wildlife here as well. Feral dogs number in the hundreds of millions globally and can seriously impact wildlife (see Free-Ranging Dogs & Wildlife Conservation), either by outright predation or by exhausting animals already living in challenging environments.

Freak weather events, of the kind simply not encountered elsewhere, can cause mass mortality. Berger’s discovery of twenty-plus musk oxen entombed in ice is a mini-mystery running through the first few chapters. New pathogens can emerge in a changing climate. Saigas made headlines around the world when an estimated two-thirds of their population suddenly dropped dead in 2015 (see Ed Yong’s piece in The Atlantic). Species distributions shift, bringing previously separated animals into contact, such as hybridizing grizzly and polar bears. Others can no longer migrate further north when the planet warms as they have run out of north, or in the case of mountain-dwelling species, they can’t move further up the mountain as they have run out of mountain.

“risking being mauled [by] groups of muskoxen […] or being detained by Russian officials […] Berger takes extreme challenges in stride.”

For most of these species we barely know population sizes, let alone trends over time. The remoteness of their habitats and the hostile conditions on the ground make fieldwork all but impossible. But that hasn’t stopped Berger, now in his sixties, from collecting such data anyway. Facing perpetual cold and wind chill, risking being mauled when sneaking up on groups of muskoxen while wearing a mock polar bear suit, or being detained by Russian officials when travelling to Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean – Berger takes extreme challenges in stride.

Though mundane challenges occasionally descend into hilariously absurd situations, Extreme Conservation is not a book of bravado and reckless adventure. Berger shares candid moments with his reader when he questions his own sanity. He is equally honest in sharing his worries about the potential impacts of conservation activities. Fitting wild animals with radio collars has yielded vital information, but chasing down animals to tranquillise them causes stress, and group-living animals sometimes lose their herd. We simply do not know the impact of this, but Berger worries that it can’t be good.

And whether working with Inuit in Alaska or researchers in Mongolia and Bhutan, successful collaboration requires endless patience, cultural sensitivity, and diplomacy. Whether in Mongolia or Wyoming, local personalities and tough, manly attitudes can get in the way of wildlife conservation. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Buddhist creed to harm no living being backfires when feral dogs are allowed to breed uncontrollably and harass local wildlife.

“Field biology is rarely a mundane affair, but Extreme Conservation tells some exceptionally fascinating stories.”

These first-hand accounts are mixed with some of the research findings and the many new questions these have raised. Added to this, Berger quotes from works of earlier Arctic explorers or serves up anecdotes from more contemporary scientists such as George Schaller (see his book Tibet Wild: A Naturalist’s Journeys on the Roof of the World). Simultaneously, he offers his ruminations and musings on the value of wild nature, the challenges of conservation efforts, the uncertain future for many animals in a changing climate, and the conflicting needs of humans and wildlife. Though fascinating, Berger switches between these various strands in his narrative a bit too often to my liking.

Despite the manifold challenges, Berger remains optimistic and hopeful, strident even. His efforts to train a new generation of conservation biologists, often native to these remote areas, demand respect. His willingness to keep going at it betrays a passion and persistence that are as admirable as they are inspiring. But above all, he manages to capture all this and turn it into a book that is hard to put down. Field biology is rarely a mundane affair, but Extreme Conservation tells some exceptionally fascinating stories. It is heartening to know that someone like Berger is the voice for the animals at the edge of the world that are not the first to come to mind when you think of wildlife conservation.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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