On the Tibetan Plateau, there are wild yaks with blood cells thinner than horses' by half, enabling the endangered yaks to survive at 40 below zero and in the lowest oxygen levels of the mountaintops. But climate change is causing the snow patterns here to shift, and with the snows, the entire ecosystem. Food and water are vaporizing in this warming environment, and these beasts of ice and thin air are extraordinarily ill-equipped. A journey into some of the most forbidding landscapes on earth, Joel Berger's Extreme Conservation is an eye-opening, steely look at what it takes for animals like these to live at the edges of existence. But more than this, it is a revealing exploration of how climate change and people are affecting even the most far-flung niches of our planet.
Berger's quest to understand these creatures' struggles takes him to some of the most remote corners and peaks of the globe: across Arctic tundra and the frozen Chukchi Sea to study muskoxen, into the Bhutanese Himalayas to follow the rarely-sighted takin, and through the Gobi Desert to track the proboscis-swinging saiga. Known as much for his rigorous, scientific methods of developing solutions to conservation challenges as for his penchant for donning moose and polar bear costumes to understand the mindsets of his subjects more closely, Berger is a guide bar none. He is a scientist and storyteller who has made his life working with desert nomads, in zones that typically require Sherpas and oxygen canisters. Recounting animals as charismatic as their landscapes are extreme, Berger's unforgettable tale carries us with humor and expertise to the ends of the earth and back. But as his adventures show, the more adapted a species has become to its particular ecological niche, the more devastating climate change can be. Life at the extremes is more challenging than ever, and the need for action, for solutions, has never been greater.
Part I At the Intersection of Continents—Beringia’s Silent Bestiary
1 Motherless Children in Black and White
2 Before Now
3 Beyond Arctic Wind
4 Where Worlds Collide
5 Muskoxen in Ice
6 When the Snow Turns to Rain
Part II Sentinels of Tibetan Plateau
7 Below the Margins of Glaciers
8 The Ethereal Yak
9 Birthplace of Angry Gods
Part III Gobi Ghosts, Himalayan Shadows
10 Counting for Conservation
11 To Kill a Saiga
12 Victims of Fashion
13 In the Valley of Takin
14 Pavilions where Snow Dragons Hide
Part IV Adapt, Move, or Die
15 The Struggle for Existence
16 A Postapocalyptic World—Vrangel
Readings of Interest
Joel Berger is the Cox Chair of Wildlife Conservation at Colorado State University and a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. He is coauthor of Horn of Darkness and the author of The Better to Eat You With: Fear in the Animal World and Wild Horses of the Great Basin, the latter two published by the University of Chicago Press.
"In language by turns lyrical, despairing, and hilariously funny, conservation biologist Berger relates stories from a life spent studying little-known animals. The touchstone of his work is the musk ox, 'an Arctic apparition, a Pleistocene remnant,' which as a species 'define these turbulent lands, and an uncertain future' threatened by climate change. Berger goes to extreme lengths to research the musk ox and other animals living in inhospitable locales in Bhutan, Mongolia, Russia, and the United States. He is perpetually cold; equipment freezes, as does food. Tasked with reaching up the anus of a musk ox to retrieve scat at the source, he counts on the warmth to revive his numbed fingers. The people he finds, including Inuit hunters and Wyoming cattlemen, are often committed to saving the biological diversity around them, heartening Berger, who is adamant that, without human commitment, the species he studies won't survive. The narrative is sprinkled with quotes from early Arctic explorers and anecdotes from other scientists, with Berger's own wry humor added to the mixture. His experiences while wearing a bear suit to get closer to the musk ox, to pick one particularly delightful example, are pure slapstick. Informative and impassioned, this will be enjoyed by adventurers and environmentalists alike."
– Publishers Weekly
"Field biology is a tough, lonely profession requiring patience and grit and smarts, and if you add conservation concerns (which you must), a deep steady heart. How long could you stare at a muskox if your toes were frozen? Not many of those doughty biologists can write lively prose for the general reader, offering wit, humanity, narrative, and the big picture. George Schaller is one. Ed Wilson, Jane Goodall. Joel Berger is in that league."
– David Quammen, author of The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life
"Extreme Conservation is a must-read for all conservation biologists and for all people who care about the state of our magnificent planet and how numerous and diverse animal species and their homes are being ravaged 'in the name of humans'. Berger is one of the most productive, traveled, and influential scientists of our time, and his work has changed, and will continue to change, how researchers and non-researchers alike view and respond to what is happening globally as the rage of inhumanity plunders all sorts of ecosystems, including those that most people will never visit or even know about. Berger's new book should be required reading for a broad global audience because if we don't heed the many lessons Extreme Conservation offers – and take action right now – future generations will inherit a horrifically impoverished and even less resilient world. In these increasingly dire times, we can and must do much better than we have in saving our planet for the sake of future humans, ourselves, and other animals."
– Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado, coauthor of The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age and author of Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do
"The world is changing rapidly, impacting people and wildlife, and this change is most noticeable in the Arctic and high latitudes. It takes a special person to do conservation in these extreme environments. Berger seems to thrive in them, and this book shows his passion for exploration and field science, key to saving wildlife and these last wild places."
– Cristián Samper, president and CEO, Wildlife Conservation Society
"Some of us are drawn to nature by wild, wondrous places and the things that live there. Chockablock with information, feeling, and riveting stories, Extreme Conservation is Berger's deeply personal narrative of natural history, ecology, and preservation from several wild and wondrous places that most of us will never see and can barely imagine. A book that can be read both for knowledge and for pleasure."
– James A. Estes, University of California, Santa Cruz, author of Serendipity: An Ecologist's Quest to Understand Nature
"At the top of the world, extreme beasts are perfectly adapted. We are not. Practicing extreme conservation pushes one to the outer limits of human capacity – to a point where only the heartiest of wills survive and death always chimes at your doorstep. It is these inhospitable landscapes where Berger finds adaptation and evolution at its most refined. This story is not about a quest to test one's bravado, it is simply to reveal answers to a series of scientific questions with a purpose to serve effective conservation at large. During these biological journeys to the ends of the earth he not only discovers unlocked truths but comes face to face with our own species, humanity, and perhaps answers the age-old question, 'Why should we care?'"
– John Banovich, artist and conservationist
"Berger's extraordinary new book Extreme Conservation reveals just how hard-won knowledge about various Arctic species is [...] Berger has a record of achieving great things in the toughest places on earth. Yet he is not always welcome [...] Berger is a committed conservationist whose work has increased the chance that musk oxen, saiga antelopes, takin, and pronghorns will survive. But is such altruism sufficient to induce someone to live a life of freezing discomfort, trauma, frequent failure, and social alienation? As a biologist who undertook twenty-six expeditions to remote parts of Melanesia, I have some insights into the life Berger has chosen. Yes, the idea that you might be helping species survive is a powerful incentive. But another reason that near-death experiences don't put you off is incurable curiosity: you just have to know what's over that next mountain, or what that next observation will bring [...] I gave up in my forties, when those mountains just seemed to be getting steeper and more exhausting to climb, and I began to believe that I might actually die in the field. But Berger continues, his hair graying and his body crying out for rest. He is a hero of biology who deserves the highest honors that science can bestow."
– The New York Review of Books