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Extreme Conservation Life at the Edges of the World

Biography / Memoir
By: Joel Berger(Author), John G Robinson(Foreword By)
392 pages, 4 plates with 8 colour photos, 12 plates with 24 b/w photos; b/w maps
Equal parts adventure and meditation on the value of wild nature, Extreme Conservation offers an intimate picture of biological field work in the world's most remote locations.
Extreme Conservation
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  • Extreme Conservation ISBN: 9780226366265 Hardback Aug 2018 In stock
Price: £22.50
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

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
17 Nyima

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Customer Reviews (1)

  • A book of exceptionally fascinating stories
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 17 Jan 2019 Written for Hardback

    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.

    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), 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 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. 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.

    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.

    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). 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.
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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.

Biography / Memoir
By: Joel Berger(Author), John G Robinson(Foreword By)
392 pages, 4 plates with 8 colour photos, 12 plates with 24 b/w photos; b/w maps
Equal parts adventure and meditation on the value of wild nature, Extreme Conservation offers an intimate picture of biological field work in the world's most remote locations.
Media reviews

"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

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