Conservationist Joel Berger lives in the extreme. That’s the best word to describe his travels, and what he does. He goes to extreme environments — not any of the usual tourist destinations — to study how animals there adapt. These places are hot and cold deserts, for example, the uppermost regions of the tallest of mountains, and the highest latitudes, including, as he put it, “the top of the world.” He has made at least 33 expeditions, 19 of them to the Arctic (“from Alaska to Russia and Greenland to Svalbard”) as well as others to Mongolia, the Himalayas, and the Tibetan Plateau. Most recently, he spent the last two austral winters just off the Patagonia Ice Cap studying “a magical little known deer” called a huemul, Chile’s national mammal.
“I like offering my soul to a cause, and animals are it, given their silent voices,” he said. “Animals have massive societal influence in general, but much of this emanates from urban realms, whereas the challenges — and, importantly, opportunities — to maintaining species and functioning ecosystems emanate chiefly from rural and remote regions with attendant low human densities. I think I was attracted to this field because I found animals less stilted then humans.”
He also studies the impact of extreme events, such as glaciation, tsunamis, massive snow, wind and rainstorms, and climate change, “which push life to the limits,” he said. On the Tibetan Plateau, for example, where endangered wild yaks exist at sub-zero temperatures and on dwindling oxygen, global warming is prompting big shifts in snow patterns, as increasing temperatures “vaporize” food and water and threaten to disrupt the balance of the ecosystem. Such changes make survival — and adaptation over time — increasingly difficult for these creatures, he says.
“Evolution is slow for big animals, but not for species like rats and cockroaches,” Berger said. “These smaller species change relatively more quickly because their generation times are short. For elephants and whales — and even wild yaks — the environmental changes they confront are rapid when contrasted to past periods. In other words — ‘adaptation’ to the new conditions we humans create for animals is not something we should expect the young of these slow growing and slow reproducing species to respond to quickly. We might expect this, but then we’d be simply dreaming.”
Most glaciers are receding on the Tibetan Plateau, and permafrost at the top layers are melting, said Berger, who is the Barbara Cox Anthony University chair in wildlife conservation at Colorado State University and a senior scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
“Wild yaks require snow for water in winter because they lactate, that is, produce milk, even when temperatures are at minus 20 degrees F,” he said. “Milk production requires water. Pure ice — which is what the Tibet Plateau is in winter — does not offer mothers much liquid in their efforts to convert water to milk. Licking ice is not the same as digesting snow, let alone drinking water. With snow being less distributed in winter, all of the good habitat with its associated grasses for food is not available to lactating yaks. Thousands of square miles of winter feeding grounds are being ecologically decommissioned for wild yaks, which serve as the totem for the Tibetan people.”
As for the little Chilean deer, “most people know nothing of it,” Berger said, adding that they are “highly endangered,” with fewer than 3,000 left in the world. “They strike me as a beautiful cross between a kangaroo and a mountain goat, yet they are pure deer,” Berger said. “They deserve a better chance to survive than they have been dealt.”
Society needs to pay attention, even when these things are occurring in places remote to all but the most daring of scientists. “We should care because the earth is so interconnected that what happens in one place has striking and dramatic consequence in others,” Berger said. “As the Arctic warms, the Earth’s refrigeration system is altered. We see more severe storms; surges of marine water some 10 miles inland that kills fish and plants. We see extreme weather far beyond the Arctic; we see insects and mosquito-borne maladies moving north, and we see massive ecosystem alteration.
Berger has written a recently released book, Extreme Conservation, describing his adventures — and his concerns. Among other things, he urges the world to “maintain what we have and restore what we’ve lost.” To do the latter means designing, initiating and supporting reintroduction programs.
“Zoos are highly involved in re-introduction, as we see for antelopes in northern Africa, as we see and as everyone knows, for wolves into Yellowstone,” he said. “Reintroduction has also occurred for native rabbits in New England, for falcons in Europe and for bison in Europe, Canada and the United States. It is the guts of modern conservation. This said, it’s far less expensive to keep what we have already than to go through massively expensive breeding and reintroduction programs.”
“I am not saying — oh my god, the sky is falling,” he added. “What I am saying is that when we fail to look more broadly across systems and at other events — like processes — that shape the nature of our immediate and future environment, and fail to seriously understand the consequence of our change, we are going to suffer in the way Ed Abbey described the fool’s progress.”
Marlene Cimons writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture.