Extreme Conservation: Life at the Edges of the World

University of Chicago Press
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"Extraordinary. . . . Berger is a hero of biology who deserves the highest honors that science can bestow."—Tim Flannery, New York Review of Books

On the Tibetan Plateau, there are wild yaks with blood cells thinner than those of 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 for the change. 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 par excellence. 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.
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About the author

Joel Berger is the Barbara Cox Anthony University Chair in 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.
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Additional Information

Publisher
University of Chicago Press
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Published on
Aug 2, 2018
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Pages
368
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ISBN
9780226366432
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Language
English
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Genres
Nature / Endangered Species
Science / General
Science / Life Sciences / Zoology / General
Travel / Special Interest / Ecotourism
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Content Protection
This content is DRM protected.
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Available on Android devices
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Eligible for Family Library

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At dawn on a brutally cold January morning, Joel Berger crouched in the icy grandeur of the Teton Range. It had been three years since wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone after a sixty-year absence, and members of a wolf pack were approaching a herd of elk. To Berger’s utter shock, the elk ignored the wolves as they went in for the kill. The brutal attack that followed—swift and bloody—led Berger to hypothesize that after only six decades, the elk had forgotten to fear a species that had survived by eating them for hundreds of millennia.

Berger’s fieldwork that frigid day raised important questions that would require years of travel and research to answer: Can naive animals avoid extinction when they encounter reintroduced carnivores? To what extent is fear culturally transmitted? And how can a better understanding of current predator-prey behavior help demystify past extinctions and inform future conservation?

The Better to Eat You With is the chronicle of Berger’s search for answers. From Yellowstone’s elk and wolves to rhinos living with African lions and moose coexisting with tigers and bears in Asia, Berger tracks cultures of fear in animals across continents and climates, engaging readers with a stimulating combination of natural history, personal experience, and conservation. Whether battling bureaucracy in the statehouse or fighting subzero wind chills in the field, Berger puts himself in the middle of the action. The Better to Eat You With invites readers to join him there. The thrilling tales he tells reveal a great deal not only about survival in the animal kingdom but also the process of doing science in foreboding conditions and hostile environments.
It’s December 1997, and a man-eating tiger is on the prowl outside a remote village in Russia’s Far East. The tiger isn’t just killing people, it’s annihilating them, and a team of men and their dogs must hunt it on foot through the forest in the brutal cold. As the trackers sift through the gruesome remains of the victims, they discover that these attacks aren’t random: the tiger is apparently engaged in a vendetta. Injured, starving, and extremely dangerous, the tiger must be found before it strikes again.

As he re-creates these extraordinary events, John Vaillant gives us an unforgettable portrait of this spectacularly beautiful and mysterious region. We meet the native tribes who for centuries have worshipped and lived alongside tigers, even sharing their kills with them. We witness the arrival of Russian settlers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, soldiers and hunters who greatly diminished the tiger populations. And we come to know their descendants, who, crushed by poverty, have turned to poaching and further upset the natural balance of the region.

This ancient, tenuous relationship between man and predator is at the very heart of this remarkable book. Throughout we encounter surprising theories of how humans and tigers may have evolved to coexist, how we may have developed as scavengers rather than hunters, and how early Homo sapiens may have fit seamlessly into the tiger’s ecosystem. Above all, we come to understand the endangered Siberian tiger, a highly intelligent super-predator that can grow to ten feet long, weigh more than six hundred pounds, and range daily over vast territories of forest and mountain.

Beautifully written and deeply informative, The Tiger circles around three main characters: Vladimir Markov, a poacher killed by the tiger; Yuri Trush, the lead tracker; and the tiger himself. It is an absolutely gripping tale of man and nature that leads inexorably to a final showdown in a clearing deep in the taiga.
The black rhino is nature's tank, feared by all animals. Even lions will break off a hunt to detour around one. And yet the black rhino is on the edge of extinction, its numbers dwindling from 100,000 at the turn of the century, to less than 2,500 today. The reason is that in places like Yemen, China, Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, the rhino's horn is more valuable than gold, so valuable that people will risk their lives to harvest it. To deter rhino poachers, African governments have spent millions--on helicopters, paramilitary operations, fences and guard dogs, even relocation to protected areas. Finally, Namibia decided to dehorn its rhino population, in a last ditch effort to stop the slaughter. In 1991, Carol Cunningham and Joel Berger, and their eighteen-month-old daughter Sonja, went to Namibia to weigh the effects of dehorning on rhinos. In Horn of Darkness, they tell the story of three years in the Namib Desert, studying Africa's last sizable population of free-roaming black rhinos. This is the closest most readers will come to experiencing life in the remaining wilds of Africa. Cunningham and Berger, writing alternate chapters, capture what it is like to leave the comforts of civilization, to camp for months at a time in a land filled with deadly predators, to study an animal that is reclusive, unpredictable, and highly dangerous. The authors describe staking out water holes in the dead of the night, creeping to within twenty-seven meters of rhinos to photograph them, all the while keeping a lookout for hyenas, elephants, and lions. They recount many heart-pounding escapes--one rhino forces Carol Cunningham up a tree, an unseen lion in hot pursuit of hyenas races right past a frozen Joel Berger--and capture the adrenaline rush of inching closer to a rhino that might flee--or charge--at any moment. They also give readers a clear sense of the careful, patient work involved in studying animals, the frustration of long days without finding rhinos or seeing other people, coping with heat and thirst (the Namib desert is one of the driest on Earth), with dirt and insects, driving hundreds of kilometers in a Land Rover packed to capacity, slowing amassing records on one hundred individual rhinos over the course of several years. And perhaps most important, the authors reveal that the data they collected suggests that the dehorning project might backfire--that in the four years after dehorning began, calf survival was down (the evidence suggests that hyenas might be preying on calves and the hornless mothers couldn't defend their offspring). They also describe the dark side of scientific work, from the petty jealousy of other scientists--outside researchers were often seen as ecological imperialists--to the controversy that erupted after the authors published their findings, as furious officials of the Namibian conservation program denounced their findings and through delays and other tactics effectively withheld a permit to allow the couple to continue their study. Weaving together the historical accounts of other naturalists, a vividly detailed look at life in the wild, and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of scientific work and the dark side of the conservation movement, Horn of Darkness is destined to be a classic work on the natural world.
WINNER OF THE 2017 NASW SCIENCE IN SOCIETY JOURNALISM AWARD
A FINALIST FOR THE 2017 PEN/E. O. WILSON LITERARY SCIENCE WRITING AWARD
LONGLISTED FOR THE ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL FOR EXCELLENCE
A LIBRARY JOURNAL BEST SCIENCE BOOK OF THE YEAR

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