ACE Award for Conservation Excellence Conservation Hero Update: Joel Berger

The 'Bloody Business' of Wildlife Conservation
A veteran conservationist reckons with his career studying animals in the most extreme places on Earth.
SEP 2, 2018


In the winter of 2011, Joel Berger and his colleague Marci Johnson happened upon a ghostly Arctic death scene. Body parts and tufts of brown fur poked out of a frozen lagoon. This was all the biologists could find of a herd of 55 musk oxen they had been following.

The cause of mass mortality, they later determined, was an ice tsunami, the result of an unusual storm that slammed seawater and ice into the lagoon where the unfortunate musk oxen stood. Berger is a conservationist who works in some of the most hostile environments in the world, and he studies the enigmatic species, like musk oxen, that live there. His new book, Extreme Conservation, chronicles his career in Alaska, Siberia, Namibia, Tibet, Mongolia, and Bhutan. He is now a biologist at Colorado State University and a senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Berger also writes honestly about the trauma he fears he has caused wild animals by chasing, tranquilizing, and radio collaring them—all in the hopes of data to help the species as a whole. “Conservation can be a bloody business,” he says, “and it still is.” A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for clarity, follows.


Sarah Zhang: Your book begins with musk oxen. These creatures were once wiped out from Alaska, and there was a project to reintroduce them from Greenland beginning in the 1930s. Tell us about what happened.

Joel Berger: So the way that young musk oxen were captured is that hunters would come in and slaughter every adult [too dangerous for humans to handle] and capture the young babies, which was as traumatizing as if they were baby elephants or baby humans having their parents mowed down.


Adults were slaughtered in Greenland. Babies were captured, put on a ship, floated over to Norway. From Norway, they were put on a ship again over to the East Coast, New York and New Jersey. Put on a train—and bear in mind, this is all in the 1930s—so then, train to Seattle. Put on a boat in Seattle to a place called Seward, Alaska, and put on another train to Fairbanks. Then put on a boat on the Yukon River and floated down to the Bering Sea, then taken on another boat to this island. Then in the 1970s, put on planes again and distributed at three different sites across Alaska.


Zhang: It’s kind of remarkable that it worked!

Berger: Yeah, God. It’s pretty mind-boggling. Everybody knows the story about bison. By contrast, bison had a tragic history too, but there are about half a million bison now in America alone because of restoration. But I don’t think anybody realized how difficult it was for musk oxen. And now they’re back. So quite a history for a species that was native to Alaska, wiped out, and now they’re back.

Zhang: Obviously, we would never slaughter adults to capture babies now. But in conservation today, tranquilizing animals from a helicopter to put on a radio collar is a common practice—and this bothered you enough that you stopped doing it. Why?

Berger: Conservation can be a bloody business and it still is. That can be literal or figurative. To get certain kinds of data, it’s really important to understand where animals move and how well they survive. The best ways to do it is at times by putting radio collars on animals. During our studies working with USGS [U.S. Geological Survey] we’ve immobilized over 200 animals. But a small percentage, somewhere between 5 and 10 percent, we were unable to return the individual females to the herd. And musk oxen need herd structures much like elephants do.


These animals would wander around on their own. They would go into what we call snow holes. You can imagine a closet or a bathroom that’s maybe 10 feet long and six to eight feet tall. Those would be the equivalent to a snow hole. These solitary animals—now they’re solitary because they could not be reunited with their herd—they would go into the snow hole for up to two months. When we would go back and track those animals, we would pick up their poop and we could look at hormones in their poop and compared that to animals that were still in the herd. We found that the stress level, the cortisol levels, were like five times higher. So we know that these are sentient animals and they’re really stressed out when they can’t be with their herd mates. And this was occurring because of actions we were doing, and I was not proud of it.


A female musk ox who was separated from her herd sheltering in a snow hole. (Joel Berger)

We’re no longer longer darting and radio-collaring animals. I just find it not fair to the animals, even though we sacrifice some of the quality data that we get. Yeah there’s a cruelty factor to it, and I just want to be careful. I couldn’t look very well in the mirror, so we’re not doing that. We’re finding other ways to do this.


Zhang: So how do you study musk oxen now?

Berger: In the Arctic, there aren’t roads, and the density of animals is very low. It’s not always so easy to find animals. So when we can we will rent a small plane and fly it at reasonably high elevation so we can spot animals but not scare animals. We will record locations and I’ll come back on a snow machine. I do work in the winter because we can get around on snow machines. I hire locally, when I’m working in Alaska. I work with local people that are indigenous Alaskans. I do the same in Canada and in the northern Yukon. People who have had a history of 10,000 years on the land know it better than I do. They’re also better mechanics. So I go out on snow machines and live with people who understand the land. We camp and use little fish huts or cabins. And usually kick off the snow machines a mile or so out and go out and do observations on animals.

Zhang: One thing you study is how musk oxen react to bears. Obviously you can’t let loose a wild bear yourself, so you have decided to be the bear.


Berger: [laughs] So the quick elevator-pitch context: With less ice, we’re finding more polar bears on [continental] land or on Wrangel Island, which is this Russian island that I had the privilege to work on. We also find more grizzly bears going further north. We’re trying to figure out if musk ox can figure out how dangerous bears are. Polar bear and grizzly interactions are so rare. So when I put on my science hat, I needed a decent sample size, and the best way to garner a decent sample size is to do what’s called an experiment. I become the bear. I don a cape, a bear head, and I approach on all fours.



Zhang: Wait, what is your bear costume made of?

Berger: I try to make it lightweight, so it’s a styrofoam head covered in white fur or brown fur, depending on if it’s a polar bear or a grizzly bear. The Russians gave me a Russian sniper suit so I’m dressed in white with a bear head. In the U.S., I have a brown cape. I use ski poles as my front legs and my legs are the rears. It’s pretty exhausting. It sounds fun and crazy. It’s probably crazy. It’s not so much fun. There are tense moments, but we do get the data and our sample size is decent at this point.


Zhang: How do the musk oxen react to the “bears?”

Berger: Being a geek, so if we’re doing it with bears we also need a control. The control is a caribou because caribou don’t eat musk oxen. They graze just like musk ox eat plants. They’re nonthreatening. Now if I’m a polar bear and I’m on a snowy background, I can get pretty close because the musk ox aren’t seeing me because I’m white. But if I’m a grizzly bear on a snowy background, I’m detected at a further distance. Also, they don’t like bears, so they respond pretty vigorously. If it’s a grizzly bear, they stay in their herd and form these defensive formations and they don’t run. Because grizzly bears are pretty good runners, and grizzly bears can run up to three miles chasing, as they have done for elk and caribou. On the other hand, polar bears are not very good at chasing. So musk ox have figured that—they’ve learned that they can outrun a polar bear.


Zhang: You also work in other extreme environments like the Himalayas and the steppes of central Asia, and in many places, there is a tension between conservation goals and the livelihoods of the people who live there—like with cashmere goats.


Berger: I think most people don’t realize that 90 percent of the world’s cashmere comes from Mongolia and northern China. 90 percent. And the people who produce it are pastoralists or semi-nomadic pastoralists and they have a very challenging lifestyle. If they grow their goat herds, there’s a lot of incentive because they make money by having more goats.

So there’s a tough road because somehow this has to be balanced. But as herders increase or quadruple or go beyond the size of their flocks, goats are very good at eating everything down to the ground. There are about 10 or 12 very charismatic species that live from Ladakh in northern India across Tibet into Mongolia. Species like wild yaks, like the endangered bactrian camel, these marvelous high-elevation wild asses called kiang that live at about 15,000 feet. There are snow leopards. There are saiga antelope. There’s a wild array of species, most of which the world doesn’t know, because they are unique to that part of the world. And they’re the ones that get hammered.


Zhang: Your book focuses on hoofed mammals, which, no offense, are not the charismatic species that are the stars of conservation. What fascinates you about these animals?

Berger: A lot of animals have specific lobbies for them. Certain whales, penguins, tigers, elephants, rhinos. They have coordinated groups that support them and they need the support. That doesn’t mean some of these other species also don’t need help. Many of these species are off the radar for most people. If you stop somebody on the street and ask them about tigers, they will know tigers are having a problem. They would know polar bears are having a problem. If you mention huemul or a takin or a musk oxen, they have no clue, let alone some of the other ones. These species need a voice.


Zhang: It’s ironic that the cover of your book is a polar bear.

Berger: Yeah, and I don’t really work on polar bears. [laughs] I think that the photo offers a connotation that is a reality. The polar bear is standing on the edge of an ice field that disappears. And we see other species at the edges and that tends to be where I work. Maybe University of Chicago Press, which I love and they’re doing a great job for me and maybe this will insult them and maybe it won’t but I’m going to be transparent: They and I talked about this a little differently, and I wanted a different species. The message is not necessarily about polar bears. It’s about these other species that live on extreme places at the edge.