Finding several orphaned musk oxen less than one year old in the days following the discovery of a slaughtered herd underscores the lack of knowledge relating to these animals. The adults were beheaded, but it is unknown who did it or for what purpose. What will happen to the juveniles without adults to protect them or teach them how to survive in the Arctic tundra? Joel Berger takes the reader to unfamiliar territories – both in terrain and in conservation efforts – throughout the world as he emphasizes the challenge of studying in habitats that are inhospitable to humans but rapidly evolving due to climate change.
John Muir, noted naturalist and the “Father of the National Parks,” commented that “observation is what science is all about.” But observation is anything but easy in the environments inhabited by the species Berger chooses to study. Lack of accessibility to modern conveniences means that creativity and stamina are required to overcome the obstacles to obtaining a decent vantage point. There are no easy roads to the wild musk ox territories in Alaska, and using noisy machines such as snowmobiles and helicopters to approach them would alter their behaviors. Hiking in on foot leaves the human observer vulnerable to other dangers, such as frostbite or becoming the target of a charging male ox that weighs as much as 800 pounds. Berger discovers there are very few places to run and hide in the tundra once a male notices him in his polar bear costume collecting observational data. His quick thinking saves him when he pulls off his costume head and tosses it away from himself. The confused musk ox comes to a halt trying to process what just happened. Before he can figure it out, Berger's colleagues swoop in to rescue him in their helicopter.
One reason Berger seeks to learn about these animals in their native habitat is to study the effects of humans, particularly on large mammals. The disappearance of large mammals since the mid-1800s aligns with the increased use of firearms for hunting around the world. Some noted effects on populations due to hunting include an increase in the numbers of elephants born without tusks in Zambia in the last century (from 10% of births to 38%). Likewise, a significant decrease in the average size of horns on bighorn sheep has been noted and attributed to hunting. Sheep with smaller horns are less likely to be hunted and therefore live longer and breed more.
Observations of animal behavior have led to some interesting inferences, but Berger is quick to point out the need for – and often lack of – sufficient data before reaching conclusions. It has been observed that baboons prefer to hang out around people. Is this behavior due to increased opportunities for food, or better protection from predators, or something else entirely? Female zebras and giraffes have been observed lingering near train tracks prior to and shortly after giving birth. Moose have been observed preferring to calve near roads in the Tetons. These observations raise questions that can only be answered by further study.
Berger's approach to environmental conservation relies on gaining support from the local community, often a daunting task. “When can we shoot them?” is a common question from residents at community meetings in Alaska regarding the conservation of the musk ox, whose range became part of the national park system relatively recently – in 1980, without input from the residents whose families have lived there thousands of years. This caused resentment among the community members, making it difficult to gain their support. Economic concerns also need to be taken into account in such cases. For example, the wild yak competes with herds of domestic animals in the Tibetan Plateau for food and water that are becoming scarcer as the environment gets warmer each year. Farmers are understandably more focused on protecting grazing land for their herds than on the survival of yaks.
Clearly, Berger takes his mission to study how animals adapt to extreme environments very seriously, but he writes with humor and empathy. His storytelling is compelling. He leaves the reader amused, alarmed, and fascinated by his adventures. The need to study and protect extreme environments and the animals living there is well documented. Be glad that someone like Berger is willing to do it.