Wild Conservation

A Conversation with Dr. Joel Berger

Though his methods could be deemed by some as eccentric or unorthodox Dr. Joel Berger, a professor of conservation biology at Colorado State University, knows extreme measures have to be taken to save our fragile planet and its inhabitants. Berger has dedicated his career to conserving wildlife in extreme environments accompanied by daring field tactics like dressing up as a polar bear to find out if muskoxen are afraid of polar bears, pretty extreme, right? Berger who is also a senior scientist at Wildlife Conservation Society has deemed himself an “extreme conservationist,” or one who edges out in hostile environments to endure nature’s extremes all in an effort to save species. Berger’s resolute purpose is to endure the sacrifice that nature demands of us – action.

When the Indianapolis Prize caught up with the former Prize Finalist, Berger detailed his career in conservation, the transition to studying lesser-known species and what it means to be a Finalist of the Indianapolis Prize.

Indianapolis Prize: I love that you are not just an observer in the field. Can you explain how your field tactics evolved to where you are now?

Dr. Berger: We can’t really save animals unless we understand them. And one of the ways to understand them and their needs is to try to see through their eyes. If we can’t see through the eyes of animals, and if we only look at the world through our eyes, we’re not going to succeed.

Remarkably and sadly, as we go forward fewer and fewer people get on the ground to understand animals because we use satellites, we’re on our computers. And so that’s the first part. The second part which is more of a one-liner is if we can’t work with local people to make this happen, then why do we do this? Because it can’t just be top-down.

Indianapolis Prize: Your career has focused on climate change and its impacts. Are you seeing any positive changes in climate change action?

Dr. Berger: So in terms of communicating what’s positive, there’s a lot of progress. I mean, there are a lot of reasons that it’s like, oh my God, we give up. It’s overwhelming. But no, giving up would be such a mistake. We’ve got tigers that have expanded in India outside their formal protected areas. It’s still illegal to kill tigers, but we’ve got tigers in agricultural lands. We’ve built up rhinos in Nepal from populations that were maybe 50 to 100 animals to several hundred across the last four decades. We’ve got condors, which were only in captivity in the late 1980s. Now they’re in five states of the United States, plus Mexico. So, there are a lot of different things in movement-protected corridors and migration routes. Oh, my goodness. You go to the year 2000, nobody was talking about that. The U.S. has a federally protected migration corridor. Kenya is doing that. The state of Florida has passed legislation to create corridors that connect populations that are getting cut off because of us, but also because of some climate issues. But, you know, if we can’t sustain the life support systems for animals, it’s not going to work.

Indianapolis Prize: What inspired the transition from working with muskoxen, to what some would say are “less charismatic” species?

Dr. Berger: I loved working on muskoxen and I didn’t want to leave the muskoxen realm. Part of it was because I was arrested in Russia and so I couldn’t get back into Russia to continue the work. And it was just like, muskoxen are getting all this attention and are starting to get on the radar. But the poles are the heart of the Arctic and one of the ways that I thought would make logical sense is continuing to work with Arctic ice and species at the edge of the ice.

Indianapolis Prize: What are the challenges of learning about animals that are in the shadows of glaciers and living in ice with reduced populations?

Dr. Berger: When any species is of a really low density, they’re hard to find. And this species happens to live in the shadows of ice. It’s down in Patagonia, where as soon as you get on land, everything is a massive rainforest, you know, so it’s really tough. On my first go-round down there, we did find Huemul and we were able to capture data on them since it was a leave no footprints and no collaring zone. We know that as glaciers recede upward, it exposes more land and more vegetation. And so, we’re doing something comparative and we want to know if the loss of glaciers is benefiting Huemul. Or maybe it’s just neutral. So, there may be some positive signs in this rather than the doom and gloom we often hear.

Indianapolis Prize: How do you recommend we balance the needs of the individual, government organizations and private industries to better animal conservation?

Dr. Berger: We need to bring people to the table and engage more in serious discussions. Second, there are clear leaders in business who are making steps in the right direction. I mean, I think about some corporations that are super serious about reducing some of their capital gains so that we can protect nature and continue our work. My third point is to have better and more effective communication with the public. We need to find ways to dampen our bigger footprint and to get more people who care involved in conservation.

Indianapolis Prize: When you’re establishing marine or terrestrial protected areas, how are we as humans respecting not only the animals but the environment that’s surrounding the areas?

Dr. Berger: Working with people to try to solve this is important. You know, some people call it education, some people call it training and some are just trying to understand this issue. When I’ve lived remote, you know where I can walk out and a rhino would kill me or a polar bear, you look around, and it’s just like, ok, I’ll go out, but I need to be careful. We don’t think about that. But if we want a future for wildlife, we need to kind of lower the tone and look around and be a little bit more vigilant. I mean when you go to some dangerous areas and cities and what do we do? We walk in groups. It’s a little bit more daylight and nighttime. Perhaps, you know, there are things we do differently and things we should think about in the same way.

Indianapolis Prize: What do you believe are the roles of zoos, aquariums, organizations, and NGOs in promoting conservation?

Dr. Berger: Well, I’ll just make it simple, there’s the duality, fascination and inspiration that come from zoos. I learned so much when I go to zoos, zoos capture that fascination at every age. So that’s the first in that capturing the fascination and supporting it and inspiring people to think. And there are, you know, numerous zoos that are leading the way in conservation, and you guys (Indianapolis Zoo) kind of picked up the heavy lifting on this 10 or 15 years ago. And so that’s my second point; inspiration, curiosity with the collections, and then at times there are reintroductions that come from zoos, training that come from zoos, intellectual insights. So, you know, some people would claim I’m biased and while I am, I admit it but you can’t deny that zoos bring excitement about animal species and conservation to the public. It’s all phenomenal.

Indianapolis Prize: Are you inspired by your fellow Prize Finalists and Winners?

Dr.Berger: The Finalists and Winners of the Indianapolis Prize all deserve to be where they are through massive commitment. When I look across the Prize Winners, Finalists and Nominees, yeah, their lives are on the line. Many have been super remote; many have been threatened and many have been in queues working to save species. The Prize Nominees are trying because we need to. The animals need a voice.

Indianapolis Prize: You’ve been to Indianapolis in the past for previous Indianapolis Prize galas.  Is there a moment that stands out to you?

Dr.Berger: There are just too many. What stands out still is probably the shared enthusiasm, the sharing of interests with fellow Prize Nominees, the sparkle in the eyes of people of varying generations at the special event and meeting dedicated people who are still doing the work to save animals and still hold hope. Indianapolis is doing the work to save species and I’m proud to be listed among some of the great names in animal conservation.