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Motherless Children in Black and White
A Pleistocene mother responsive enough to make her baby feel secure was likely to be a mother embedded in a network of supportive social relationships. Without such support, few mothers, and even fewer infants were likely to survive.
SARA BLAFFER HRDY, The Past, Present, and Future of the Human Family, 2002
The steady din of our small Cessna belies a sense of calm. Below is a wilderness frozen in time. February's windblown snow hides secrets. One is a cluster of dark objects. We bank hard for a closer look. Three ravens scatter. There are fox tracks. Then we see muskoxen.
Adults, each beheaded.
Like ghosts, the snowmobile tracks leading from them dissolve. The hunters are gone.
We don't know when the muskoxen were killed or why they are headless. The area is remote. There's no one to ask. The macabre scene plays out in my head. Who? Why? Did animals escape? If so, who were the lucky ones?
Surges of volcanic extrusions poke above shallow lakes a month later. Hexagons of ice reflect early morning light. From the air on this March morning in 2010, we're drawn to the dwarf willows below, hoping to spot a flock of ptarmigan warming in sun. Instead, the permafrost is lifeless, patterned. Mountains block the southern horizon. Only the pressure ridges of jagged ice reveal where sea begins and land ends.
This is polar desert, the edge of the continent and the edge of terrestrial life. Our search today is for its largest resident — muskoxen.
For a thousand square miles, we see nothing. Gradually, shadowy rays illuminate beige bodies, and caribou break the wintry monotony. Tracks of a wolverine appear, then vanish. There are a few trails that do not disappear, and these are snowmobile imprints. Some head to Deering, a few to Shishmaref, others to Wales; all are tiny native villages near what was once a land bridge connecting Asia to Alaska. It's now submerged below the ocean but the visible part is protected acreage known as the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve (managed by the National Park Service). The general area is often just called the Bering Land Bridge. None of these hamlets, or Alaska's other 190 remote settlements, are accessible by road, and not even by rail. Each has fewer than three hundred residents, except for Shishmaref. Its metropolis of six hundred is squeezed onto a spit against the Chukchi Sea. A step west is Siberia. To connect to the outside world, only dogsled or snow machine, boat or bush plane are available. Today we are lucky. The weather is good and we continue our aerial search.
Weeks pass. Fifty miles separate me from the carnage of the seven beheadings. I'm on a snowmobile. It's still winter and the snow cover is good, hard. The drifts are tall, the canyons navigable.
My purpose is to locate the living. I want to know whether muskoxen in this part of Alaska have a future. An answer will help me understand a broader puzzle of how warming temperatures and the loss of ice are changing prospects for species reliant on cold. Most of the world knows the plight of polar bears, but the fate of species living primarily offshore will inevitably differ in kind and magnitude from those on land.
I cross more miles of tundra. The rushing air numbs my face. My goggles fog. I warm them on my snowmobile's engine and scrape away ice flecks. Maybe now I'll spot signs of life. My thoughts return to death, to the seven guillotined. Did herd mates survive the butchery?
My ears ring from the high pitches of the droning machine. Silhouetted ahead, against a scarp a mile or so away, are black dots. Basalt? I lift frozen binoculars for a hurried look. They, too, fog. The dots move. My team of three spew blue fumes in a chase.
My heart pounds. What are they?
Closing in we see. They're not adults. Not even juveniles. They're less than a year old — terrified and alone.
Delicate brown eyes bulge, laser focused on our machines. They stand, squeezed together tightly as if hoping to be cradled by mothers who are nowhere around. Steam rises from their overheated bodies. We count them. The number is seven.
Unbelievable — precisely the same as the beheaded corpses fifty miles away. What becomes of motherless children, their psyches, their fates?
High latitudes are special. Every place is, of course. But nowhere are changes in Earth's atmosphere and oceans more dramatic than at the poles. They are literally the refrigeration system for the planet. As the Arctic continues to release more heat to space than it absorbs, the planet's climate will continue to modify, and the Arctic will continue its rapid pace of warming. To dismiss understanding Arctic conditions because they are just too distant, or because most people will never see its wildlife or people, is a mistake. The poles herald our biological world at lower latitude: less ice, more warming, more carbon dioxide, storms of higher intensity, and greater erosion of shorelines.
The challenges are vast and pressing, especially if we care to understand wildlife and people, neither of which can easily be detached from a challenging future. Are the ambient changes at the poles and elsewhere occurring faster than species' capacities to evolve? Can species persist in the advent of radical climate change? What, if any, conservation tactics can effectively be applied? I'm here to explore these issues using animals from the edge — high latitudes and high elevations and a few in between — beginning with muskoxen in a place that once was an immense link connecting two continents. It's called Beringia, a two thousand–mile-wide stretch north to south and an area even longer east to west. It lies at the northern juncture of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. The terra firma that once connected Asia to North America was literally a bridge. This land enabled human travel between Asia and North America twelve to fourteen thousand years ago; its crossing was regulated by temperature and arbitrated by ice sheets. Water was released or frozen as sea and glacial ice grew or faded across time. With melting, seas grew deeper; as temperatures turned colder, the seas became shallower. The land bridge opened or submerged. Today it's under water, and most of it has been for more than ten thousand years.
Three years before the decapitations, in spring 2007, I was in a small bush plane north of the Arctic village of Kotzebue, which is an enclave of indigenous Alaskans along the Chukchi Sea. My goal was to find a study area for muskoxen, a species extirpated from Alaska by humans more than a century earlier. They had since been reintroduced.
From the air, I'm circling a group of black dots where the Brooks Range peters out near the frozen ocean. Several additional herds are nearby in Cape Krusenstern National Monument. I've seen enough. A study may be feasible. We touch down on the small airstrip back in "Kotz," and I hustle over to monument headquarters. A government employee greets me.
"Why do you want to fuck around with them muskox?" asks Willie Goodwin Jr., ex-mayor and respected Inupiat elder. I don't understand the question. I expected a grin. There is none.
The prevailing wisdom in the area is that muskoxen compete with and displace caribou. Only a few years earlier, the antlered deer numbered nearly half a million in western Arctic Alaska. In this roadless realm the size of Montana, caribou are sustenance. Neither Willie nor his kin who had settled the region less than five hundred generations ago now had cultural or other ties to muskoxen. Memories are short and people didn't recall the wooly beasts. For Willie and other residents of Arctic Alaska, food security is caribou and sea mammals.
"Muskoxen are just not liked, and can be dangerous. They scare women from berry picking. They chase dogs." Willie had valid points. An additional one rings loudest.
"No one ever bothered to ask us, not when muskoxen were brought back to Alaska, and not now, whether we — the people — had wanted them. It was our land. No one asked."
The Arctic is relevant, and not just because of its climate or global reach. Nor is it just the economic potential of minerals and petroleum products, or even opening its waters for shipping as the sea ice recesses; this last is something akin to the commerce that passes through the Suez or the Panama Canals, though these are all issues of sovereignty. The reason for its relevance to the rest of the world has more to do with biology than dollars.
Among the species of western Alaska that veer into eastern Asia is a bewildering array of fellow mammals. Eleven occur on land, twenty-nine in the sea; one uses land and sea. This quantity of cold-adapted warm bodies exceeds the number of large mammals in Serengeti's diverse tropical brigade. Among the polar land menagerie is the sole species limited to the Asian side, snow sheep. These are graceful but virtually unknown mountain beauties. Restricted to Arctic America are coyotes, black bears, and Dall sheep, although each barely spreads onto Beringia's surface; the bulk of their distributions extend farther south. Inhabiting both the Russian and American sides are moose, muskoxen, and caribou. So do brown bears, lynx, wolves, and wolverines. Polar bears are also in both countries, and live on land and water; as marine mammals, they survive by eating bearded, ribbon, ringed, and spotted seals, all of which also live on both sides of Beringia. The true megabeasts are whales — the bowheads, North Pacific rights, finbacks, blues, and humpbacks. There are herds of walrus and pods of orcas. Human hunters work both land and sea, just as they have for thousands of years.
Beyond a handful of better-known species like bowhead whales, caribou, and polar bears, much of the northern bio-treasures remain off the world's radar. But not so for higher-latitude human residents. Their appetizing fare carries Inupiaq names: sisuaq for beluga, ugruk for bearded seal, and inconnnu for sheefish. Others items remain unnamed, small birds among them. They're not food.
There are other species as well. Nearly half the world's shorebirds migrate to the Arctic. Eighty percent of the world's goose populations visit. Birds like northern wheateaters fly from East Africa; short-tailed shearwaters arrive from the Tasman Sea, and golden plovers from the tip of South America. More than 275 species are Arctic migrants.
My pressing concern with my muskoxen project is aerial, not avian. It's about helicopters and radio frequencies and GPS collars. To study muskoxen, it's all about logistics — research design, data collection, personnel, and safety. Conundrums are many. How many collars are necessary? How will animals respond when tranquilized? Will herd mates defend or abandon their immobilized friends? If they bolt, can we reunite them? Or, do we heartlessly create orphans?
Might those orphans walk fifty miles?
As it turns out, it wasn't the logistics that haunted me. It was seven orphans.CHAPTER 2
Modern humans have followed climate and wildlife since time immemorial. [As] cave paintings and [petro]glyphs of Africa and Eurasia indicate, humans and wildlife have been painfully but inextricably connected from our first cultural moments . . . beginning in the late Quaternary.
STEVEN E. SANDERSON, foreword to The Better to Eat You With, 2008
On an April morning in 2008, the frozen tundra is silent. Rivers and lagoons retain ice two feet thick. The tops of Igichuk Hills rise several thousand feet above the tilting coastal plain, a windswept crown exposing pure rock and desert pavement. Lichen, saxifrage, and moss grace the ridges below. Willows and dwarf alder line river bottoms.
Muskoxen must be somewhere nearby. They're my doorway to the warming world in the domain known as Cape Krusenstern, the national monument mentioned earlier and named for Adam Johann Krusenstern of Russian naval exploits in the late eighteenth century. I'm again traveling by snowmobile. My study has been approved. The snow is spotty; it's deep in some spots, sublimated in others — like ice that's shrunk in the freezer, except here it's just gone.
My team and I inch up steep hills. We navigate Igichuk's abrupt slopes and a few knife-edge cornices. There are no animals. We backtrack but become mired in snow. With shovels and a winch we dig out, only to reach another plateau. Feces come into sight, so we know that herds must have camped here for weeks.
Dark humps break a ridgeline and disappear. We kill engines and approach by foot. A dozen muskoxen are feeding. An item at their feet catches our attention; it's a calf, the umbilicus still attached. The mother sniffs her valued prize. Two emboldened youngsters, a couple of years senior to the newborn, investigate. A lowered head with horns thwarts their approach. The baby isn't more than a couple of hours old.
Ejection from a warm womb into a cold and often snow-laden environment must jolt the system. Today is Earth Day. The wind and cold combine to render the effective temperature 0°F.
Baby muskoxen tolerate temperatures to -20°F. Born with a heavy layer of brown fat, neonates (newborns) are covered with underwool known as qiviut. Finer than cashmere and some eight times warmer than sheep wool, its insulating quality coupled with a calf's high metabolic heat prevents hypothermia. Over generations, the infirm have been weeded out, in spite of careful mothering.
Herd structure, especially the presence of large males, is another feature that improves a baby's survival. One of these males now decides we shouldn't be so near, followed by two females. They stand motionless, their beady eyes staring, with head and horns held steady.
Though being a juvenile is tough enough, being an orphan is worse. As long as the mother is present, a juvenile will more easily survive and perhaps carry on to have their own young. Darwin was pragmatic about parental role: "Maternal love or maternal hatred, though the latter fortunately is most rare, is all the same to the inexorable principle of natural selection."
Two years later, I am wondering about calves, especially the psychological and cultural impacts of maternal deprivation. The decapitations and the orphans dog me. They will continue to, because even by 2017 the mystery remains unsolved.
In about 1720, French fur trappers saw dark, wooly, humped animals in the low-lying barrens of northern Canada. They called these beasts boeufs musquez. A full century before, in 1619, early inhabitants of New France — that is, parts of central and northeastern North America — reported a forest bison, a large hairy ox that they termed le bouef. Just as Alaskan Inupiat name their edibles, the French, too, used a collective label — beef, steak, or meat. Le bouef was bison. Boeufs musquez literally were "musk cattle." Though neither ox nor makers of musk, they, too, were likely tasty.
Bison and muskoxen shared the qualities of largeness, hairiness, and darkness. Each also became perilously close to extirpation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The bison case is well known. That of the Alaskan muskoxen is not. The animal's range is broad, and the lands inhabited more onerous. Five countries — Russia, Greenland, Norway, Canada, and the United States — were involved, and boats, trains, and planes were essential to its rescue.
The story of relevant northern mammal extirpation begins four to five hundred years ago in the Atlantic Ocean. The story is the same in the Pacific — just the details differ. The species were whales — notably the blue, fin, humpback, and minke; also, the sperm, gray, and North Pacific right whales were mercilessly hunted. Even during the last hundred fifty years, these were the major catches in the northern Pacific. The narrative is simple and unchanged across five centuries. It's a human story.
People need energy and food. People want profit. Centuries ago, whale blubber and oil generated light and warmth, augmenting candles and heating options for European settlers. Actually, long before that and for thousands of years, Arctic peoples used the products of cetaceans to survive. But with Europeans, a commodity-driven search became increasingly economic. The issue of relevance here, though, is not the whales or their products but their pursuers, the whalers. The munitions that arrived with whalers are what is pertinent to the muskoxen story.
When sailors, and later ethnographers, touched Alaskan shores between the 1820s and 1850s, muskoxen were at low densities. Otto von Kotzebue, sailing under the Russian flag in the 1820s, noted Siberian products had arrived in Alaska, yet guns were unknown. A century would pass until Irving Reed, in 1946, formalized the connections between weapons and wildlife: "It would seem that muskoxen had been ... on the Arctic plains of northern Alaska up to 1847 when the first whaling ships reached Pt. Barrow. ... The demand for the hides and the furnishing of the natives with fire-arms, led to the quick extermination of the two native herbivores — first the much more easily killed and less prolific muskox." The preceding century had seen the introduction of guns with the arrival of whalers, and the resulting effect on some wildlife species was quickly seen.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Extreme Conservation"
Copyright © 2018 Joel Berger.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
Part I At the Intersection of Continents—Beringia’s Silent Bestiary 1 Motherless Children in Black and White 2 Before Now 3 Beyond Arctic Wind 4 Where Worlds Collide 5 Muskoxen in Ice 6 When the Snow Turns to Rain
Part II Sentinels of Tibetan Plateau 7 Below the Margins of Glaciers 8 The Ethereal Yak 9 Birthplace of Angry Gods
Part III Gobi Ghosts, Himalayan Shadows 10 Counting for Conservation 11 To Kill a Saiga 12 Victims of Fashion 13 In the Valley of Takin 14 Pavilions where Snow Dragons Hide
Part IV Adapt, Move, or Die 15 The Struggle for Existence 16 A Postapocalyptic World—Vrangel 17 Nyima
Postscript Acknowledgments Readings of Interest Index