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Axel's Ark

Conservationist Axel Moehrenschlager believes in the team approach to saving species — especially when that species is human.

Dr. Axel Moehrenschlager was trying to get hold of me. More precisely, I was trying to get hold of him. But he was on yet another call to some African outpost and they were constantly being disconnected. Now our own oft-postponed phone date might be another hour or so I heard via email. Not to worry — I knew Axel is a busy guy.

It had actually taken nine months to arrange this 2014 phone call. In that time Axel had travelled the globe to meet, speak, collaborate, and share his considerable expertise on the captive breeding and reintroduction of endangered animal species with groups on several continents; he had received awards and been named co-chair of the Reintroduction Specialist Group under the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN); and he had continued to oversee an active stable of graduate students and technicians between his post as Adjunct Professor at the University of Calgary and the Centre for Conservation Research (CCR) he founded at the Calgary Zoo, the waterlogged latter having to be moved during the great flood of June 2013. He's a veritable one-man ark and finding time to talk about all of this amidst all of that had been tricky for both of us, so a few more minutes wouldn't hurt.

It had also been difficult to connect with Axel because he was avoiding me — or at least my mission of profiling one of Canada's most decorated conservationists. He is the kind of person that eschews such attention, I soon learned, not because he is shy, understated or quiet (he is all three), but because in his heart he's a team player, something that defines his approach to the controversial and politically charged branch of conservation known as "restoration ecology," under whose rubric reintroduction dwells. Deft deflection was something Axel did well — especially when the magnifying glass got too close.

"With so much going on and everyone around me having legitimate needs and demands, I couldn't feel right engaging in something that was just about me," he fessed up when we finally spoke, adding, with typical humility: "On the one hand I know I've been incredibly elusive, but on the other I want you to know that I'm grateful and flattered. I think this helps our cause."

Fair enough. Originally I'd imagined profiling a man in action — joining Axel in the field, perhaps to look in on the swift foxes or black-footed ferrets that he helped wrest from the brink of extinction, or maybe to tour CCR's breeding facilities for endangered Vancouver Island marmot and whooping crane. Given that it was January on the Prairies, however, the prospect seemed unlikely. But Dr. Moehrenschlager had proved both magnanimous and resourceful.

"Do you know that the greater sage-grouse is almost extinct in Canada?" he asked.

I did, in fact, because the federal government had recently and very publicly been forced by the courts to uphold its until-then-shirked responsibility under the Species at Risk Act and issue an emergency order to protect sage-grouse on 1,700 sq km of Crown land in Alberta and Saskatchewan. "We're hosting a workshop focused on saving it next week — you could come."

The high-stakes synod

The -20C morning walk from Calgary's LRT line to the zoo's spacious Enmax Conservatory and Gardens was brumal beauty defined: ice-crystals condensing over the river swam through a fuchsia sunrise that glowed behind a palisade of snow-clad trees. The zoo was silent and empty, echoing the lengthy closure required to clean up from the previous summer's inundation, when animal-care staff had only eight hours to move hundreds of critters to safe haven. I entered through the main door, trading breezy winter for humid tropics and banana leaves overhead. Once past the greenery, however, my bucolic stroll gave way to a high-stakes synod.

In a meeting room of wood-panelled Nordic chic, where dire PowerPoints were already queuing on a pull-down screen, a clutch of people shook hands and chatted amiably. Although exuding seriousness, most were also smiling; after all, they were there to do the two things scientists enjoyed best — share expertise and solve problems. The small but diverse cross-section of Canadian and American academics, captive-breeding and grouse specialists, government species-at-risk biologists, natural resource managers, parks representatives, ranchers, and token industry reps totalled about 40 — ominously exceeding the number of greater sage-grouse males left in the wild in Canada. Over the past quarter-century the species had declined by a perilous 98 per cent, leaving an estimated 130 or so birds in two isolated populations.

Circulating through the group with the air of a gracious host, Axel wasn't hard to spot. Tall, with moppish chestnut hair framing features as soft and reassuring as his voice, Axel's brown suede suit jacket over black shirt and pants seemed more film festival than naturalist — certainly less casual than the dominant khaki-and-plaid motif of the group. Soon enough we took our seats and Axel took over, introducing the meeting, key zoo people, and other participants. Kathy Traylor-Holzer from the IUCN Conservation Breeding Specialist Group went over the workshop process. CBSG's mission is to increase effectiveness of conservation efforts worldwide (the importance of reducing wasted effort in a milieu of limited resources and money cannot be overstated) and Kathy's group was there to help guide the decision-making process. To that end she issued a mother-like edict that the Wi-Fi password would not be revealed until lunch so that people would pay attention. This had been my first hint that the IUCN species recovery strategy process was very structured; the second was a CBSG Working Agreement that espoused leaving personal and institutional agendas behind to seek common goals through open discussion, participation and mutual respect. Impressive, but without access to Instagram or Twitter how could I share with the world this mad experiment in corralling human behaviour?

Instead, as intended, I paid attention. The schedule was presentations followed by group discussions. Axel took the podium first to run through the new IUCN reintroduction guidelines he had helped conceive. It offered a fascinating insight into his world.

Reintroductions have been occurring for over a century. There are many reasons to move species around but the primary imperative is conservation, with different subcategories aimed at achieving different conservation ends: reintroduction is the intentional release of an organism inside an indigenous range from which it has disappeared (e.g. burrowing owl); reinforcement is release into an existing population of the same species (e.g. mountain caribou); assisted colonization moves an organism outside its indigenous range to suitable foreign habitat to avoid extinction; and ecological replacement is release outside of an indigenous range to perform an ecological function (e.g. sending bison back to the Russian steppe after a 30,000-year absence). Naturally, each comes with an equal range of associated risk: to source populations (e.g., egg removal); local ecosystems (e.g., invasion, disease); from gene escape or mixing; and from socio-economic impact.

At issue that day, of course, was which of these was relevant to the sage-grouse, and Axel delivered the information in an even, measured tone. He was erudite and precise, calm and thoughtful; despite clearly having invested much thinking on each topic, he was prepared to mete out his conclusions only when and where appropriate. Undisguised by the inevitable conservo-jargon and technical considerations were his passion for animal welfare (the subject of many of his academic collaborations) and the human impacts of the work. Taken together, these divined a hard-won personal manifesto.

"I started out studying a wide spectrum of species' ecology for management recovery strategies, but learned that addressing biological needs often isn't the fundamental game-changer," he explained to me. "What is critical is that people and organizations that yield influence and power over species and ecosystems embrace the process of trying to save nature. Conservation is about advocating the value that nature is important and that species should not be lost; they provide services we depend on, and we're culturally richer knowing a species can persist rather than go extinct. But because we humans have competing economic values in taking care of our families and geopolitical entities, conservation can only be done properly if all the social ramifications of either action or inaction are considered."

As is so often the case, inaction had charted a course for the sage-grouse, forcing action onto the table.

When, on Day 2, participants broke into topical working groups, Axel naturally took up with the "translocations" table — despite being frequently pulled aside by facilitators and those heading other groups to build bridges and engineer compromise like a consummate politician. Politics, of course, was indeed part of the conservation game. This workshop was happening only because money was suddenly available to save the sage-grouse. Prior, Axel had been clear that no such conclave would proceed for hypothetical reasons: a conjoint promise of $4.2 million for recovery efforts from the feds and Alberta made it a reality.

Given the obvious conflicts between government and conservation — particularly in the case of sage-grouse, whose habitat has largely been usurped by oil and gas interests — I'd asked Axel what could be said to sway a politician on the topic? "Canada has half a per cent of the world's human population but maybe 20 per cent of the planet's remaining wild areas. If we lose iconic species here, in one of the supposed best and richest countries, we have no right to ask people in poorer countries to save species we claim to cherish — like elephants, lions and orangutans," he'd argued. "If the Vancouver Island marmot or greater sage-grouse disappear because of lack of will or dedication, it puts Canada in a fundamentally difficult position in terms of conservation."

It was convincing, and I'd suppressed the urge to reach for my wallet.

With its myriad interests, tight scheduling, and focused blue-skying (oxymoronic but effective), the workshop was looking more like a corporate management retreat than what I was used to in science. But I had already learned three things: saving species was an incredibly complicated business, made more so by the egotistic primates involved; it required knowledge, creativity, skill and open-mindedness to navigate the myriad issues let alone conceive and implement a plan; and, without a hint of stress, Axel orchestrated the lot.

Axel's story

Originally from Germany, Axel had done his undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta and had a chance to work on conservation issues there. He arrived back in the province in 1994 via the University of Oxford, working on a doctorate concerning the decade-long reintroduction of swift foxes, at the time Canada's most endangered carnivore. After some early challenges, he'd made great strides in understanding critical aspects of the animal's biology and population ecology, enough to halt reintroductions in 1997 to see if the species could be self-sustaining. It was, resulting in its federal downlisting in 2012 from endangered to threatened. (Downlisting is rare — the last time it had happened in Canada was with the peregrine falcon, though it has since occurred with the Pacific humpback whale.) Although he'd never been to the facility, while living back in England Axel was encouraged to apply for the job of Conservation Research Coordinator at the Calgary Zoo; his eventual hiring was good news for endangered Prairie species, though not the smoothest of rides.

"I took the job under the expectation there was money to start a research initiative," said Axel, "but it wasn't the case. I spent the first three years trying to fund a research program, but it was taking up too much time so I adopted a different strategy." In 2003 he bundled his expertise in swift foxes with the zoo's existing captive-breeding program for marmots and whooping cranes, and went after outside money. He leveraged $217,000 from a family foundation and brought Calgary-based Husky Energy on board with another $200,000 to launch the Husky Energy Endangered Species Program.

There have since been two renewals, the last $1.25 million over five years. With the CCR running 80 per cent on external funding, Axel went from being effective in conservation to being equally effective in generating funds and resources, and feeling that the relationships were mutually beneficial. "Companies want engagement — lunchtime talks and things that make employees feel they're doing more than their everyday jobs, that they're doing good things."

Hard-core environmentalists see such partnerships differently. In a world where virtually every interest is willing to take any money offered, what was the difference between legitimate social license and corporate licentiousness? "If we encountered a situation where we felt we would accomplish more for nature by not taking the money, then we wouldn't cross that line. There has to be an ethos," allowed Axel.

Indeed, and Axel was both pragmatic and realistic when that ethos involved the needs and desires of individuals, whether in a boardroom or on the ground in the third world. "The other portfolio we're engaged in is community-based conservation. This approach tries to rectify an incredibly difficult reality: that we're in a mass-extinction crisis and that we also have overwhelming and increasing poverty due to population growth."

There was no getting around that fact: Earth's seven billion population is projected to hit 9.3 billion by 2050. "On a planet of finite size you can't just exclude people from wild places. The colonial approach was to create national parks as hunting reserves for the rich. But it isn't fair to disconnect people who surround wild places from the resources within them. And pitting people against nature doesn't work — especially where fundamental needs like food, shelter and clean water aren't being met. We try to engage in situations where we accommodate these needs."

Like saving hippos in Ghana, preserving a mutli-ton animal amidst the greatest bushmeat crisis in the world. A mix of tribes with different languages and religions work together to protect hippos and their habitat and in exchange receive water, sanitation, schools and economic initiatives. Canada presents a contrary situation: how do we save species in a country without many individual needs where the only competing interest is money?

"The Prairies are one of the largest, most impacted ecosystems in Canada and have been since colonization. I'm European, but I know that to 'win the West' you had to win against nature in many ways, and we should be thankful for that," Axel had said during one of our frequent workshop chats. "But even 40 years ago science recognized we were having a significant impact on the planet, certainly in terms of extinctions. So yes, there could have been more done to protect habitat — but that doesn't mean excluding people. As an example, swift foxes, burrowing owls, and greater sage-grouse all do well in a ranching situation if managed correctly."

It was a perfect segue back to the sage-grouse workshop, a model for how Axel believed such outcomes could be achieved. "When people with different fears and dreams focus on a common cause in a respectful, professional, strategic manner, you create a shockingly powerful and effective group. The other model — people sitting in individual silos working on a little slice of the problem — is difficult, inefficient, and ultimately fails to achieve results."

From exhibition to preservation — the changing zoo

During a break on the second day I took a walk. With Alberta's famous Chinook winds on full blast, the temperature had bumped up to 10C and the zoo's six Amur tigers were out lolling in the sun: an 18 year-old female and her son in one enclosure; his mate and their daughter in another (like a TV sitcom, mom and mother-in-law hate each other); and, in a third area, two young males bound for Winnipeg the next day, perhaps to eventually join the global captive-breeding collective.

Like many who loved zoos as a child for the distant world they delivered, as an adult I'd soured on them, disenchanted by the sight of animals in cages. And yet zoos' function had clearly shifted from exhibition to preservation, conservation and education. By way of example, the arresting orange, black and white faces of the tigers before me answered the evolutionary question of how to hide a large apex predator in a jungle, conjuring for viewers the chiaroscuro habitat that cribbed those patterns from an ancient genetic palette. But their conspicuousness on a sunny day in Calgary also conjured the non-habitat where such faces find no refuge — the holes in those jungles that now far exceed the areas of remaining forest.

This, I realized, was the real value of the CCR's work. Whatever you thought of captivity, annual visitation at the Calgary Zoo was greater than the city's population, yielding tremendous opportunity for conservation education. And a new sage-grouse initiative here would be a case in point — as well as testament to its global leadership in reintroductions.

"We've established an expertise and certain amount of reputability, so I feel the world is there for us to contribute to," Axel contemplated on my return. "We see where we can help, set goals, do the science, achieve the goals, then move on. You can easily get depressed at what seems an overwhelming situation, but we don't focus at what's not possible — only what is. On what should be instead of what should have been."

As we spoke he was again pulled away to discuss a knotty question: if you couldn't fix habitat fast enough to save a population in rapid decline, but could supplement it with enough animals to keep going until the habitat was restored, was there an IUCN guideline to cover this? Very likely, and very likely Axel had been involved.

On my way to the airport I had squeezed in a trip to CCR's breeding facility outside the city, learning about the reintroduction programs for the Przewalski's horses, whooping cranes and marmots housed there. When I got home, a post-workshop press release awaited me, listing five recommendations to save the greater sage-grouse: one was to establish a captive breeding centre.

"Sustained collaboration, partnerships, political will and sound science will be key to ensure that the species and its habitat are protected for future generations," began Axel's quote, sounding more like a dose of government saccharine than a slice of salvation. "Implementing conservation action on the ground will also require the respectful involvement of landowners, who are stewards of Prairie land where other endangered species have already made a comeback."

Ah, an Axel credo of hope, hard work and PR after all.

It recalled for me a real-world moment from the conference: Axel, hands on hips, gazing around the quietly buzzing room with his characteristic half-smile. "There are people in this room who've actually tried to destroy each other's careers," he'd remarked, "and now they're talking, trying to work this out together."

In conservation, as in life, this would be a victory.

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