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Iris Berger (EXPLORER)

In today’s episode, we have Iris Berger. Iris is a 24-year-old conservation scientist and National Geographic Young Explorer, interested in interdisciplinary topics that contribute to reconciling nature conservation and human well-being. We talk about a crazy expedition out of university to cycle across Bolivia as well as talking about her research expedition to Sumatra. A great insight into the future of conservation and so much more with Iris

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Transcript of our Conversation

Iris Berger

[00:00:00] Iris Berger: on today’s show. We have an Explorer and conservation scientist. She’s travelled all over the world with her work and done some incredible expeditions from cycling across Bolivia to a five-week Trek in the Indonesian rainforest on today’s podcast. We talk about some of these expeditions and I am delighted to introduce Iris Berger to the show.

Hey, thank you, Iris. It’s great to have you on the show. You are a fellow member of the scientific exploration society, and I was really intrigued to find out more about your expeditions, but I suppose probably the best place to start is with you and how you got into all these adventures. [00:01:00] So I’m from Austria.

So I grew up, you know, but right by the mountains and they got to go skiing and hiking on the weekends. I think there was always quite strong connection connection with nature and adventures and the weekend, even quite small scale. But I think the first of B expedition I got to do after the first year of university.

So I decided to do do my undergrad and Scotland and Edinburgh in biology and ecology. So. You don’t know anymore more about the natural world. And I was quite keen to have sons of more dry than the cake, and I got to pick out what place places in the world and stuff, I guess, at that age, you know, being 18 or 19, I really want to sort of test myself and see what I’m actually capable of, because I think never really had the chance to do it before.

So I think yeah, diving in and seeing what’s possible. And I think once, you know, once you start off. [00:02:00] Really another world really aprons and think, you know, what he can do and actually wants you on the ground, you know? Yeah. You’re, I think you’re a lot more, you’re capable of a lot more than you think you are before you, okay, good to hear that you Edinburgh too.

When did you use it? What did you do? I, I did landscape architecture, but I suppose having that sort of weave Edinburgh, you have that sort of, sort of freedom to explore all around it. You’ve got the sea, you’ve got source B crags. You’ve got Steve. So I absolutely loved my time at Edinburgh, but But I suppose your first sort of big expedition out of uni, what was that?

That was so a combined two expeditions in a way. So after my first year off, off university, I did psych in presbyopia, but before that, I just did. Research assistants shipped and [00:03:00] internship with an NGO and the Peruvian Amazon’s of collecting baseline biodiversity data. So to get an insight and effect of climate change and of the this nature as and you know, flying basically across the world, I wanted to sort of use my time and add a bit more of an adventure component because I think.

It was an eight and an amazing experience. And so I learned a lot being in the Amazon and helping out there, but if there much stuff, it was all pre-organized nauseous, saturated I had to fill out. And that was it. So I didn’t have to push myself that much out of my comfort zone in that sentence. So I want that bit more of an adventure.

So, yeah, I think I decided to psych across Bolivia with a guy I met on the internet very last minute because a friend of mine dropped out. So but yeah, that was my sort of first dive into. Proper adventure. Do you put out an advert for someone to cycle across Bolivia [00:04:00] with you? Yeah. Yeah, so I think literally a month before I was out to go to South America and in the Amazon, I was, I didn’t have any internet signal, so I had to sort out everything before.

I I’m literally just posted on a variety of Facebook groups, if you know, sort of world cycle touring pages, if anyone would. Like to join me and think explorers connect as well. But eventually this guy from Bolivia actually Mario got in touch and said he will be quite keen and yeah. It didn’t quite know whether you would be able to, at that point, it was quite nerve wracking going out, flying out to South America, not knowing whether they actually have someone to cycle with.

But yeah, he did shine and he was, he was amazing. He was a really amazing expedition part is amazing. Actually having someone from the country with me as well. But he is from this Bolivia sort of divided. You’ve got, you know, half of there being the Andes and the other planet where we cycled and the other half is.

The low lands where you got [00:05:00] basically the younger son. So here are some of the low lands. So it’s actually quite changed for him too, is like, you know, at like minus 20 degrees and, you know, dry, dry and love wind. But yeah, it was, it was a fascinating experience and it turned out my parents weren’t so keen and I told them most details afterwards, but yeah, I thing.

So what, what was it about Bolivia that attracted you? It’s quite tricky to say. I mean, because I was going out to, Perri obviously wanting to go somewhere probably to another country. They were sort of nearby and I, you know, just doing a bit of research, just seemed to Bolivia was of. Less touristy. I think it has the highest percentage of indigenous people in South America.

And I think, yeah, just being less traveled to and cause I, I think that really appealed to me and having that sort of odd to plan and sort of quite a contrast as [00:06:00] off the Amazon where it was in before. I think just the openness and just. You know, we did come across villages, but every 33 days of say so it’s just, yeah, just seeing the landscape and the wilderness aspect of it, if you will.

And so with Olivia, I mean, how long did that take you to cycle across the country? Only three weeks? Actually pretty quick. Yeah. Well, the thing is like, once you, I mean, there was some up and downs, but actually as of yet, so I can continue as in the. Yeah. And the plateaus is there’s actually not that much, too much, you know, altitude to games.

So, and so what were the sort of moments along the way because by having what was his name again? Malia, Malia, by having him, I suppose you had a really good intro into the sort of people that believe here in terms of introducing you spoke that [00:07:00] language. And it probably opened up quite a lot of doors.

Is that, did you find that or? Yeah, definitely. It definitely did. I mean, I’d say because he’s not from the entrepreneur, I think that’s himself. I wouldn’t say tension, but there’s, you know, that I have a very different culture. The people, the indigenous people living on the interplant anniversaries of the European ancestry, you know, Spanish answers to people and living in the known lens.

So that there’s quite a big cultural divide I say within the country. And I think people were really quite surprised actually to, so, you know that, I mean, or I’ll say then there is a people cyclocross, Bolivia, or. You know, the art people are doing, yes, I can cross the whole South America so that occasionally do have people coming cause I can get a three and coming across them.

But I think that for a lot of people, I think it was the first person cyclists from Bolivia they encountered. So it was quite interesting to see and you know, how they interact as well. I’d say people from the arts kind of a bit. A bit more [00:08:00] reserved, a bit shy. I think that just comes with essentially the climate being so harsh, so windy so hard to grow anything you’re around.

But I think certainly like I could speak a bit of Spanish, but wouldn’t have gotten me very far. I think. And what were the sort of amazing moments along the way? Because these three weeks, I mean, you, were you a big cyclist before? No, I could not. I could not change a tire. I had to sort of get my friend from universities or teach me how to take off, apply and repair punch.

I mean, I cycled before a fair bet just for fun and off cycling to uni. But I w it wasn’t something I had done loose before. I hadn’t really cited much, you know, the overnight talk trips, any of that. So it was quite a sort of learn as you go thing, but surprisingly, we didn’t have a single puncture, so we’re quite lucky in that respect.

Yeah, I mean, there’s so many incredible moments. I think it would be quite hard to sort of pinpoint one, I think just sort of race season [00:09:00] we couldn’t years and just, I think really for me, the overall package is sort of. Traveling on countering country in a way you would never be able to do otherwise, because I mean, I always loved traveling and done it, you know, quite a lot growing up, but I think there was always some sort of barrier and you know, you not really get to know people or

So we were cycling in the other and they’re quite lots of Jeeps, a few salt lakes around and landscape. They’re really pretty, they’re coming normal, different colors, you know, green, bright green, red, and yellow, and really beautiful. So you have quite a few Jeeps coming around with the tourists. And I felt like you wouldn’t really be able to sort of appreciate the landscape in the same way as we did, you know, Yes, it’s nice being able to come, you know, sitting in your car and appreciating, not having to be out in the wind.

But I think you sort of put another sort of barrier between you and actually really sort of embracing the [00:10:00] landscape and the place you’re at, but it just sort of, you know, creating too much comfort for you. So even though it was sort of measurable and bets and we had to come down and minus 20 degrees and think got a bit frostbitten and things like that, I think actually is, have you noticed.

So a lot more ingrained than my memory. And I feel I actually have really experienced the place in a way. It wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. Yeah. What is it about Edinburgh? I mean, it was exactly the same sort of situation with me. I, when I sort of decided off to Edinburgh to cycle across America, and again, barely cycled very much.

Didn’t know how to change a tire. After 10 days, I was like, ah, okay, this is amazing. Hopefully I never get a flat tire and then it happened. And then I spent an hour and a half sort of. Bagging away banging away at it, trying to sort of rip it off. Kind of got a clue. I don’t think a YouTube videos were on your phone just about then, but yeah, it’s it’s such an amazing way to sort of experience the country.

[00:11:00] And so from that, I mean, camping out at sort of minus 20 and being prosperous that must have certainly felt pretty No. Luckily I was quite sure that I think it was a few days before we finished. There was I imagine. Okay. We’re almost done sort of thing get there. But yeah, it was definitely, I think I had to wake up every 10 minutes or something like that in the sleeping bag yourself to sort of set ups and just sort of keep some warmth.

I mean, you probably would take if you were sensitive a lot more KET, but essentially because it was a first year student not having much money and. I would say, I think coming obviously from the youngest and there was so much limited having to pack for being in rainforest, as well as being at mines coming out of minus 20, it was just like a bit of a challenge.

So I think you could do more sensitive in terms of just, you know, taking better care essentially. But it wasn’t too bad. [00:12:00] It was quite a contrast afterwards going back to the rainforest areas. And so, yeah, the kinematic contrast, but. Yeah, yes. Rich has come from struggles. So I think it’s definitely, I definitely do it again.

Wow. And so we’ve that trip that’s, that was your first sort of big trip out of your comfort zone and sort of pushing yourself and that sort of spurred on quite a few adventures. After my second year in university, I did. Mega trends act across Sumatra. So it was actually me and my boyfriend and two smarter mountaineers who were absolutely incredible.

I mean, they take all the credits and I think that currently attempting to do a hundred first descents smarter mountains which is amazing. But what we did essentially, so we started off in the very Northern part of SmartTrack called and. [00:13:00] Not that many people go there. So we’re leaves of ons, travel warnings and stuff.

When you have terrorist attacks and things like that, but these were the loveliest people I’ve ever met and, and you’ve made solutions. They’re just so kind. I mean, we could, it was actually struggled to sort of move each day cause everyone would want to invite us, came and just feed us incredible amount of feed.

But we started off sort of having about 10 days, two weeks And so the Moss cloud rainforest and this Reese this area has completely unknown. It was completely unknown to researchers. So essentially we just did a very simple sort of bird surveys. You’re walking each day, but recording all the birds we’re seeing.

So I think that brought a lot of new challenge with that sort of having it was physically incredibly demanding. I mean, maybe hot and Bolivia. I’m not quite sure. It’s just, we managed to walk about sort of two. Two and a half kilometers that most, each day, because we had to, well, some Motrin team [00:14:00] members had as have used machetes to cut a wave through because there were no past or anything since insane dance staff, but at the same time, you have to be really aware of your surroundings.

Because you don’t want to miss the bird. Cause you know, you have a few seconds to see what species it could be in recorded. So I think that’s sort of having physically really demanding as well as mentally still having to be with it. I think that was quite a new challenge. But essentially, yeah, that was of two weeks covering a very small area of on, on research forest and.

Take the first records of the bird species you’ve got there, whereas the tempter, the first ascent, but we failed. Unfortunately one of our team members have he tried to push his machete down to the ground to rest, but his fingers slept cause there was a rock beneath. So essentially a sliced up his fingers down to the Bay.

And that was also the furthest [00:15:00] away we could have been from Manny’s off road. And I used to hear it was doing rubber dumps. He wasn’t eating or drinking. I have no idea how he did that. So, and only he used to stop, stop eating and drink completely. Cause he thought it was a punishment. But it was fine in the end we got back and his immensely tough guy.

Yeah. And then from then on was, it was just an abandon at that point. Just me and my boyfriend. We just walked from this part of down to the. Coast for another five or six weeks or so. Obviously far more degraded landscape began still recording the birds and it was at that point much more about the interactions we have with the villages and yeah, sort of more well, the cultural experience in a way.

Wow. And so with that, you were sort of looking at the beds. With the, sort of the forest station that sort of going on there because there’s [00:16:00] quite a big area for Palm oil. Were you looking at this sort of what do you call it where you’re sort of assessing how Palm out is having such a huge impact on deforestation there?

Well sort off not specifically Palm oil and it was more just seeing how, you know, landscape’s changing will impact of human impact. Might as well being grown how that’s obviously sort of degrading the bird community. But I have to say, I need, I was after my second year of university. So it was very much, the science was rather simple.

It was feeling hopeless to have a major impact in the sense that it was just an area that was unknown to scientists, sort of any sort of baseline by diversity data kind have. Yeah, hopefully a fairly big impact in terms of, you know, building the knowledge base and both so very simple, essentially sort of looking [00:17:00] what’s out there.

And I think then later on the Biltmore and sort of did more exertions that sort of more scientific, had a greater scientific focus, more scientifically, more robust in that sense. So your, your life as a sort of conservation scientist, you are now taking that to a sort of new level, studying your PhD. What is a conservation scientist?

Oh, God. It comes in all forms. I think it’s quite a broad term really. I mean, it’s just obviously the science around conservation, as of how acknowledging in a way that we’ve failed quite miserably, like in the past, I mean, Well, there are all sorts of measures to try and Hort extinction and wildlife declines, but we haven’t been that successful.

So that’s really how you’re building the evidence base. Like how do you conserve species now, don’t go with your gut feelings, go with the science essentially. And you know, where it’s, it’s a very broad fear comes to, you know, [00:18:00] where. It’s the most biodiversity, well, should we have protected areas, but I’m building from, what’s known now protected areas.

Aren’t, you know, going save our species and there’s a lot of ethical concerns around it. So you know, building more sustainable agriculture and, and our species to move between it comes, it’s quite buried from sort of behavioral observations to more sort of mathematical models. It’s quite a broad field and yeah.

Coming, very interdis interdisciplinary as well. You know, very much so natural sciences, which is more on the side, but ID to social scientists, trying to understand the impact, give them conservation measure, have on the local community or indigenous knowledge and things there that says it’s a very broad field.

Where do you sort of see the future of conservation going? Hm. Well find the balance between not being a pessimist, but Being realistic optimistic. I [00:19:00] think basically needs a revolution. I think a lot of people in the conservation field agreed. I mean, it’s changed over time and what the focus is.

And there’s a lot of disagreement within the conservation community where should go. I think everything’s clear that what we’ve done so far is not working. And I think while nature has to become. No, the center of decision making, or at least a key part of the session making use of mainstream economic and business ideas.

But at the same time, I think there needs to be sort of a change and revalue. Well, yeah, just rebound how we place nature in our license of Nanda accident and our interactions with nature and not sort of having a dualistic idea in humans, wildlife, you know, being a barrier and around it. And because I think that’s hat, the hat that was of the original.

A movement of conservation, you know, put things in national parks base of [00:20:00] fans around it’s about fortress conservation, sort of the idea of wilderness ignoring the fact that people were actually there. So with a lot of, you know, sort of colonial undertones to it. So when people agree, we definitely need to move past that.

And then there was sort of moving around how much, you know, she would put a value nature and economic terms. And now it’s sort of, well, who knows where it’s going? I think no one really knows, but I think what was clear that we do need to change what we do cause it’s not, not really working. And and I just changing our relationship with nature.

Yeah. I sort of agree. It’s, I’m sort of figuring out a way of nature and humans to co-exist in a way, which I suppose puts value on the sort of communities. Cause we had Lizzie daily on. In one episode 16, I believe. And, you know, we sort of speak in sort of detail about the sort of coexistence between humans [00:21:00] and at the time the wildlife, but it’s a really sort of interesting or pressing concern, which I think as you say, there’s a lot of, lot of stakeholders involved and therefore.

A lot of people who get annoyed and go to people no matter which way you go. No, definitely. I think there is because there is quite a big divide. You know, people arguing the conservation movement. I think I’ve seen a reason descriptor of you, you know, about, you know, they Russians have economic talk about assets and things like that.

And that has been outcry, but other conservation is we, we, we shouldn’t be using this terms for nature. You know, there’s an intrinsic value and know we shouldn’t go near these of trying to. Yeah, price nature as well. So I think sort of marry all of the difference of streams of conservation will be certainly tricky.

And the but I think whatever, and I think is agreeing on that. We just need a, quite a drastic change, not just minor adjustments to what we’ve been doing before, but really sort [00:22:00] of you know, on the massive scale and readdressing, I think the drivers of biodiversity loss, they really. Yeah, let’s get rid of cover to this and sort of thing and you know, change the economic system.

And I think food system transformation as well, because agriculture may understand the biggest driver by diversity does climate change will come up and in about a hundred years or so probably even take our culture. But I think it’s just coming to the root causes rather than just release of addressing your, what you see in the ground.

And now it comes down to sort of blaming or. The local communities for an, for bushmeat hunting and using the local forest, whereas really it’s of the massive, big corporation driven by demand in the West that sort of driving deforestation. So I think it’s just making sure it’s equitable as well.

So how, when you go on the sort of expeditions to Sumatra [00:23:00] doing your research, how do you prepare for them? I think they, I think it really depends. I think there’s no sort of generic answer. I mean, from the boring stuff, like sorting out logistics and flights obviously having a, sort of a mental component to it as well.

And depending what it is, whether there’s a physical component or whether do you need to do better, you know, training for that. But I tended to not. Be able to have that much as, or in a way that because of my expeditions tend to be sort of in the summer, you know, summer holidays and exams right before that.

So I always feel quite unprepared and actually gauge just because they, you so busy to revise. I think the lesson to learn is that it will be fine once in the field. I mean, there’s always something you will forget. Don’t forget the key bet. But, you know, you’re not going to always have everything ready.

And there are things depending on the country guarantee that you’ll be able to [00:24:00] get that. Well, there’s a part of the show where we ask the same five questions to each guest each week we have the first beam. On your trips. What’s the one item or gadget that you always take with you? It’s a bit tricky because I think my expeditions always vary quite a lot in terms of the objective, you know, is that an adventure based or very much a sort of science focused expedition I think in GPS was quite very quick, definitely quite useful.

But actually we’re always take us some sort of treat for myself. So I mean, chocolate unfortunately melts, so it would normally take chocolate. But I think just some sort of nice and as you both, and sort of, yeah, something to cheer you up when you, we had a rough day, some jelly babies or something.

What is your favorite adventure or travel book? It’s quite hard. I don’t think I’ve got one. I mean, I liked so [00:25:00] sort of George members of early books, environmental investigation, like on, I think specifically the Amazon watershed which is sort of about him being essentially investigating.

Deforestation in Brazil. And so being, especially in forefront and what’s happening in the Brazilian, Amazon on the ground. And you know, the, the, yeah, the injustice happening that I think the combination of having itself adrenaline cake and like nice descriptive writing with some sort of more, I think, inside about, you know, what’s politically historiography happening.

Yeah, I think that’s sort of that combination of, I mean, that’s quite specific as I’ve done research in Brazil as well. So I think just me always trying to read more around, well actually going and the history and things like that and engaging way. So then the other book would be Norman Lewis and [00:26:00] empire of the East, which is of his travels in Indonesia and of his encounters with his observation he takes and sort of the impact of the ruling Geminis and.

Yeah, how has impact is of local communities? And so I think that combination of sort of being able to get some factual knowledge and that being able to see the place where I’m going in a different way with sort of engaging good storytelling, isn’t it have to check them out. Why, why are adventures important to you?

I think it’s just probably because I was way too complex for any one self to be able to kompromat comprehend. I mean, Evolutionary, our brains are not wired for everything, our globalized super complex world with an overflow of information. And I think also that capitalism obviously makes us self believe where there’s an isolated, competitive, you know, ruthless [00:27:00] individuals and of the constant competition and nothing productive.

And. Yeah, I think just the Uber complexity and Uber estimators of like our world, where I just sort of striving for themselves simplicity in a way. And I think I find it quite hard to sort of switch off I’m it Amad Holmes. I think I have to really, to taken out of that environment. So fairly simple, you know tasks, you know, ever sort of cycling or each day, you know, just getting from a to B you’re getting certain amount of.

Milestone. And essentially I think, I mean, that’s really appealing to me. Yeah. I agree with that. I think it’s nice. Just take yourself away, leave your mobile home to sort of go out for whether, you know, it’s a weekend or a week. These sort of adventures that we do. So just completely takes you from one.

Lifestyle to another. And sometimes simplicity is just blessed. What is your favorite quote? [00:28:00] I was thinking about that because I don’t think do I really do quotes? I think it changed it all the time, but I think the right filler around Twitter the other day was by Kate Woolworth, the author of doughnut economics.

Don’t be an optimist if it makes you relax, don’t be in a pessimist. If it makes you give up, be an activist and get into action. And I think that’s just especially coming, obviously from the conservation background, as of in my mantel background. I think it’s, again talking about the conservation, even better as a movement to have more talk about, you know, optimism and optimism conservation and not going away from a sort of doom and gloom narrative, but at same time, you know, being realistic and the numbers aren’t lying and we need to do something about it.

So I think personally, if I had quite challenging to find the right balance of Yeah. Getting actually being able to, you know, do something about it and get into action rather than just sort of be dragged down by what’s all the news and things like that. So, yeah. Switch off [00:29:00] people. Listening are always keen to go up to travel and go on these sort of grand adventures.

What’s the one thing you would recommend to people wanting to get into adventure? Okay. I mean, it sounds, sounds silly, but I think. After having done one exhibition while that being cycling was Bolivia really easy in a way. I mean, even now, when I think about playing another, yeah. Expedition is always seems quite bit scary and unknown and you know, all the things that could go wrong, but I was really surprised how calm and confident you are once you’re actually there and really surprising yourself, how you handled the situations.

I think. Getting the first expedition to on is probably the most the hardest, but you can do that once you have done that. I think it’s shown seems very natural to you. Yeah, I think I was saying in the last episode it’s very much about The planning is exciting, but the start is always terrifying, but literally as soon as you take the first [00:30:00] step it’s Oh, okay.

All right. We’re rolling. I was really surprised. I was extremely calm once I was actually in Bolivia. I mean, a bit was because it was something I had initially planned the expedition. There was Maria who’s joining me. But it sounds weird that he was sort of relying, you know, I was doing the planning, the route planning and where we ended up the next day.

Well, we find them, we’ll be finding water and things like that. And I was nine, just turned 19 at the time. And he was, I think, 32 and an officer from the country. So it was a bit bizarre for me, but I think because having that sort of expectation on me, so I think it made me a lot more. Yeah, sure. I can do that.

I think he only found out about my age. Yeah. About two weeks then, but yeah, I think that, and I think Augusta is those about finding the robot. It’d been definitely pushing you out. They compensated a lot, but obviously still being somewhat feasible because I think before Bolivia, the year before I was kind of thinking, Oh, I should didn’t bet.

Anything else? I think I was thinking about [00:31:00] walking across Africa just having finished school. I think that was just a bit, yeah. A bit too ambitious, essentially. I think I think I obviously didn’t, I’m doing it as a think, you know, do something that’s actually pushing you, but not completely unrealistic.

What are you doing now? And how can people follow your adventures in West Africa in 2020? Obviously got postponed and I hope it be doing that this year as well, looking into wildlife corridors and West African lions. So. Hopefully we’ll get to do that this year. And I’ll be doing my feet work and expeditions from a PhD in India as well.

Amazing. Well, I can’t wait to follow along and see, see the adventures you get up to hopefully towards the end of the year. I think it’s starting to calm down, calm down a bit now. Just want to say thank you so much for coming on the show today and yeah. [00:32:00] Look forward to a following. No trips in the future.

Brilliant. Thank you so much for having me. That is it for today. Thank you so much for watching and I hope you got something out of it. If you did hit that like button and subscribe, if you haven’t already, and I will see you in the next video.

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