(by Jacqueline Loos & Paul Kirkland)
After having visited some nature reserves in the UK, and after having talked to some people active in citizen science projects, I realized that they spend a lot of money in getting people involved, raising awareness and informing people about the state of their wildlife. Ironically, in these countries, much wildlife is in a critical condition many of them are seriously threatened. Another example is the huge interest in butterfly conservation in the Netherlands: This country has the highest proportion of extinct butterflies in Europe, and yet simultaneously, they can attract more than 600 people interested in butterflies at their annual meetings (which is more than any other country in Europe can bring together).
The observation that the interest in trying to preserve what is disappearing is inversely proportional to the amount of wildlife remaining present is of course not new.
The question for conservationists is whether the growth in interest is sufficiently fast enough to lead to conservation measures that will prevent further significant losses in wildlife. Sometimes a conservationist gets the impression that no matter how much faster one tries to empty water from a sinking boat, it will still be sinking!
But perhaps there is an explanation for the sinking boat: Conservationists have long been observing that as each generation proceeds, they reset their idea of what the countryside should look like (the “shifting baseline”). As the youth grows up in conditions that lack wildlife, they don´t know what they are missing and hence have no desire or awareness of what the natural environment should be or how it has been before. Linked to this is an increasing lack of contact with nature, a “nature disorder deficit syndrome”. Conservationists in Western Europe are trying to break this trend, especially with young people, by trying to re-establish the connection with nature and wildlife (although this is not necessarily combined with an explicit conservation message). Here, environmental education combined with good data on species trends is crucial to convince the public to act.
This strategy seems successful in countries like the UK and the Netherlands, where increasing interest in wildlife leads to more available resources to foster public engagement. But did the shifting baseline prevent the increasing interest happening soon enough to save wildlife in these countries? And can we learn from this concept to avoid the same scenario in other countries which are still rich in wildlife?