Inversely proportional interest in nature and the abundance of nature surviving

(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?

7 thoughts on “Inversely proportional interest in nature and the abundance of nature surviving

  1. Thanks for this post. Many interesting points raised. We definitely should work more in Eastern Europe to show people the beauty of nature, its highly fragile nature and to show them that they can make a huge difference for steps towards conservation. One ingredient of this which seems to be unquestionable, is to find passionate and charismatic people. Humans like these people and tend to associate the positive feelings from such guys with the given thing that guy like – can be a butterfly, a tree, a frog or whatever. Small but important basin shaping ingredient. Good luck with your initiatives!

  2. Some interesting ideas raised here, but can I make a couple points for the sake of accuracy

    When you say “more than ¾ of species are declining” in the UK, that is not true. First of all, any figure on declines can only refer to species for which we have adequate data, which is always going to be a sample of the total species, and probably not a representative sample at that. But in any case, the State of Nature report actually says:

    “We have quantitative assessments of the population or distribution trends of 3,148 species. Of these, 60% of species have declined over the last 50 years and 31% have declined strongly.”

    There’s a big difference between 60% and over 75%!

    In fact the “over 75%” refers to 155 “conservation priority species…[which]….contains many of our most threatened and vulnerable species”. By definition, we might expect a large proportion of these species to be declining.

    It’s important that any conservation rallying call is backed up by accurate data, as I’m sure you’d agree.

    The other point I’d make is about your graph. Why two lines? You could represent this relationship with a single line, and your two variables on the x and y axis. But in any case, is the relationship likely to be linear? I’d suggest that “Interest in nature…” is more likely to be a saturating relationship, levelling out at some point at which the population has absorbed as much interest as it can sustain.

  3. Dear Jeff, thank you very much for your reply! We agree that accurate data is important in discussions about species decline – and yes you are right these numbers usually refer to species for which we can estimate a trend, and they are usually only a sample. We appreciate your corrections and apologize – we were referring to a figure related to UK butterflies in this post.
    Your idea on presenting the relationship in one figure is great and it may be possible that it is rather a saturating relationship (the same may be true for species abundance, as we usually have winners and loser in an ecosystem…). So thanks again for your input, it helps a lot to elaborate this thought more!

  4. I think you are right, but then this ‘reconnection’ is to some rather detached ‘nature’ which is far from the sort of systems Tibi writes about all the time. ‘Nature’ is not connected to existing socio-economic systems – in fact, it is explicitly threatened by them (that is something these people are told immediately after learning that they are interesting and beautiful etc.). Ironically many of these ‘places for nature’ that they know are also maintained by a very intensive alternative socio-economic system – nature reserve management! But one which is very different very often – not very dynamic or unpredictable, very prescriptive, very focused on the ‘nature’ output (certain species, etc…). Such people find it very hard to cope with more traditional systems on a landscape scale, where decisions are more ad hoc, nature outputs more ancillary to other objectives, peturbations perhaps more common and so on. One of the challenges I think is how to allow yourself to think of a ‘flight envelope’ of practices, developments etc. which are compatible with an acceptable ‘flight envelope’ of ‘nature’, while not falling into the trap of anything goes, all is well, all farmers are custodians of nature etc etc etc.

  5. Gwyn,
    I appreciated your reaction a lot. What do you mean by flight envelope? This is new concept for me, and I would be interested in learning more about that.
    Reconnection sounds to me towards something that has once been. In dynamic systems, so many things change and a new adaptation takes place. And difficult to say how many species will be able to do so- we are working on building on evidence for a progress that we observed already a long while. Discussions about precise numbers seem so artificial, albeit necessary to me. I see a trend in people to recognize that their actions have consequences, and most people would respect nature better. Also to me it seems that the word “biodiversity” and “decline” are related in use (would be interesting to have numbers on this…). So do you see our interactions in the system as prevention of a regime shift caused by nature or inducing one by human beings?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s