Shifting wildlife baselines: For the sake of the future, listen to your grandparents

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"I was swimming in the river near Godmanchester and I got the fright of my life when a large triangular dorsal fin broke the surface of the water just in front of me. It was so close I could have touched it."

The old fishermen proclaiming, "When I was young the fish used to be THIS big," need to be heeded – not ridiculed.
So said an old lady at my church in Cambridge, England, some 20 years ago when she found out I worked in biodiversity. She was recalling an event some sixty years before when she was a young girl. It turned out she was describing the dorsal fin of a massive European sturgeon, a prized source of caviar, and now virtually extinct in the UK. The wonderful old lady and I had different perspectives on the matter. To her the existence of the sturgeon at her local swimming hole was part of her personal experience, whereas to me it was a disconnected event in the foggy past. To her the long absence of seeing a sturgeon represented a loss, whereas to me it was a species I would never expect to see so close to my home because I knew they no longer exist. We had different baselines.

Reading the writings of 19th century travelers to the countries where I work – such as Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, China etc – I am staggered at the sheer abundance of wildlife observed in many places which are now pretty quiet, even if they are the best that the countries can manage and are located in national parks. If I hadn’t known of those books, I could be forgiven for thinking the carefully spotted and sparse wildlife was actually the norm and an acceptable baseline. The writers described groups of rhinos in a single view, clouds of waterbirds, thronging herds of deer or large shoals of fish. Of course, one can quite easily dismiss changes that occurred over 100 years ago as being lost in history. But learning from our grandparents helps to bring the changes in the space of even one or two generations into closer perspective.

As I travel around and have the privilege to talk with older people in villages and towns, I repeatedly hear of just how much the abundance of wildlife has fallen in the last few decades. I recently talked to a magnificent old man in Mongolia, a former member of the Mongolian KGB but also a firefighter. Soon I'll post a short blog and video of our conversation, in which he recalls how he used to see huge herds of various deer species in the grassy bottoms of forested valleys and thought how that must be like visiting a zoo. He later visited some zoos in the Soviet Union and realized how much better his views in nature had been; this made him proud to be Mongolian. Sadly these species have experienced a 90-95% fall in their populations. I need to shake myself away from my received baseline of not remarking on the absence of deer, but rather to accept the KGB agent's baseline of what conditions should and could be like under regimes of rational management.

I think the principle of learning about what could be achieved is relevant wherever one lives and works, but it is especially relevant in the countries where I work, few of which have any long-term monitoring surveys such as the enormous Big Garden Birdwatch or the venerable National Audubon Christmas Bird Count. These form hugely valuable databases for assessing long-term trends in birds, such as changes in distribution as a result of climate change. There are efforts afoot around the globe to try to develop similar indices in other regions and countries, and this is great news and should be encouraged, but their starting point can only be, well, their point of starting. There is no way of avoiding having to wait for many years before their value really develops. This contrasts with using the memories of elders, which can provide decades of qualitative trends relatively quickly and easily. One can then encourage people to accept the challenge of moving back towards an earlier baseline, not just the baseline of the present.

Some people may recognize this approach as akin to the shifting baseline concept. A major proponent of the concept is Callum Roberts, professor of Marine Conservation at the University of York in England, whose book, The Unnatural History of the Sea, gives a large number of very good – and scary – examples of how we have become so used to our own low baselines – and our low conservation expectations – because we overlook the baselines of our elders.

The old fishermen extending their weather-beaten arms and telling the doubting youngsters gathered around that, " When I was young the fish used to be THIS big," need to be heeded not ridiculed.

Photo courtesy of xave under a Creative Commons license.


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