This article is written by Fedra Herman, the author of The Wandering Biologist Blog. Fedra is a Belgian MSc of Conservation Biology graduate from The University of Queensland, passionate about writing and nature restoration. As a member of the European Young Rewilder’s Communications Team, she hopes to help spread knowledge about rewilding and inspire others to restore, protect, and cherish our planet’s ecosystems.
Imagine you are on a plane flying from South Africa to your home country. These last 14 days, you have lived in an eco safari camp. On most days, local wildlife guides have taken you with them in their jeep. Together with their expertise, you have been trying to find the local, and from what you have heard impressive, wildlife. You have been dreaming of this trip for such a long time, but on your flight back home, you can’t help but feel disappointed.
You stare at the small screen of your camera, which you had especially bought for this trip. You were able to take only three wildlife pictures during your trip: one of a warthog, a greater kudu, and a springbok.
Even though you are pretty happy with the way these pictures turned out, you had hoped to observe giant African bush elephants, herds of zebra, packs of lions, a rhinoceros rolling in the mud or maybe even a hippo bathing in a water body surrounded by giraffes. Where were all those large mammals?
A Safari in Belgium?
Back in Belgium (let’s pretend that this is where you have always lived), you start to miss the thrill of being in nature. So, one early morning, you put on your hiking shoes, get in the car and drive to a closeby area where you have always loved to go for a walk. You have only just begun walking and on the right-hand side of the path you spot a tiny hedgehog. You take out your phone, get a bit closer to the ground and take a quick picture. You can’t help but think how fortunate you are to have encountered this little creature on your morning stroll.
A couple of minutes later you sit down to take a break on a bench on the side of the road. After closing your eyes for a couple of seconds, and listening to the birds, you hear a quiet rustling in the bushes. You open your eyes and a fallow deer jumps out of the vegetation. It stops for a second in the middle of the road and then disappears behind some trees. You were not aware that wild deer inhabited this area. Of course, you have seen this species behind a fence, owned by humans. But never would you have dreamed to encounter one on your Sunday morning walk.
With a smile on your face, you continue your hike. You can’t wait to tell others about your unique wildlife encounter. You have almost returned to the area where you have parked your car. But, before going home you decide to climb a small hill that leads to a nice lookout. You walk between large grasses, which are waving in the wind. You look up to see if you have almost made it to the top of the hill. But, you see something which you were not expecting: a wild boar.
You freeze, unsure of what to do. The boar is looking straight into your eyes. Your first thought is that this animal must have escaped from a closeby farm. What is it doing here? It is clearly out of place.
You are a little uncertain of how to behave. Should you continue or turn back? Before you can make your decision, the boar grunts and scurries off into the waving grass. All of a sudden, you are back on your own.
Back in your car, you reflect on your experience and you feel pretty content. You have never encountered so many mammals during one hike here in Belgium.
So, why are we happy and feeling quite lucky (and maybe even a little confused) when we see a deer or wild boar in Belgium (or more broadly Europe), and why are we disappointed when we only see a springbok or warthog on an African savannah?
The story I have just described of our expectations of wildlife in an African landscape compared to a European one was used as a thought experiment during a lecture on “Law and Rewilding” by Dr Arie Trouwborst, a Professor of Nature Conservation Law at Tilburg University. He used this example as a way of introducing the students to the concept of the “Shifting Baseline Syndrome”, or simply put SBS. This concept was defined by Soga et al. as “a gradual change in the accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to lack of past information or lack of experience of past conditions”.
Every one of us grows up in a specific natural (or not-so-natural) landscape. We all create a certain perception of how nature in our neighbourhood, town, city or country should behave. Many people will consider cows in a meadow and pigs locked up in factory farms as normal. We are used to seeing wolves, bears, horses and deer behind a fence.
Seeing a hedgehog, fallow deer or wild boar in “the wild” of Flanders (the northern part of Belgium) is considered a rare occasion indeed. Years ago, Belgian grassland meadows would have been bursting with butterflies resting on plants that emerged in the disturbed soil left behind by wild boar. Today, Belgian conservationists are fighting hard to safeguard the future of the Alcon blue (Maculinea alcon or “gentiaanblauwtje” in Dutch), a species of butterfly that is as good as extinct in Flanders. Once upon a time, wolves lived in close proximity to human settlements, keeping the population of deer in check, and thereby preventing overgrazing. Nowadays, conservationists are doing their very best to convince the general public of the importance of wolves, which are slowly making a comeback in Europe after receiving legal protection under the Bern Convention (1979) and the subsequent 1992 EU Habitats Directive.
Conservationists in Flanders are trying to hold on to the small amount of wildlife that is still brave enough to call this highly fragmented country its home. They aim to conserve a landscape similar to what was there at the beginning of the industrial revolution. But, by the mid-18th century, European landscapes were already highly depleted of their megafauna and broader biodiversity.
Should the aim of nature conservation really be to protect an already degraded ecosystem that does not function properly due to depauperated food webs and missing keystone species?
“What humans do over the next 50 years will determine the fate of all life on the planet.” – Sir David Attenborough
Europe in the Pleistocene
When we dig into old European paleontological records, it becomes clear that Europe was once as rich in megafauna as the African continent today.
Europeans used to live alongside elephants and rhinos and hunted large herds of aurochs for dinner. Kulans, a wild relative of the domesticated donkey, and wild horses grazed in the presence of aurochs and bison. Species like fallow deer used to be present all across Europe. These large herds of herbivores attracted predators, which kept the populations of grazers intact. Alongside wild cattle and horses, there lived wolves, lynxes and bears. I was surprised to learn that Europe was once home to other predators too, such as lions, hyenas and leopards. And these were not even the biggest animals to exist in Europe! Giant elephants, rhinoceros and even hippos used to call the continent of Europe their home. Years ago, you did not have to travel all the way to Africa to go on a safari.
What Europe used to look like during the Pleistocene and what it might look like again in the future.
Unfortunately, humans quickly exterminated most large grazers (and their predators) and replaced them with domesticated species. Our ancestors quickly forgot about mammoths and aurochs.
Still, European landscapes teemed with life. Domesticated cattle and horses grazed the landscape, preserving different microhabitats on which numerous species depend. Shepherds and their dogs played an important role in protecting their cattle from wolves and other predators.
However, not even a creature as powerful as the wolf could persist in the presence of the ever-growing human population. In our never-ending effort to protect livestock, humans nearly exterminated wolves during the 19th and 20th centuries. Shepherds were no longer needed in countries such as Belgium or The Netherlands. We had efficiently removed our enemies and quickly forgot how to live alongside them.
On a human timescale, these megafauna extinctions might seem like ages ago, but on a geological and evolutionary timescale, this happened in the blink of an eye.
I came across the concept of “nature amnesia” during a webinar series from The University of Wageningen, based in The Netherlands. One of the speakers, namely Leo Linnartz, an ecologist at ARK Rewilding, mentioned the concept during a lecture on biotic rewilding.
Across generations, we are slowly forgetting how rich and abundant nature can be. Many people, especially those of the younger generation, are oblivious to the numerous species that evolved as part of the European landscape. We have forgotten the rich natural history of the land on which we live. We all suffer from nature amnesia.
“A nation that forgets its past has no future” – Sir Winston Churchill
Concepts such as the SBS and nature amnesia made me think about the aims of conservation. Should we be more ambitious? Instead of protecting what is left, mustn’t we restore and bring back the natural riches that ones used to be?
“We must rewild the world” is what David Attenborough said in the Netflix documentary “A Life on Our Planet”. Healing nature will not only safeguard the future of numerous incredible species, but it will also help us in our fight against climate change and create a happier and healthier world for all of us.
After reading this post, your head might be full of questions.
Why should we even care that we have lost so much of our native megafauna? Why do wolves, wild cattle and birds of prey even matter? Why should we care about their absence in so many landscapes?
If you are interested to find answers to these questions, you can explore the topic in detail with these two books:
- “Rewilding: The Radical New Science of Ecological Recovery”, written by Paul Jepson and Cain Blythe.
- “Cornerstones; Wild Forces That Can Change Our World”, written by Benedict MacdonaldHere are some links to papers, stories and other sources relevant to this topic:
- “Are you suffering from Shifting Baseline Syndrome”, a blog post from Earth.org on SBS: Read here.
- Paper about the Shifting Baseline Syndrome: Read here.
- “Why megafauna restoration is a legal obligation”, an article by Rewilding Europe, based on a 2022 study by Arie Trouwborst and Jens-Christian Svenning.
- An excellent summary of the different types of rewilding, written by Tolga Aktas, can be found here.
- David Attenborough’s short speech, used in “A Life on Our Planet” accompanied by incredible music from Steven Price: Listen here.
This article was inspired by a lecture on “law and rewilding” from Arie Trouwborst, an Associate Professor of Environmental and Nature Conservation Law at Tilburg University.
Thank you Arie for your permission to use your thought experiment in this article.