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Loveable? Who could doubt it. But hedgehog number in the UK are down 37% in ten years. Photo: Last Human Gateway via Flickr.
Loveable? Who could doubt it. But hedgehog number in the UK are down 37% in ten years. Photo: Last Human Gateway via Flickr.
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To save the world's wildlife, first we must love it

Hugh Warwick

1st October 2014

The number of wild vertebrate animals has more than halved over the last 40 years, writes Hugh Warwick - a truly catastrophic rate of decline. Yet the BBC did not consider it important enough to ask the Prime Minister about yesterday morning. Step one to saving our wonderful wildlife - rekindle our love for the natural world.

But we also need to create change. And for that we need to embrace the rather unscientific notion of love. As Stephen Jay Gould said, "We will not fight to save what we do not love."

While the picky might point out flaws in the methodology, I cannot help but be impressed that large organisations like WWF and ZSL are willing to come out with a grand gesture.

Their report, perhaps ironically entitled 'Living Planet' states that in the last 40 years the planet has lost over 50% of its animals.

Now, they are referring to vertebrates - and also admit that we do not know quite how many there are of most things ... but ... still this is a breathtaking figure, for anyone who has not been paying attention.

Hedgehogs - down 37% in 10 years

For those that have been paying attention, this sort of decline is already well-known. I have been studying hedgehogs since the mid 1980s - and the anecdotal observations have consistently been of a decline in their numbers.

It was only in 2011 that we (I work with the British Hedgehog Preservation Society and the People's Trust for Endangered Species) were in a position to get the research done to give us a concrete answer to the scale of the decline.

And when we updated it last year, even I, so deeply involved, was horrified. There has been a 37% decline in hedgehogs in Britain in the last ten years.

That is a faster rate of decline than that being experienced by tigers in the wild.

Extinction is the end of long period of attrition

What most interests me about this report is that it is looking at the numbers of animals themselves. Too often the attention is focussed on the demise of a species. But the moment of extinction is really rather trivial compared to the decades before.

Thom van Dooren described this well in his book, Flight Ways. The loss of the last of a species is nothing compared to the loss of the mass of individuals before that one, which is nothing compared to the loss of functionality within the ecosystem and which is topped off by the evolutionary loss - the millions of years and individuals that have gone in to creating that one, last creature.

All of this is being wiped out by our violence. Van Dooren describes it as a "violence that is often rendered invisible ... by its slowness."

How can we stop that violence? The first thing is to become aware that it is going on - and this report is a valuable step in that direction. But we need to look deeper than a simple awareness as that will tend to give us a false sense of security.

Somehow, this was not worth asking the Prime Minister about

We will look back to what we remember as the golden era of bountiful wildlife - which will be within our lifetime - and hope to recreate such a scene.

But that was already a disastrously denuded landscape. This is the idea of 'shifting baselines' that is beginning to get the attention it should. We need to be more ambitious.

As the news of this report broke on Tuesday morning, some attention was paid. But it was treated almost as a light item to insert alongside the real news of economy and fear. The Prime Minister was interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. I was not surprised that no mention of this report was made - but I still fumed.

Satish Kumar once said that it is a madness that we concentrate so much on the economy and so little on the ecology - both words stem from the same root - oikos, meaning home.

And ecology means the study of our home - economy, management. To have one without the other is absurd. Having one without the other is why we are suffering such catastrophic loss.

Appreciate the wonder of life - and act to save it

At times the realisation of the extent of loss leaves me gasping - and I do think that there is a need to engage in a form of grieving for what has gone.

But we also need to create change. And for that we need to embrace the rather unscientific notion of love. As Stephen Jay Gould said, "We will not fight to save what we do not love."

But loving the vulnerable sets you up for grief, so we hold back, erect walls, and numb ourselves with quick fixes. But without taking that risk of falling in love we will always remain removed from the reality of the problem and will never find the solution.

We may be going to hell in a handcart, but we are doing so surrounded by an awe-inspiring world - surrounded by, as Darwin said, "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful".

And that includes the people - among whom I hope, so deeply, are already seeding the solutions which will pull us back from this brink.



The report: Living Planet Report 2014.

Hugh Warwick is an ecologist and author. For more information, articles etc, see his website:

Books by Hugh Warwick

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