When I was a teenager I used to see goannas frequently. My parents owned a property on the far south coast of New South Wales and I knew of at least two locations there where it was possible to see goannas. Red-bellied black snakes were regularly seen, too. Swifts would come like clockwork every Christmas, migrating down the length of Australia’s east coast and swooping so low over the house that you could hear the rattle of their wings. A pair of swallows raised a brood every year in a carefully constructed mud nest under the eaves of the house until one year, suddenly, they didn’t. We blamed the family dog for scaring them off, or a failed season when the young fell out of the nest on to the bricks below. We imagined the adult swallows still out there, making a conscious decision to avoid the nest. We imagined them associating the nest with breeding failure, and so avoiding it.
The lives of animals happen mostly out of our sight. In particular their deaths happen away from us, hidden from view, their bodies broken down and recycled without us even knowing they’re there. Very few of us ever take the time to learn to recognise individuals among populations of wild animals—the specific arrangement of whiskers, the particular pattern of bumps, that distinguish one kangaroo or humpback whale from another. All animals of a species look alike to most of us, and so the fate of individual animals is lost; without individuality the lives of animals become weightless in our minds, one animal blending into another, each animal becoming interchangeable and so the species becoming eternal. Until we stop seeing them altogether.
I can’t remember when I stopped seeing goannas, and black snakes, and swifts, on my parents’ property. I just know that one day I suddenly realised: hey, it’s been a while. Late last year I saw my first swifts in over a decade near Chiltern in north-eastern Victoria, hundreds of kilometres from my parents’ place. A couple of months later I saw a goanna, too, after a similar number of years, even further away: in north Queensland. Neither of these sightings negates the absence of sightings in what I once considered my home patch. Neither cancels out the many years of absence of these species from both my own interior landscape, and more importantly the actual physical landscape in which I’d become accustomed to seeing them.
When the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services announced in a landmark report earlier this month that one million species were at risk of extinction due to human activity, I was on a plane to Melbourne from Broome. I’d visited Roebuck Bay, famed for its migratory shorebirds. Most of the birds had left for their breeding grounds before I visited, but thousands were still there, and when I saw massed flocks of them I was awe-struck. Somebody I met in Broome, who used to be a warden at Roebuck Bay, gave me some context: when you’re used to seeing hundreds of thousands of birds, she said, you can become blasé about seeing tens of thousands.
I don’t know if in general people have become blasé about seeing wild animals, but we’ve become blasé about their existence, or more to the point their absence. When we see a wild animal, those of us who are enthusiastic about these things, we get excited: because the interaction is so uncommon, and increasingly so. In that context it’s almost impossible to imagine phenomena such as the flocks of thousands of topknot pigeons which would have flown through the forest on my parents’ property only a century ago.
There’s a phenomenon called shifting baseline syndrome. For ecologists, a baseline is the first number of animals, or plants, or amount of habitat, or whatever, that you measure: the standard to which all future measurements are compared. In shifting baseline syndrome, every generation of people sees the nature in their own era as normal, and so fails to recognise that it’s less than it was a generation ago, and even less than a generation before that, and so on. Thus species disappear from existence without us even realising.
A lot of emphasis is often put on what changes people can make in their everyday lives to reverse the manifold environmental crises that we’re currently facing—too much emphasis, probably, when the problems are systemic; when the real damage is being done by greedy corporations and venal politicians. But there is a place for individual action—and the absolute bare minimum any of us can do is to start to notice the species around us, and their number, and their health, and whether we see still them next year or the year after that.