WildCounts Manifesto

We all have a duty to watch our wild. We can count everything that can be easily counted, and we can do it today.

written Jan 8, 2018 (last updated Sep 5, 2021) • by Jon Sullivan • Category: Why count

Change is all around us

We live in an age of rapid environmental change: global warming, ocean acidification, wild habitat loss, extensive and intensive land use changes, pollution, widespread pesticide use, species invasions, over-hunting and harvesting. Phew! Pretty much everything about the natural environment is being changed.

It’s all because we, humans, are the most amazingly successful big animal the Earth has ever known. We dominate the planet. Our success has big consequences for all the other wild species with which we share the planet. There’s now a lot less world for them to be wild in. The consequences of that can have consequences for us.

San Gabriel River, California
Many natural landscapes have been modified massively by human development, like this view north up the San Gabriel River in Long Beach, Southern California. It's amazing how many wild species can still be found, and counted, in heavily modified places like this. How these species are faring remains largely unknown for most places.

WildCounts is built on the belief that we all have a duty to watch our wild. The essential first step to becoming stewards of our local patches of the planet is getting to know the wild species living with us. How are they faring in the face of all these changes? To know that, we need long-term monitoring of the wild.

Long-term ecological monitoring

Formal long-term monitoring of wild nature has been described as a Cinderella science. It’s not glamorous, it rarely makes articles in top science journals, and it takes effort and expertise applied over decades to reveal patterns and trends. In short, it’s no way to get ahead in science, and so very little of it gets done. Formal long-term monitoring also requires institutional commitment beyond the usual funding and political cycles. It’s always vulnerable to the criticism, “Why?”. “Why are we doing it?”

Many have claimed, and with some good reasons, that it is irresponsible to spend public, or private, money on long-term ecological monitoring, except when there is a clear question to be answered and a clear time frame for answering it. Not the general “how are things changing?” kinds of questions, but much more targeted questions with foreseeable applications or implications. In some scenarios, that can make sense.

However, this kind of targeted monitoring has not typically given us the necessary breadth and depth of knowledge of how nature is changing. It is poor at revealing the surprise changes that nobody anticipated. We should expect a lot of those surprises as we steer the planet into unchartered environmental conditions.

Technology is making it easier

Others look to the near horizon of technological advances to bring us cheap, ubiquitous monitoring of nature. Environmental DNA! Drones! Camera traps! Microphone arrays! As costs come down, our gadgets can do more. Perhaps in a decade or two, we won’t need people to do monitoring at all; there will be arrays of clever gadgets installed everywhere watching nature for us. (That is, if our privacy policies allow it. Would you or your neighbours be OK with a government microphone or camera constantly recording in your home gardens and local parks?)

The more technology advances, the easier counting the wild has become, yet we still do very little of it. Counting became much easier with the invention of the internet as it swung open the doors to the world’s taxonomy, and the knowledge in the world’s museums and science journals. Counting became much more powerful with the invention of GPS and digital cameras and digital microphones. It became much more accessible when smart phones put all that tech into everybody’s pockets. Every technological advance has underscored that the reason why we’re not counting the wild is not technology. It’s social. It’s us.

Enough already!

As a society, we could have monitored the past century of changes to wild nature, but, for the most part, we didn’t. There are some shining exceptions, especially driven by bird and butterfly enthusiasts in Europe and North America. However, most of nature, in most places, has been changing in ways that have gone undocumented and largely unnoticed.

WildCounts says enough already! We shouldn’t wait for cheap gadgets to do it all for us. We shouldn’t wait for political and institutional stars to align. We shouldn’t be constrained by tightly prescribed research questions and current funding fashions. Our natural world, your world, is changing now!

Here are the observations from iNaturalist of the same stretch of heavily modified San Gabriel River photographed above. You can find wild nature anywhere! The map shows the 55 species that had been recorded by 22 January 2019. Each pin colour is a different species. Click on any pin to link back to its observation page on iNaturalist.org. This is a great start but there are not nearly enough observations, and they've not been counted consistently enough, nor for long enough, to know what the trends are in the species living here.

We have no time machine. Most of what we don’t count today can never be counted. A lot of the wild is cheap, easy, and fun(!), to count. We don’t need to wait for politicians and big institutions to invest in long term ecological monitoring networks and DNA barcode libraries (although they most certainly should).

We can count everything that can be easily counted and we can do it today. Lots of species are easy to find and identify, sometimes after a little practise. Crowds of naturalists in online communities, especially at iNaturalist, are just an app tap away to help you identify just about any species. Anyone can now adopt a favourite species and become the local expert on how it is faring in their area.

If we have fun sharing our counts, we can easily learn how a lot of our local wild is changing. When that happens in lots of local places, we can also understand how our wild planet is responding to our actions.

Counting the wild is fun and important

And, counting the wild is fun. Connecting into the natural rhythms of wild nature around us can be immensely satisfying, and humbling, and quietly exhilarating. It’s not one of the giddy instant rewards that modern life demands that we all need. Instead, counting the wild can pull us out of the stresses of daily life and root us deeply into a local sense of place. It adds an extra sense of meaning, and perspective, to busy days.

In this rapidly changing world, we can all make a difference by picking a piece of our wild to count. We don’t need to be professional scientists or have access to expensive science equipment to count the wild. Technology is making it easier and easier for interested individuals and groups to learn the skills they need to start counting the wild.

The best time to start counting your local wild, other than yesterday, is right now!

Nature is changing. Count the wild!