• Open Access

Evidence for shifting baseline syndrome in conservation


E.J. Milner-Gulland, Department of Life Sciences and Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, Silwood Park, Buckhurst Road, Ascot, Berks, SL5 7PY, UK. Tel: 020 7594 2509; fax: 020 7594 2339. E-mail: e.j.milner-gulland@imperial.ac.uk


Shifting baseline syndrome (SBS) is often referred to as a key issue for conservation, yet there is little evidence for its existence. The presence of SBS could influence the validity of participatory monitoring, local ecological knowledge, community based conservation, and conservation education. We outline two forms of SBS: (1) generational amnesia, where knowledge extinction occurs because younger generations are not aware of past biological conditions and (2) personal amnesia, where knowledge extinction occurs as individuals forget their own experience. Two conditions are essential to the identification of SBS: (1) biological change must be present in the system and (2) any perceived changes must be consistent with the biological data. If age or experience-related differences in perception are then found, generational amnesia may be occurring. Alternately, if individuals believe current conditions also occurred in the past, personal amnesia may be occurring. Previous studies have not fully addressed these conditions, and hence cannot provide indisputable evidence for the existence of SBS. We present three case studies to examine these issues, which demonstrate both forms of SBS. Shifting baseline syndrome is no longer a cautionary tale, but instead is a real problem for those using human perceptions of change to inform conservation policy-making or management.