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A plant or animal species is endangered when its continuing survival is in doubt. Endangered plants and animals face the risk of becoming extinct, disappearing completely from the world of living things. Extinction is nothing new. Scientists know from studying fossils that the great majority of all species that ever existed are now extinct. However, the current rate of extinction is extremely high, compared to past levels, and human activities appear to be a major factor.
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A variety of human activities can cause a species to become extinct. Hunting, fishing, or gathering may reduce the population to levels too low for the species to survive, especially when there is a profitable trade in goods made from wild animals and plants. In the 1800s sailors caused the extinction of the great auk, a seabird, by hunting it for food and oil. The habitat of a species may be destroyed by development or toxic pollution, as in the case of mercury emissions, which endanger many species of fish and waterfowl. Humans may also introduce new species into an area that prey on or compete with native plants and animals. The mongoose, brought to Puerto Rico in the 1800s, has caused the extinction of at least twelve species of reptiles and amphibians.
Some national governments, along with international conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund, are working to protect endangered species and the habitats that support them. Their goal is to preserve biodiversity, the rich variety of species that has evolved over millions of years.
However, protecting species and habitats often means putting restrictions on human activities, such as building houses, using water, or harvesting plants. Some people believe that human needs should take priority over the needs of other species. Others believe that it is important to preserve other species because they may someday be useful to humans as sources of food, medicine, or knowledge. A third group argues that biodiversity should be protected because all living things are vital parts of the web of life and have a right to exist, regardless of their value to human beings.
Some scientists estimate that, unless protective measures are increased, approximately 20 percent of the earth’s species may become extinct within the first few decades of the twenty-first century. These extinctions will be fairly evenly divided among major plant and animal groups in both developed and developing countries. Certain ecosystems that are home to large numbers of species, such as wetlands and tropical rain forests, are particularly threatened by expanding human activities.
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The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), established in 1975, is an international agreement to regulate trade in endangered plants and animals and products made from them. One hundred and fifty nations participate in the CITES agreement, which gives varying degrees of protection to about twenty-five thousand species of plants and five thousand species of animals. The agreement bans international trade completely for some species. For others, it permits limited trade. A species may move from one level of protection to another depending upon how well it is doing in the wild. For example, CITES gave African elephants the highest level of protection in 1989, when ivory poaching had wiped out half the elephants on the continent. By 2000, with the number of elephants on the rise, some African nations asked CITES to "downlist" the species, which would have allowed a controlled ivory trade. Fearing that the existence of a legal trade would increase illegal poaching, however, CITES left the elephants’ status unchanged.
CITES and other global bodies, such as the International Whaling Commission (ICW), have helped save a number of species from extinction and have created a framework for nations to work together on conservation issues. The agreements of these organizations have limitations, however. They apply only to the nations that voluntarily accept them, and they provide only partial protection. For example, although the ICW has placed a worldwide ban on whaling, nations such as Japan have taken advantage of a loophole that allows whales to be caught for "scientific" purposes.
Another limitation is that CITES applies only to international trade, leaving national governments to decide how species are treated within their borders. Much of the activity that threatens species today, such as the widespread destruction of forests in Indonesia, occurs within specific nations. The countries of the world have taken different approaches to species protection, and some have been more successful than others. In nations struggling with poverty, war, or rapid population growth, preserving wildlife may be a low priority. Even governments that recognize species preservation as a goal may lack the resources to protect endangered species effectively.
Governments that wish to protect endangered species may also face opposition from other nations. A dispute rose in the late 1990s when the United States tried to ban imports of shrimp caught with nets that killed sea turtles. India, Malaysia, Pakistan, and Thailand successfully overturned the ban on the grounds that it violated international trade agreements.
THE U.S. ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT
In 1973 the United States passed the Endangered Species Act (ESA), one of the world’s broadest wildlife preservation laws. Under the act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) lists plant and animal species as endangered or threatened. An endangered species is one that faces extinction throughout all or most of its range. A threatened species is likely to become endangered. As of March 2008, the act listed 1,925 species worldwide as threatened or endangered, with 1,351 of them in the United States.
The ESA gives the federal government the right and responsibility to protect endangered and threatened species on federally owned land, such as national forests. The FWS also works with the states and with landowners to encourage protection of species and habitats on private land. Companies and landowners must meet ESA conditions before developing private lands inhabited by endangered species.
The ESA has had many notable successes. The California condor, the gray wolf, and the bald eagle would all probably be extinct by now if not for the act. However, it has also provoked controversy. American environmental groups have used the ESA to restrict logging, grazing, and suburban development by claiming that the lands in question are home to an endangered species. For example, in 1999 a commercial development project in Colton, California, was blocked because it would have disturbed the habitat of the Delhi Sands fly, the only fly to make the Endangered Species List. Critics, including loggers and developers, claim that environmental groups are manipulating the ESA to achieve broader conservation goals. Furthermore, some argue that it is unreasonable to restrict development in order to preserve a species that may have no known value.
One such debate raged during the 1990s in the Pacific Northwest, where old-growth forests scheduled for logging were found to be the home of two threatened birds—the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet. Pressure from communities where logging was a key industry convinced Congress to suspend the ESA in order to allow timber sales to proceed. However, the government eventually canceled the planned timber sales because of charges of illegal lobbying.
A similar conflict arose when drought struck southern Oregon in 2001 and federal officials ordered that water from reservoirs go to protect the habitat of the endangered suckerfish, rather than to irrigate farmers’ fields. Some farmers took matters into their own hands, illegally opening irrigation flows. When local water authority and law enforcement officials refused to act, the federal government sent employees to close the flows. Tempers ran high as conservationists determined to see the ESA enforced faced off against farmers who insisted they were defending their livelihoods. Such confrontations are likely to continue as long as the needs of wildlife conflict with the demands of the economy.
Last edited by CarmeloLabadie on 09-20-2021 at 08:50 AM
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