Legislation has been enacted to protect species throughout the world. The legislation includes international treaties as well as national and state laws. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) treaty came into force in 1975. The treaty, and the national legislation that supports it, provides a legal framework for preventing “listed” species from being transported across nations’ borders, thus protecting them from being caught or killed in the first place when the purpose involves international trade. The listed species that are protected to one degree or another by the treaty number some 33,000. The treaty is limited in its reach because it only deals with international movement of organisms or their parts. It is also limited by various countries’ ability or willingness to enforce the treaty and supporting legislation. The illegal trade in organisms and their parts is probably a market in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Within many countries there are laws that protect endangered species and that regulate hunting and fishing. In the United States, the Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973. When an at-risk species is listed by the Act, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is required by law to develop a management plan to protect the species and bring it back to sustainable numbers. The Act, and others like it in other countries, is a useful tool, but it suffers because it is often difficult to get a species listed, or to get an effective management plan in place once a species is listed. Additionally, species may be controversially taken off the list without necessarily having had a change in their situation. More fundamentally, the approach to protecting individual species rather than entire ecosystems (although the management plans commonly involve protection of the individual species’ habitat) is both inefficient and focuses efforts on a few highly visible and often charismatic species, perhaps at the expense of other species that go unprotected.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) is an agreement between the United States and Canada that was signed into law in 1918 in response to declines in North American bird species caused by hunting. The Act now lists over 800 protected species. It makes it illegal to disturb or kill the protected species or distribute their parts (much of the hunting of birds in the past was for their feathers). Examples of protected species include northern cardinals, the red-tailed hawk, and the American black vulture.
Global warming is expected to be a major driver of biodiversity loss. Many governments are concerned about the effects of anthropogenic global warming, primarily on their economies and food resources. Since greenhouse gas emissions do not respect national boundaries, the effort to curb them is an international one. The international response to global warming has been mixed. The Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement that came out of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that committed countries to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2012, was ratified by some countries, but spurned by others. Two countries that were especially important in terms of their potential impact that did not ratify the Kyoto protocol were the United States and China. Some goals for reduction in greenhouse gasses were met and exceeded by individual countries, but, worldwide, the effort to limit greenhouse gas production is not succeeding. The intended replacement for the Kyoto Protocol has not materialized because governments cannot agree on timelines and benchmarks. Meanwhile, the resulting costs to human societies and biodiversity predicted by a majority of climate scientists will be high.
As already mentioned, the non-profit, non-governmental sector plays a large role in conservation effort both in North America and around the world. The approaches range from species-specific organizations to the broadly focused IUCN and Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC). The Nature Conservancy takes a novel approach. It purchases land and protects it in an attempt to set up preserves for ecosystems. Ultimately, human behavior will change when human values change. At present, the growing urbanization of the human population is a force that mitigates against valuing biodiversity, because many people no longer come in contact with natural environments and the species that inhabit them.