Five mass extinctions with losses of more than 50 percent of extant species are observable in the fossil record. Recent extinctions are recorded in written history and are the basis for one method of estimating contemporary extinction rates. The other method uses measures of habitat loss and species-area relationships. Estimates of contemporary extinction rates vary but are as high as 500 times the background rate, as determined from the fossil record, and are predicted to rise.
There is a legislative framework for biodiversity protection. International treaties such as CITES regulate the transportation of endangered species across international borders. Legislation within individual countries protecting species and agreements on global warming have had limited success; there is at present no international agreement on targets for greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, the Endangered Species Act protects listed species but is hampered by procedural difficulties and a focus on individual species. The Migratory Bird Act is an agreement between Canada and the
United States to protect migratory birds. The non-profit sector is also very active in conservation efforts in a variety of ways.
Conservation preserves are a major tool in biodiversity protection. Presently, 11 percent of Earth’s land surface is protected in some way. The science of island biogeography has informed the optimal design of preserves; however, preserves have limitations imposed by political and economic forces. In addition, climate change will limit the effectiveness of present preserves in the future. A downside of preserves is that they may lessen the pressure on human societies to function more sustainably outside the preserves.
Habitat restoration has the potential to restore ecosystems to previous biodiversity levels before species become extinct. Examples of restoration include reintroduction of keystone species and removal of dams on rivers. Zoos have attempted to take a more active role in conservation and can have a limited role in captive breeding programs. Zoos also have a useful role in education.