Nature does not reconize international boundaries. Ecosystems bridge national borders, and many species migrate between countries or through international waters. The United States is a world leader in international conservation, and is a party to multiple treaties designed to protect natural resources throughout the world.
CITES (or “the Convention”) is an international treaty aimed at regulating the worldwide trade in threatened and endangered species. Because the trade in wild animals and plants crosses borders between countries, the effort to regulate it requires international cooperation to safeguard certain species from overexploitation. The Convention came into force in July 1975, with the United States as one of the ten original countries that were signatories to the Convention (referred to as Party countries). There are currently 175 CITES Party countries, and the Convention is administered through a Secretariat at the United Nations Environment Program in Switzerland. Though voluntary, CITES is legally binding on countries that do join and provides a framework for each country to adopt its own domestic legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at the national level.
Levels of exploitation of some animal and plant species are high and the trade in them -- together with other factors, such as habitat loss -- is, in some cases, depleting species populations and bringing some species close to extinction. Today, CITES accords varying degrees of protection to more than 33,000 species of animals and plants, whether they are traded as live specimens or as products made of, or derived from, listed species.
CITES works by subjecting international trade in specimens of selected species to certain controls. All import, export, re-export, and harvest of species covered by the Convention must be authorized through a licensing system. Each country must designate one or more Management Authorities to administer that licensing system and one or more Scientific Authorities to advise them on the effects of trade on the status of the species. In the United States, the Management and Scientific Authorities for CITES is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Enforcing national laws on trade in threatened and endangered species has benefits not only for these species. Illicit wildlife trade is linked to emerging infectious diseases carried by wild animals, and to other illegal activities.
The species covered by CITES fall into three catagories, according to the degree of protection they need:
- The first includes species threatened with extinction. Trade in specimens of these species is prohibited, though it may be permitted in exceptional circumstances. Examples of these species include gorillas, tigers, and Asian elephants.
- The second includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but relative to which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival. These species include wood buffalo, grizzled tree kangaroo, black storks, and all primates, except those in the first category.
- The third contains species that are protected in at least one country, which has asked other CITES countries for assistance in controlling the trade like the Korean pine in Russia.
Multinational Species Conservation Funds
The Multinational Species Conservation Fund (MSCF) was created by Congress in 1999 as part of title I of the Department of the Interior and Related Agencies Appropriations Act (16 U.S.C. 4246). Within the fund are specific wildlife conservation funds authorized under separate statutes that receive annual appropriations from Congress to support conservation activities in a wide range of countries to protect, recover or restore threatened and endangered species, specifically tigers, rhinoceroses, African elephants, Asian elephants, great apes and sea turtles. These wildlife species are all considered “keystone” or “umbrella” species which means that they enrich ecosystem function in a unique or significant manner through their activities, and their effect is disproportionate to their number. More than $115 million in matching or in-kind support has been obtained since the first grant was awarded under the African Elephant Conservation Act in 1990, nearly tripling the effect of the $43 million in Federal appropriated funds. Each Federal dollar invested in the MSCF routinely leverage three- or four-times that amount in non-Federal matching contributions and increases overall financial support for wildlife conservation. Including all of the funds, over 500 partners have worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 44 countries to protect and conserve these species. In addition, coordination with other Federal agencies overseas, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), has linked up species conservation and habitat management with economic development within range states.
Simply put, “biological diversity” encompasses the full spectrum of variability among all living organisms on the land and in the water. This complex web of systems and ecosystems supports all life, including our own. Without these complex systems, critical biogeochemical processes would not occur. Living organisms cycle the major elements, including carbon, nitrogen, phosphorous, and oxygen between the atmosphere, the land, and water. These “ecosystem services” are provided to human society. However, these services are not free, and when society recklessly destroys ecosystems, it does so at considerable long-term cost. Without biological diversity, human civilization would not be able to endure without expending enormous sums of manmade capital. Some ecosystem services are simply irreplaceable at any price, including the existence value of species and natural places that we enjoy for recreation.
Magnitude of Biological Diversity
Approximately 1.75 million species have been formally described by science; and scientists estimate that at present there are between 5 million and 30 million species living on the Earth. The oceans contain more taxonomic diversity than the biodiversity on land, likely reflecting the marine origins of life on the Earth. Species diversity varies across the globe with latitude, longitude, and altitude (or its equivalent, depth, in the oceans). The highest level of biodiversity is found in the tropical forests on land and in the Indo-West Pacific tropical seas in the oceans.
Local hot spots of diversity are generated by geographical features and have become important areas of concern for conservation efforts.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List estimates that 12-52% of species within well-studied higher organisms, such as vertebrates and vascular plants, are threatened with extinction. Based on data on recorded extinctions of known species over the past century, scientists estimate that current rates of species extinction are about 100 times higher than long-term average rates based on fossil data. These estimates are the basis of the consensus that the Earth is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event in its history, the “Holocene Mass Extinction.”
For the most recent 10,000 years man has been the greatest factor affecting biodiversity, with adverse impacts occurring at an accelerating pace since approximately the Industrial Revolution. Habitat destruction and habitat fragmentation, overexploitation, and pollution are the major drivers of extinction; climate change is expected to become a major cause. On oceanic islands in particular, non-native invasive species are the primary drivers of local extinction.
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment defined four categories of ecosystem services that contribute to human well-being:
- Provisioning services – for example wild foods, crops, fresh water and plant-derived medicines
- Regulating services – for example filtration of pollutants by wetlands, climate regulation through carbon storage and water cycling, pollination and protection from disasters;
- Cultural services – for example recreation, spiritual and aesthetic values, education;
- Supporting services – for example soil formation, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling.
“Hotspots” are characterized both by exceptional levels of plant endemism, i.e. plants unique to a defined geographic location, and by serious levels of habitat loss. To qualify as a hotspot, a region must meet two strict criteria: it must contain at least 1,500 species of vascular plants (> 0.5 percent of the world’s total) as endemics, and it has to have lost at least 70 percent of its original habitat.