History of Extinctions and Endangered Species Policies
Extinctions have occurred throughout our planet's natural history. Some species develop as others die out, making space in the ecosystem for those best suited to any given habitat's natural conditions. Long before human beings arrived, fossil records show that populations of animals evolved, thrived, declined, and became extinct. However, the rate of extinctions in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries drastically increased to an estimated 100 to 1,000 times the normal expected rate of extinction. The majority of these accelerated extinctions can be directly traced to mankind's impact upon the natural environment in the form of hunting, fishing, agriculture, development, pollution, habitat encroachment, disease, and global climate change.
The United States Congress created the Endangered Species Act of 1973 to replace earlier acts put into place in 1966, which had proven insufficient to protect at-risk wildlife. The new act was created to protect not only plant and animal species, but their ecosystems as well. This act lists species under two classifications: endangered and threatened. The first species listed under these new guidelines was the peregrine falcon, followed by the American alligator, bald eagle, and Florida panther. Few species have become extinct while listed under the Endangered Species Act, and 93 percent have had their population sizes increase or remain stable since being listed.
Some of the successes of the Endangered Species Act include the significant population recoveries of the peregrine falcon and bald eagle, as well as the gray whale, whooping crane, gray wolf, and grizzly bear. As of 2008, the US Fish and Wildlife Service lists over 1,300 species protected by the Endangered Species Act. However, many species have become extinct while under consideration for being listed as endangered, highlighting the need for immediacy and activism when a species is initially proposed as being threatened or endangered.
Founded in 1948 and headquartered in Switzerland, the World Conservation Union, or International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) is an international group dedicated to the protection of natural resources and plant and animal species. Every year since 1963 the IUCN has compiled and released its Red List of Threatened Species, widely considered to be the world's most comprehensive, accurate, and unbiased inventory of the global conservation status of plant and animal species. The Red List groups species according to nine different classifications: Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild, Extinct, Data Deficient, and Not Evaluated.
Since 1961, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) has also worked to protect at-risk animal species. Some of the WWF's innovative successes include the promotion of new types of fishing gear that reduce entanglement of endangered sea turtles, the implementation of new, alternate shipping lanes to reduce encounters with North Atlantic right whales, and a reduction in the killing of marauding elephants by farmers through the use of hot chili pepper barricades around garden plots. In 1990, the WWF founded its Conservation Science Program (CSP) to help their global conservation efforts through a solid base of scientific understanding, principles, and innovation. With the addition of the CSP, the WWF has been able to expand its efforts through new concepts like the Global 200, which is a compilation of 200 of the planet's most distinctive and biologically diverse terrestrial, freshwater and marine ecosystems. The goal of developing the Global 200 is to save and conserve the widest possible variety of the planet's species, ideally in the form of entire ecosystems and communities.
Many people seek another, controversial answer to the problem of extinction in the realm of experimental science: cloning. Scientists have already cloned an endangered Asian ox called a gaur, implanting the cloned embryo into a domestic cow mother who then carried and delivered a gaur calf. The calf died soon after birth due to unrelated natural causes, but the experiment was considered a success. Some conservationists worry that the ability to clone endangered or even extinct animals may give a false sense of security that will enable people to become lax in their commitment to conserve natural habitats, curb hunting, and save these species in their natural state. They warn that a future in which elephants, giraffes, lions, and tigers can only be seen as clones created in a laboratory for exhibition in a zoo, akin to a living catalogue of natural history, is hardly a victory of conservation.