Where the Wild Things Were

How Conservation Efforts are Faltering

Lonesome George, a Pinta Island tortoise, was the last of his subspecies. Wikimedia Commons

On the eve of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, I argued that wild nature was in deep distress and that the international institutions charged with the planet's care were managing it poorly ("The Future of Conservation," September/October 2002). Seven years on, the situation is even worse. Humans control the Earth's biosphere and directly manage perhaps half of global plant matter. Their collective ecological impact, however, has taken on a pernicious life of its own, seemingly beyond the will, and perhaps even the capacity. of sovereign political actors to affect.

The Rio de Janeiro summit in 1992 yielded the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), which was designed to promote the "conservation of biological diversity [and] the sustainable use of its components." As the International Year of Biodiversity approaches in 2010, a charitable appraisal might argue that the CBD has held its own. Ten percent of the world's terrestrial surface is now at least nominally under some kind of protection. National biodiversity assessments and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment have provided useful information on the "state of nature" in various places. The world knows more and is doing more about conservation than in the past.

Nevertheless, the loss of biodiversity -- wildlife, genetic material, ecosystems, and evolutionary processes -- has not abated. The United States has still not ratified the CBD, and the UN system for conservation is still weak, lacking sanctions for states that fail to live up to their commitments. Trade in protected wildlife continues and poaching runs rampant. Funding for conservation remains vanishingly small, and important animal populations and entire species are in grave danger.

Climate change, meanwhile, has begun to rival habitat loss as the greatest threat to the biosphere. After somehow maintaining most of its animal species throughout human history, for example, Africa now faces unprecedented losses of wildlife and wild places thanks to global warming. Savannah elephants have no exit corridors from East African drought; changes in water availability threaten natural areas and force the rural poor to

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