I always want to believe that everyone values protecting wildlife and preserving landscapes in the exact same way that I do. But the world is a diverse place, with perspectives and agendas as varied as the number of people in it. This part in the series on conservation organizations focuses on groups dedicated to working to pass and enforce laws that protect the environment and the animals and plants that reside within it.
Laws regulating environmental protections are set by country; in the United States this could be at the federal, state, or local level. In an ideal world, laws are set after balancing the needs and desires from multiple stakeholders, and informed by well-researched science. Part of the created laws should detail enforcement and penalties. However, we do not live in a perfect world. Laws are influenced by the loudest voices, rather than the most representative, enforcement varies widely by country and by law, and some laws have unintended and unanticipated consequences. That’s where political action groups come in. Such groups lobby the government directly, organize communities to exert political pressure, and sue to enforce laws, and directly support enforcement efforts.
A key part of the political strategy of conservation groups is to clearly define what constitutes an endangered species, and what species therefore merit legal protections. Determining which species are threatened and which species are legally protected are unfortunately decoupled processes. An independent body called the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) compiles population data of species across the globe, and based on that data, designates how close a species is to extinction through the designations: Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild, and Extinct. When I mention a species’ conservation status, I will be using the IUCN Red List determinations. However, governments do not use this database to confer legal protections. The United States bases its protections on species listed in the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which underrepresents imperiled species by up to 90% (Please see this article for how the ESA and IUCN compare) . Many legal challenges surround the question of whether an animal should be included on the ESA or not. These questions also influence trade and wildlife parts trafficking, and development and environmental impact legislations.
Political action related to conservation is a much deeper topic than I can cover in this post, so I’m just going to skim the surface at the moment and lay out some of the types of groups involved in conservation policy.
Types of Organizations
As described above, there are myriad ways in which politics and differing viewpoints can influence how wildlife and environmental protections are enacted and sustained. Conservation groups which work in this arena can be described as governmental lobbying organizations, community organizers, environmental legal defense, and direct action.
Lobbying groups are those whose main focus is on convincing all levels of the government to enact specific laws. Defenders of Wildlife is one example of this type of organization which focuses on political issues arising in the United States around wildlife topics. Among many of their projects, one method Defenders uses is to create standard letter templates for constituents to send to specific lawmakers to influence them to vote on wildlife issues or take clearly defined action. As of August 2016, the main website had links for sending letters regarding wildlife smuggling, ending the illegal wildlife trade, and protecting the Mexican grey wolf. This process helps individuals interested in specific problems to contact lawmakers directly for political change.
Community organizing explicitly focuses on building community support for solving a particular problem or taking a particular political action. March for Elephants is a global organization which organizes an annual protest march in cities across the globe to raise awareness in communities about the illegal ivory trade (poaching elephants for the purpose of selling their tusks). Part of the purpose of the march is to raise awareness of the ivory trade problem and provide a clear mechanism for the broader community voice support by signing petitions to the government to support relevant laws.
Lobbying and community organizing frequently emphasize the creation of new laws, or legal action to change existing ones. However, sometimes laws are already in place, but the government is not effective at enforcing those laws, or other groups or companies flout the laws with the assumption that there will be no consequences. That’s where legal defense and direction action groups come in.
While there are a plethora of frivolous lawsuits filed in the US, suing is also still an effective way to enact change. Thus, some conservation groups specialize in legal defense and lawsuits pertaining to environmental protection and the laws enacted surrounding wildlife issues. The Center for Biological Diversity is one such group. They file lawsuits to overturn laws that could be detrimental to the environment, sue to enforce conservation laws, and help defend against legal challenges to conservation laws. For example, as of August 2016, they are suing California regulators for a violation of the Environmental Protection Act, which they charge would turn a California aquifer into a dump for oil waste. In addition, they are assisting the National Marine Fisheries Service in a lawsuit brought by oil companies challenging the Endangered Species Act protections on bearded seals.
Sometimes the resources required for enforcement outstrip the resources available from the government. In these situations, direct action conservation groups help provide the services needed to protect animals and environments. Groups such as the Global Conservation Force help provide physical equipment–including boots and weapons–and training to guards in South African National Parks to help combat the rampant poaching crisis occurring there. It is not unheard of for guards to combat heavily militarized poachers with the latest in weaponry technology with a rifle from the 1970s and a stick.
Conservation organizations whose main mission is political action are instrumental in creating and enforcing legal protections for animals and environments that cannot defend themselves. In some cases, balancing the needs of multiple stakeholders is both critical and nuanced – an idea that will be explored in more detail in future posts.