Today, many of us are aware that certain animals, such as the giant panda and the polar bear, are endangered species. What many might not realize, though, is that the endangered species list contains thousands of species, and they're not all animals. Indeed, many of the species you'll find on the list are plants!
Animals and plants that are at risk of becoming extinct because of threats from changing environments or predators are considered threatened or endangered.
An "endangered" species is any species in danger of extinction through all or a significant portion of its range. A "threatened" species is any species that is likely to become an endangered species within the foreseeable future.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) keeps track of endangered species around the world. As of 2006, the IUCN estimates that up to 40 percent of all organisms are endangered.
Thanks to concerned citizens and scientists worldwide, many nations have passed laws to protect and conserve endangered species. Some laws forbid hunting, while others restrict land development or create special preserves as endangered species habitats.
Unfortunately, not all endangered species obtain protection via special conservation laws. In fact, conservationists believe only a very few of the many threatened species benefit from protective laws, while many more species face the threat of extinction without the public taking notice.
In the United States, researchers believe the number of species threatened with extinction is 10 times greater than the number protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Some believe that governments have made it too hard for a threatened species to be added to the official list of endangered species in order to receive special protection. Although any person can ask the government to list a species as threatened or endangered, the listing process can take more than two years to complete.
Scientists must establish the conservation status of a species, which is an estimate of the chance of a species not living. Researchers must take many factors into account, such as the number remaining, the decrease in population over time, breeding rates, environmental and predatory threats, etc.
Despite these challenges, progress has been made. More than 195 countries around the world have signed an accord, agreeing to create biodiversity action plans to protect endangered and other threatened species.
In the United States, these plans are usually called "species recovery plans" and are developed according to guidelines in the Endangered Species Act.
Experts with the Fish and Wildlife Service's Recovery Program design recovery plans to reverse the decline of threatened or endangered species. Overall, the Endangered Species Act has been widely recognized by wildlife scientists as an effective tool in the battle against extinction.
Supporters of the Endangered Species Act believe it has been very successful in slowing the decline of threatened and endangered species. For example, 19 species have been delisted and recovered, and 93 percent of listed species in the northeastern part of the country have a recovering or stable population.