Species of wild flowers and the animal populations form part of European heritage. Apart from the fact that they represent non-renewable genetic assets, they participate in many natural functions which ensure overall ecological balances, such as the regulation of the development of undesirable organisms, the protection of the soil against erosion and the regulation of aquatic ecosystems. The genetic assets represented by all present-day animal and plant species constitute a resource of ecological, scientific and economic interest of inestimable value for the future of mankind. However, industrialisation, urbanisation and pollution are threatening a growing number of wild species and undermining the natural balances resulting from several million years of evolution.
A European Directive aims to protect natural and semi-natural habitats and wild fauna and flora [Directive 92/43]. It provides for the establishment of a European ecological network of special conservation areas, "Natura 2000", made up of sites which are home to types of natural habitats of species of interest to the European Union. The Member States must take appropriate steps to avoid their deterioration or any other disturbances affecting the species.
A significant means of protecting wildlife threatened with extinction is to restrict and control rigorously international trade in plants and animals belonging to such species and products made from them. Therefore, the European Union implements the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which aims at protecting 2.000 species through the stringent control of international trade. However, the relevant European Regulation covers a wider field than the Convention, dividing the species into four classes to be given protection, ranging from statistical monitoring of trade to a total trading ban, depending on the degree of the threat of extinction [Regulation 338/97]. Special attention is given to re-exportation, control of commercial activities involving such specimens and definition of the infringements, which Member States are required to penalise.
For the protection of wildlife, the European Union depends on the work of international bodies, in particular the Council of Europe, directed towards ensuring the protection of wildlife and the conservation of the characteristic biotopes or ecosystems, in particular in wetlands, which are essential to such life. It has signed as such all the European conventions for the conservation of migratory species and wild animals. Most important in that context is the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat [Recommendation 75/66]. In 1982, the Community as such signed the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals, known as the "Bonn Convention" [Convention, Decision 82/461 and Decision 98/145], and the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, called the "Berne Convention" [Convention and Decision 82/72]. Those three Conventions, together with the Conventions for the Conservation of Salmon in the North Atlantic Ocean [Convention and Decision 82/886] and for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna [Convention and Decision 86/238], which concern the conservation of fishery resources, were to provide the framework for European action in the field of the protection of flora and fauna. The European Community's accession to the International Plant Protection Convention is intended to secure common and effective action to prevent the spread and introduction of pests of plants and plant products, and to provide appropriate measures for their control [Convention and Decision 2004/597].
To implement the international Conventions, the European Union has taken specific measures relating to certain particularly endangered species. These measures include: a Directive on the conservation of wild birds, which establishes the list of species which may be hunted, the list of species which may be marketed and the list of prohibited methods of hunting and trapping [Directive 2009/147]; a Regulation prohibiting the importation of certain products derived from cetaceans (whales, etc.), in order to contribute to the conservation of such endangered species [Regulation 348/81]; a Directive prohibiting imports into the European Union of skins of harp seal pups and of hooded seal pups [Directive 83/129]; a Regulation setting out harmonised strict conditions for the placing on the market of seal products in the EU [Regulation 1007/2009]; a Regulation prohibiting the use of leghold traps in the EC/EU and the introduction into the EC/EU of pelts and manufactured goods of certain wild animal species originating in countries which catch them by means of leghold traps [Regulation 3254/91] and an agreement between the European Community/Union and Canada and Russia on international humane trapping standards [Agreement and Decision 98/142]. The EC/EU prohibits the issue of import permits for ivory derived from the African elephant, with a view to contributing in that way to putting a stop to the slaughter thereof. The EC/EU as such is signatory to the European Convention for the Protection of Vertebrate Animals used for Experimental and other Scientific Purposes, which establishes the conditions under which experiments on vertebrate animals may be authorised [Convention and Decision 1999/575 and Directive 2010/63].
The situation of several plant species in Europe and elsewhere in the world is no less worrying, owing to the encroachment on the countryside by towns, soil erosion and soil destruction and the abandonment of rural life by an ever-increasing number of citizens. Thousands of hectares of forests are destroyed in Europe each year by fires and pollution. To curb this problem, the nature and biodiversity component of the financial instrument LIFE+ [Regulation 614/2007, see section 16.2] finances inter alia: the collection, analysis and dissemination of policy-relevant information concerning forests and environmental interactions; the harmonisation and effectiveness of forest monitoring activities and data collection systems at regional, national, European and global level; projects relating to the broad-based, harmonised, comprehensive and long-term monitoring of forests and environmental interactions; and projects for awareness-raising campaigns and special training for agents involved in forest fire prevention initiatives.
The EC/EU and its Member States are parties to the United Nations Convention to combat desertification in countries seriously hit, particularly in Africa [Convention and Decision 98/216]. The Community has signed together with the Alpine countries the Convention on the protection of the Alps, which aims at safeguarding the Alpine ecosystem and securing environmentally sustainable development for the populations [Convention and Decision 96/191 and Decision 2005/923].
The European Union is a party in the Convention on the Conservation of Biological Diversity, which was drafted under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) [Convention and Decision 93/626]. The objectives of this Convention are: the conservation of biological diversity; the sustainable use of its components; and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from genetic resources. Under this Convention, the EC/EU undertook to define its own strategy to promote biodiversity. The Commission and the Council agree that this strategy should aim at preventing and attacking the causes of reduction and loss of biological diversity and should be built around four major themes: conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity; sharing of benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources; research, identification, monitoring and exchange of information; and education, training and awareness [COM/98/42].