Which species will be intentionally preserved depends on societal perspectives regarding nature and species, but these have been little studied. In this study, it was hypothesized that in species-specific conservation, aesthetical perspectives, notably the appreciation of species characteristics as embodied in taxa, are important. However, this importance is changing due to variation in ecological (in particular, knowledge of species’ populations) and ethical perspectives (in particular regarding specific human-species relationships). The hypothesis was approached by assessing the relative involvement of different taxa in species-specific legislation on wild animals in the Netherlands over the period 1857–1995. Three objectives in this legislation were defined namely, ‘control’, ‘use’ and ‘protection’, based on purposes and potential levels of legally allowable taking. Over time, the number of species protected increased, whereas the numbers subject to ‘use’ and ‘control’ reached a peak and decreased again. The taxa included birds, mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fishes, bivalves, gastropods, cephalopods, insects, crustaceans and asteroids. Persistent differences were found in the relative involvement of taxa in the objectives as well as in the relative extent to which taxa were affected by long-term trends in numbers of species subject to the objectives. The results also show that species of one-and-the-same taxon were not regarded equally over time. It is concluded that the long-term changes in species’ legal status probably resulted from the combined effects of both the appreciation of species characteristics embodied in taxa and, in particular, changes in ethical perspectives regarding human-species relationships.