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One Fifth of known species on Earth found in Unesco world heritage sites

Home » conservation » One Fifth of known species on Earth found in Unesco world heritage sites
Flamingos in Everglades national park, Florida. Photograph: Julia Thomsen
Flamingos in Everglades national park, Florida.
Photograph: Julia Thomsen

Sites cover less than 1% of planet and although protected are at risk from climate breakdown and human consumption, say experts

A fifth of known life on Earth can be found in Unesco world heritage sites, according to the first survey of the planet’s most important cultural and historical landmarks.

From the Great Barrier Reef to the Kazakh steppe, nearly three-quarters of all recorded bird species, two-thirds of all mammals and more than half of all hard corals have been recorded at world heritage sites even though they cover less than 1% of the planet, according to the new analysis produced by Unesco and the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The findings from this survey are indeed significant and highlight the exceptional value of UNESCO World Heritage Sites for global biodiversity and cultural heritage preservation. Here are some key takeaways from this research:

  1. Biodiversity Hotspots: UNESCO World Heritage Sites are not only important for cultural and historical reasons but also serve as biodiversity hotspots. They host a remarkable concentration of the Earth’s known life forms, including a wide variety of species from birds and mammals to corals.
  2. Global Conservation Importance: Despite covering less than 1% of the planet’s surface, these sites are home to a substantial portion of the world’s biodiversity. This underscores their global conservation importance and the need to prioritize their protection.
  3. Species Conservation: Many endangered and critically endangered species find refuge in these protected areas. The fact that all remaining Javan rhinos, vaquita porpoises, pink iguanas, and a significant percentage of mountain gorillas, breeding albatrosses, and Sumatran orangutans are found in these sites highlights the critical role these areas play in species conservation.
  4. Cultural and Natural Integration: The inclusion of both cultural and natural sites in the UNESCO World Heritage list demonstrates the interconnectedness of human culture and the natural world. These sites represent the shared heritage of humanity and the need to conserve both cultural and natural diversity.
  5. Conservation Challenges: Despite their protected status, UNESCO World Heritage Sites are not immune to environmental threats, such as habitat loss, climate change, poaching, and pollution. Ensuring the long-term conservation of these sites requires addressing these challenges comprehensively.
  6. International Collaboration: The preservation of these sites is a shared responsibility, and international cooperation is essential. Collaborative efforts among nations, organizations, and communities are vital to protect and manage these areas effectively.
  7. Public Awareness: Raising public awareness about the value of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the urgent need for their protection is crucial. This can lead to increased support for conservation efforts and responsible tourism practices.

The 1,157 protected sites in almost every country on Earth, which include key nature sites such as the Okavango delta alongside landmarks such as the Great Wall of China, are home to some of the world’s most threatened species, including all remaining Javan rhinos, vaquita porpoises and pink iguanas, along with more than half of all mountain gorillas, breeding albatrosses and Sumatran orangutans.

The Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) is a critically endangered species found only in the north of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is rarer than the Bornean orangutan but more common than the recently identified Tapanuli orangutan.
The Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) is a critically endangered species found only in the north of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. It is rarer than the Bornean orangutan but more common than the recently identified Tapanuli orangutan.

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The presence of remarkable natural wonders like Hyperion, the world’s tallest tree, the stinking corpse lily, the largest flower, and the overwintering region of the monarch butterfly within UNESCO World Heritage Sites further emphasizes the incredible diversity and ecological significance of these areas.

The vast size of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, exceeding that of India and containing forests twice the size of Germany, further accentuates their conservation significance. These sites encompass a wide range of ecosystems, from tropical rainforests to arid deserts, making them invaluable for preserving Earth’s biodiversity.

The extensive forests, wetlands, and other habitats found within these sites play a crucial role in sequestering carbon, mitigating climate change, and supporting countless species. Protecting these habitats is essential for maintaining the ecological balance of our planet.

Many of these sites also serve as important hubs for ecotourism and environmental education. Responsible tourism practices can generate funds for conservation efforts while raising awareness about the importance of protecting natural and cultural heritage.

But experts say the world heritage sites are threatened by climate breakdown and human overconsumption, prompting warnings that some species could go extinct in the protected areas despite being recognised as globally important.

Climate change poses a significant threat to these protected areas. Rising temperatures, altered precipitation patterns, and more frequent extreme weather events can disrupt ecosystems, harm species, and damage cultural heritage sites. Measures to mitigate and adapt to climate change within these sites are essential.

Human overconsumption of natural resources, including deforestation, overfishing, and habitat destruction, can have detrimental effects on the biodiversity and ecological balance of these areas. Sustainable land and resource management practices are necessary to prevent overexploitation.

The authors of the report make an important and timely recommendation regarding the need for governments to prioritize the protection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites as they plan to meet the UN biodiversity targets and work towards the goal of protecting 30% of the Earth’s surface and restoring degraded ecosystems.

Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of world heritage at Unesco, said that while most world heritage sites were cultural, they also included many important natural areas that must urgently get better protection.

Mr. Assomo’s statement emphasizes the critical importance of enhancing protection for both cultural and natural World Heritage Sites. Here are some key points highlighted in his message:

  1. Urgent Need for Protection: The urgent need for better protection of World Heritage Sites, particularly those of natural significance, is underscored. These sites play a vital role in conserving biodiversity, and their preservation is essential for preventing the extinction of key species.
  2. Contribution to Biodiversity Conservation: World Heritage Sites are not just valuable for their cultural heritage but also for their significant contribution to biodiversity conservation. These areas serve as refuges for endangered and threatened species, making their protection a global conservation priority.
  3. Data-Driven Conservation: Providing governments with data that demonstrates the potential extinction risk to key species within World Heritage Sites is a powerful advocacy tool. It underscores the importance of proactive conservation measures to prevent such extinctions.
  4. Specific Threatened Species: Mentioning specific species like vaquitas, Javan rhinoceros, and mountain gorillas that are found in World Heritage Sites highlights the immediate conservation challenges facing these areas. It draws attention to the fact that the fate of these species is closely tied to the protection of these sites.
  5. International Cooperation: The protection of World Heritage Sites often involves international cooperation, as these sites may cross national borders. Encouraging governments to work together on conservation efforts is crucial for achieving meaningful results.
  6. Awareness and Advocacy: Messages like this from UNESCO serve to raise awareness about the importance of World Heritage Sites and the urgent need for their protection. Advocacy efforts can lead to increased support and action at the national and international levels.

These examples further illustrate the incredible diversity of life and natural wonders found within UNESCO World Heritage Sites:

Shark Bay, Australia

Shark Bay is renowned for its exceptional biodiversity and unique natural features. One of its remarkable attributes is the extensive seagrass meadows that stretch over 110 miles, making them the largest seagrass plant on Earth. These seagrass beds are vital for marine life, serving as a nursery for various species and providing critical habitat for dugongs and other marine creatures. Shark Bay’s diverse ecosystems and pristine waters make it a UNESCO World Heritage Site of great ecological significance.

Abuelo Tree, Argentina

The Abuelo tree, located in the Alerces National Park in Argentina, is an ancient giant of the natural world. Estimated to be around 2,600 years old, this ancient tree is a living testament to the resilience and longevity of some of Earth’s oldest organisms. The Alerces National Park, where the Abuelo tree is found, is not only home to ancient trees but also offers pristine wilderness, lakes, and diverse wildlife. This site has been recognized for its ecological and cultural value.

iSimangaliso Wetland Park, South Africa

iSimangaliso Wetland Park, located in South Africa, is indeed one of the most outstanding natural wetland and coastal sites on the African continent. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is renowned for its exceptional natural beauty, biodiversity, and unique ecological features. The park is home to a rich and diverse array of wildlife, including the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, and rhinoceros), as well as numerous bird species, reptiles, and marine life. It is particularly known for its birdwatching opportunities.


Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries, Thailand

Stretching over more than 600,000 ha along the Myanmar border, the sanctuaries, which are relatively intact, contain examples of almost all the forest types of continental South-East Asia. They are home to a very diverse array of animals, including 77% of the large mammals (especially elephants and tigers), 50% of the large birds and 33% of the land vertebrates to be found in this region.

In summary, integrating UNESCO World Heritage Sites into national biodiversity strategies and action plans is a pragmatic and holistic approach to protect these globally significant areas. It aligns national efforts with international commitments, strengthens conservation outcomes, and underscores the importance of these sites in achieving global biodiversity targets.

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