The official ‘List of World Heritage in Danger’ includes 17 natural sites. These are disproportionately in Africa, where 12 sites have been adversely affected by civil unrest, war and unprecedented levels of poaching.
Natural sites are particularly vulnerable during periods of unrest because they are viewed by locals as a source of free meat and other resources. At these times management of parks and protected areas becomes impossible and a proliferation of guns enables rebel groups, defending armies or opportunistic civilian populations to exploit resources. The current problems at sites in many African countries began during periods of civil unrest, and are likely to continue long after the cessation of conflict. Even if park infrastructure and management can be restored fairly quickly, animal populations take many years to recover.
Main Threats to Natural World Heritage Sites
Apart from the obvious impacts of civil unrest and war, the ‘Top 10’ threats to natural world heritage sites fall into the following categories:
Roads and Infrastructure Development
Many infrastructure development projects – roads, railways and power lines – are progressively eroding the wilderness values of natural world heritage sites, sometimes cutting directly through them or serving to isolate them from adjacent areas of natural habitat in the wider landscape. Plans for major new roads through world heritage sites – such as the proposed new Serengeti highway – tend to attract strong international opposition and may be averted, but development pressures are often overwhelming.
Poaching, logging and resource exploitation
Most natural world heritage sites – especially those in the tropics – are affected to some extent by illegal hunting and other forms of resource use. This becomes a serious problem when the level of off-take exceeds the natural replenishment rate. Large mammals that are targeted for their valuable trophies, such as rhino and elephants, are particularly vulnerable, and have been seriously affected by poaching in world heritage sites across their range states in Africa and Asia. Commercial exploitation of wildlife for meat and medicinal uses is common in many tropical areas throughout Africa, Asia and South America, and this has a serious impact on wildlife populations in these areas.
Mining and mineral exploitation
The present boom in commodity prices has resulted in a huge surge in mineral exploration activity in many parts of the world and, despite the provisions of the Convention, many governments regard world heritage sites as legitimate places for exploration. In Africa alone, there are eight important sites currently threatened by mining or mineral exploration including Mount Nimba, the Rwenzori Mountains, Virunga, Lake Turkana, Banc D’Arguin, iSimangaliso, Mana Pools and Selous. Other regions of the world are also affected, despite ongoing campaigns by civil society groups to ensure that natural world heritage sites are considered as ‘no go’ areas for mining and mineral exploitation.
Dam-building, water diversion and abstration
Water is needed everywhere – for power generation, agricultural irrigation and industrial development. The rivers and wetlands that sustain world heritage sites are too often being dammed, affecting flooding regimes and the dynamics of ecosystems downstream. Where water is also diverted to agricultural irrigation schemes or urban uses, sites are altered even more severely. The vast cost of dam-building may have slowed the pace of such developments in the past, but many are now attracting renewed attention, threatening an ever-increasing number of sites.
It is a requirement for natural sites to satisfy rigorous ‘conditions of integrity’ before they can be inscribed on the world heritage list and this often means that areas with human settlement do not qualify. Human settlements tend to create pressures on natural resources from cultivation and the grazing of domestic animals that are difficult to control and may quickly become incompatible with the needs of sustaining a site’s natural values and pristine condition. In a few cases, where people were living at a site before inscription, there is ongoing tension between the living requirements of these people and the desire to protect heritage values.
The long-term impact of climate change is difficult to assess but natural world heritage sites are already being significantly altered as global temperatures warm. The glaciers on many high mountains are melting fast and are likely to disappear altogether, in some cases, within two or three decades. Ecological communities in mountainous areas will ‘migrate’ to higher elevations, pushing out the rare plants and animals that presently occur near mountain summits. Meanwhile, rising sea-levels may submerge coastal areas, affecting the survival of everything from coral reefs to mangrove communities and impacting natural phenomena such as the congregations of migrant waders on coastal mudflats.
Plants and animals have been transported by people across the world for centuries, either being carried deliberately to new areas because they are useful or arriving ‘accidentally’ as hitch-hikers. In some cases these ‘aliens’ adapt extraordinarily well to their new environment and, in the absence of predators, diseases or competition that would keep them in check in their native lands, begin to ‘take over’ in their new environment. The problem of invasive alien species has become particularly acute in Australia, New Zealand and many oceanic islands, but it occurs much more widely than is commonly recognised. Most natural world heritage sites are affected, to some extent.
Poorly regulated tourism development
Tourism brings enormous economic benefits, and world heritage status often serves to increase the international profile of a site and the demands of visitors. It requires careful management to ensure the development of appropriate infrastructure and regulation of visitor impacts so as to maintain a site’s core values.
Lack of political will and leadership
Protecting natural heritage requires strong political leadership at various levels, from decisions over budget and resource allocations to more controversial issues such as major ‘development projects’ that may have negative impacts on a site. Often, the short-term economic and social gains of some ‘development projects’ may appear more attractive than longer-term goals that protect heritage values. World heritage status can help to bring a more balanced view to development decisions affecting listed sites, but there are many examples of development projects being undertaken at the cost of a site’s long-term value.
Limited management capacity and resources
Relatively few natural world heritage sites have sufficient trained staff, equipment and funding to ensure ‘world class’ management. The problem is particularly acute in poorer countries where social programmes (such as education and health) as well as infrastructure development and military expenditure are often given much higher priority in budget allocation. As a result of these constraints, management authorities are often unable to address the threats listed above effectively.
Sites by country
|Central African Republic||Manovo-Gounda St Floris National Park|
|Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea||Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve|
|DR Congo||Kahuzi-Biega National Park|
|DR Congo||Okapi Wildlife Reserve|
|DR Congo||Salonga National Park|
|DR Congo||Virunga National Park|
|DRCongo||Garamba National Park|
|Honduras||Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve|
|Indonesia||Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra|
|Kenya||Lake Turkana National Park|
|Madagascar||Rainforests of the Atsinanana|
|Mexico||Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California|
|Niger||Air and Ténéré Natural Reserves|
|Senegal||Niokolo-Koba National Park|
|Solomon Islands||East Rennell|
|Tanzania||Selous Game Reserve|
|USA||Everglades National Park|