More than 100 natural World Heritage sites threatened by humanity

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A new study finds 100+ natural treasures, including Yellowstone, are being severely damaged by sprawling human infrastructure and land use.

"The world would never accept the Acropolis being knocked down, or a couple of pyramids being flattened for housing estates or roads, yet right now, across our planet, we are simply letting many of our natural World Heritage sites become severely altered." – Dr. James Watson of the University of Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

In 1972, an international treaty called the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage was adopted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Its purpose? To earmark and protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage around the world.

Natural World Heritage sites are the places that are globally recognized as hosting the planet’s most valuable, beautiful, special natural assets. As identified by Unesco, there are 229 natural sites across the globe that boast “outstanding universal values” – places with natural treasures so important that they transcend national boundaries. Could it be so hard to treasure these places? To protect them from the creepy creep of human activity?

Apparently, yes.

A new study warns that more than 100 of these special sites are being increasingly damaged, as measured by the global Human Footprint criteria; a metric that includes roads, agriculture, urbanization and industrial infrastructure, and forest loss.

Sixty-three percent of the sites showed an increase in human pressures since 1993. Ninety-one percent have suffered forest loss since 2000.

The most impacted sites are in Asia and include the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary in India, and Chitwan National Park in Nepal; along with Simien National Park in Ethiopia.

Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras, lost 8.5 percent of its forest (365 km2) since 2000.

Yellowstone National Park lost 6 percent of its forests since 2000.

Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, which spreads across the Canadian and US border, lost a stunning 23 percent (540 km2) of its forests.

“World Heritage natural sites should be maintained and protected fully. For a site to lose ten or twenty percent of its forested area in two decades is alarming and must be addressed,” says Allan. “Urgent intervention is clearly needed to save these places and their outstanding natural universal values.”

“It is time for the global community to stand up and hold governments to account,” he adds, “so that they take the conservation of natural World Heritage sites seriously."

By giving a shout-out to the sites that are in immediate danger, the study will hopefully prove useful as a starting point for future consideration and policy. And importantly, will help the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which meets each year to review World Heritage properties, to explore how to protect these singular, unique treasures.

The study was led by an international team of researchers from the University of Queensland, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), University of Northern British Columbia and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It was published in the journal Biological Conservation.

Watch WCS’s James Watson talk about the findings below.

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