Natural World Heritage sites being harmed by humans, scientists say

In 1972, the World Heritage Convention designated certain cultural and natural sites as places of “outstanding universal value.” These sites – including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Chartres Cathedral in France, and Yosemite National Park in the U.S. were labeled as World Heritage Sites. UNESCO, the educational, scientific, and cultural branch of the United Nations, legally recognizes these sites, plus they’re protected by international treaties.

Treaties notwithstanding, these sites are still threatened by human activity.  A new study warns that over 100 World Heritage sites are being damaged and altered by things like road construction, urbanization, agriculture, and industrial infrastructure. Deforestation has also devastated many of these natural sites.

The research effort was led by researchers from the University of Northern British Columbia, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and the University of Queensland. Published in the journal Biological Conservation, the study revealed that over the past 20 years, the human footprint has grown by 63% in Natural World Heritage Sites in every continent except Europe.

The sites that suffered the worst impact were India’s Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, Simien National Park in Ethiopia, and Nepal’s Chitwan National Park. Other sites suffered extreme deforestation. For instance, the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras has lost 8.5% of its forest since 2000. North American parks were also sites of extreme forest loss. Yellowstone National Park in the U.S. lost 6% of its forests and Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, which spans across the U.S. and Canada, lost 23%.

James Watson of the University of Queensland and WCS is the senior author of the study, which appeared in the journal Biological Conservation. He said, “Any place that is listed as a World Heritage site is a globally important asset to all of humanity. 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 be severely altered.”

By Dawn Henderson, Earth.com Staff Writer

Source: James Watson, University of Queensland

Image: Biological Conservation

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