Wildlife & Biodiversity

Protect world heritage sites to conserve biodiversity: UN

World heritage sites house 20% of mapped global species   

By Preetha Banerjee
Published: Thursday 31 August 2023
The Ta Prohm temple deep in the jungle at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Photo: iStock__

UNESCO World Heritage sites are home to 75,000 species of plants, and over 30,000 species of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians — a fifth of all the species mapped globally. Protecting these sites can help conserve biodiversity and meet the targets set by the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF), according to a joint assessment by UNESCO and IUCN. 

The last of several iconic species are found in these sites, the authors of the reports noted. “Today, up to 1/3 of remaining elephants, tigers and pandas can be found in these sites, as well as at least one in 10 great apes, giraffes, lions and rhinos.”

They are home to all remaining Javan rhinos, vaquitas (the world’s smallest cetacean) and pink iguanas, as well as more than half of all Sumatran rhinos, Sumatran orangutans and mountain gorillas, the report showed. 

These locations offer a safe haven for many threatened species but are affected by climate change and anthropogenic pressures like agricultural expansion, infrastructure development, poaching, overexploitation of resources and the proliferation of invasive species. 

Urgently protecting them is thus essential in saving the vulnerable species, as every 1 degree Celsius rise in global temperature can “double the number of species threatened by dangerous climate conditions”, the authors stressed.

Share of assessed species in UNESCO World Heritage sites

Source: World Heritage: A unique contribution to biodiversity conservation

Countries should also nominate all other biodiversity-rich areas for World Heritage inscription, the global bodies urged.

The World Heritage sites, however, take up only 1 per cent of the earth’s surface, the authors of the UN report noted. “These 1,157 sites are not only historically and culturally outstanding, they are also  critical to the preservation of the diversity of life on Earth, maintaining essential ecosystem services, and addressing climate disruption,” said Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO.  

Cultural World Heritage sites in particular can be an important ally in biodiversity conservation, they added, since around 20% of them are located in Key Biodiversity Areas. 

Apart from helping preserve biodiversity, these sites help maintain a beneficial relationship between human beings and nature, the authors highlight. Water resources that cater to human needs, for instance, are conserved in many of these sites. They also provide the opportunity for people to earn a livelihood through sustainable work. 

The researchers wrote in the report:

UNESCO World Heritage sites are also instrumental to further strengthen the link between nature and culture, as many cultural sites, including those in urban areas, can also protect important biodiversity and are an ally in efforts to halt nature loss.

Governments should prioritise World Heritage sites in National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plans that are vital for moving the Kunming-Montreal GBF into action, said UNESCO. “The study is an additional tool for site managers to take the necessary actions to achieve these objectives.”

By 2025, all World Heritage site managers will be trained in climate change adaptation strategies, and by 2029 all sites will have a climate adaptation plan – as announced by the director-general of UNESCO in November 2022 at the 50th anniversary of the Convention, they added. 

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