Natural World Heritage Sites getting hammered by human activities

A University of Queensland-led international study published today warns that more than 100 Natural World Heritage Sites (NWHS) are being destroyed by encroaching human activities.

Lead author and UQ PhD student in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences James Allan said World Heritage Natural Sites should be maintained and protected fully.

“For a site to lose 10 or 20 per cent of its forested area in two decades is alarming and must be addressed,” he said.

He said Natural World Heritage Sites (NWHS), via the process driven by UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), were globally recognised as containing some of the Earth’s most valuable natural assets.

The authors looked at human pressure (using the updated global Human Footprint) such as roads, agriculture, urbanisation and industrial infrastructure, along with forest loss, over time.

They found that the Human Footprint has increased in 63 per cent of NWHS across all continents except Europe over the past two decades.

The most impacted NWHS were found in Asia including: Manas Wildlife Sanctuary in India, Komodo National Park in Indonesia, and Chitwan National Park in Nepal; along with Simien National Park in Ethiopia.

In terms of forest loss, highly impacted parks included Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras, which 365 km2 (8.5 percent) of their forest respectively, since 2000.

Even celebrated places like Yellowstone were impacted, losing some 6 per cent of its forests.

Meanwhile, Waterton Glacier International Peace Park that crosses the Canadian and USA border lost almost one quarter of its forested area (23 percent or 540 km2).

Senior author, Dr James Watson of UQ and the Wildlife Conservation Society said any place listed as a World Heritage site was 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 letting many of our Natural World Heritage Sites be fundamentally altered,” he said.

The authors said by highlighting Natural World Heritage Sites in immediate danger, the study provides useful baseline data for future monitoring and conservation efforts.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee meets again in July in Poland, and they said the study should be used to stimulate further action.

“It is clearly time for the global community to stand up and hold governments to account so that they take the conservation of Natural World Heritage Sites seriously,” James Allan said.

“We urge the World Heritage Committee to immediately assess the highly threatened sites we have identified.

“Urgent intervention is needed to save these places and their outstanding natural universal values.”

Some NWHS such as the Sinharaja Forest Reserve and Mana Pools National Park showed minimal change in forest loss or human pressure, but the authors say they are in the minority.

The study by an international team from The University of Queensland, Wildlife Conservation SocietyUniversity of Northern British Columbia and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, appears in the journal Biological Conservation.


Media: James Allan (Brisbane, Australia), email, 61424982651 or Dr James Watson (Brisbane, Australia), email;, 61409185592

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