Natural World Heritage
Nature’s most precious gifts to humanity
The World Heritage Convention is one of the most successful international instruments to recognize the most exceptional natural places in the world, characterized by their outstanding biodiversity, ecosystems, geology or superb natural phenomena. The Convention has provided international recognition to around 3,500,000 km2 in over 250 terrestrial and marine sites across more than 100 countries, and while certain gaps in the World Heritage List remain, it currently protects an extremely valuable sample of our natural heritage.
Nature’s most precious gifts to humanity
International recognition of around 3,500,000 km2 (more than the size of India) in over 250 sites across more than 100 countries, representing over 95% and 20% of the UNESCO World Heritage List in terms of surface and numbers, respectively
Natural World Heritage sites account for around 8% of the total surface covered by all 245,000+ terrestrial and marine protected areas worldwide. Yet they are under increasing pressure from climate change, invasive species and the negative impacts of tourism
To pursue long-term conservation of biodiversity and sustainable development through the fullest and broadest application of the World Heritage Convention by all relevant stakeholders, from site level individuals to global organizations.
Facts and figures
257 natural (including 39 mixed) World Heritage sites in 110 countries
Around 7% of all terrestrial protected area (1% of Earth’s land surface)
50 World Heritage marine sites
Around 8% of all marine protected area (0.6% of world’s oceans)
16 sites listed as ‘In Danger’
16 transnational sites
Over 3.5 million km2 in total protected, of which 60% is marine
2/3 of natural sites are crucial sources of water
About half of sites prevent natural disasters such as floods or landslides
Over 90% of listed natural sites create jobs and provide income from tourism and recreation
Removal Belize Barrier Reef from the List of World Heritage in Danger
In 2018, Belize adopted a permanent oil moratorium to protect the future of its reef and the 200,000 citizens that depend on it for their livelihoods.
Lifting communities out of poverty at iSimangaliso
Since World Heritage Listing in 1999, iSimangaliso (South Africa) generated over 12,000 jobs and 80% growth in sustainable tourism.
Relocation of pipeline in Lake Baikal
In 2006, President Vladimir Putin agreed to relocate a major oil pipeline to avoid damage to the world’s oldest lake.
Avoiding mining and oil extraction in natural World Heritage sites
In 2013, SOCO and TOTAL refrained from prospecting or exploiting oil and gas in Virunga National Park (Democratic Republic of Congo) and further brokered agreements for World Heritage sites as “no-go” areas for mining and oil extraction.
Protection of the last intact rainforests of Africa
In 2012, the Sangha Trinational (Cameroon, Central African Republic, and Congo) was inscribed on the World Heritage List. This property was the first transboundary tripartite nature site to receive this international recognition.
Saving natural World Heritage sites from disasters and emergencies
In 2006, the World Heritage Centre launched the world’s fastest conservation funding mechanism, the Rapid Response Facility, to channel emergency funds for natural World Heritage sites. Since then, more than 25 sites have been supported contributing to the protection of over 300,000 km2
Nature’s most precious gifts
Natural World Heritage sites contain some of the Earth's most valuable natural assets recognized as being of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV). There are 257 natural sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including 218 natural sites and 39 mixed (both cultural and natural) sites, representing over 95% and 20% of the List in terms of surface and number of sites, respectively. These sites are under the highest level of recognition afforded globally for the protection and conservation of around 3,500,000 km2 (more than the size of India) across more than 95 countries.
Natural sites provide crucial habitats to many iconic species and harbour unique natural beauty, stunning landscapes, rare ecological processes, and exceptional biodiversity. They include many iconic places such as the Serengeti National Park, Galápagos Islands, Yellowstone National Park and the Great Barrier Reef, and are often a last refuge for species threatened with extinction, such as the mountain gorilla, giant panda and orangutan. Two-thirds of natural sites are crucial sources of water, and about half help prevent natural disasters such as floods or landslides. They also have a central role in climate regulation and carbon sequestration as forests found in sites across the tropical regions store an estimated 5.7 billion tons of carbon – higher forest biomass carbon density on average than the remaining protected area network. Marine sites are also critical to mitigating climate impacts as blue carbon ecosystems.
Millions of people are directly dependent on the countless products and services that these sites can provide as over 90% of listed natural sites create jobs and provide income from tourism and recreation.
Natural sites account for around 8% of the total surface covered by all 245,000+ terrestrial and marine protected areas worldwide covering 1% of Earth’s land surface and 0.6% of world’s oceans. There has been considerable progress in expanding the coverage of both terrestrial and marine World Heritage sites, with terrestrial coverage increasing by 1.3 times, and marine coverage increasing faster by 3.5 times since 2000.
In spite of its rich heritage resources, the Africa region remains poorly represented on the World Heritage List as less than 10% of all World Heritage properties are located in this region. To date the World Heritage List already includes many of the most important and significant natural sites of the African continent, which is exceptionally rich in biodiversity. However, Africa remains the region with the highest percentage of sites whose conservation outlook is assessed as critical, and is the region with the highest number of natural sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger (11 out of 16).
Top 10 biggest natural World Heritage sites
|Site||Country||Total area (ha)|
|1.||French Austral Lands and Seas||France||67,297,900
(size of France)
|2.||Phoenix Islands Protected Area||Kiribati||40,825,813|
|3.||Papahānaumokuākea||United States of America||36,479,268|
|4.||Great Barrier Reef||Australia||34,823,325|
|6.||Kluane / Wrangell-St Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek||United States of America / Canada||9,728,368|
|7.||Lake Baikal||Russian Federation||8,550,838|
|8.||Aïr and Ténéré Natural Reserves||Niger||7,869,613|
|10.||Central Amazon Conservation Complex||Brazil||5,131,312|
A threatened paradise
Natural World Heritage sites account for around 8% of the total surface area covered by all 245,000+ terrestrial and marine protected areas worldwide. Yet they are under increasing pressure. According to IUCN, the official advisory body on nature under the World Heritage Convention, climate change (over 80 sites), invasive species (around 70 sites) and the negative impacts of tourism (close to 50 sites) are currently the three most significant threats. Other major threats include poaching and planned infrastructure such as roads, dams, mining and oil and gas projects.
Climate change is however the fastest growing threat to natural World Heritage, with the number of sites highly threatened by climate change almost doubling in the last decade. Coral reefs and glaciers are among the most affected ecosystems. Other ecosystems, such as wetlands, low-lying deltas, permafrost and fire sensitive ecosystems are also affected.
World Heritage-listed coral reefs, such as the Great Barrier Reef (the most extensive coral reef ecosystem on Earth), the Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean (the world's second-largest coral atoll) and the Belize Barrier Reef in the Atlantic (the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere) have been affected by devastating mass coral bleaching events over the past decades. A first global scientific assessment of the impacts of Climate Change on World Heritage coral reefs revealed that nearly half (13) of the 29 World Heritage Listed reef properties were exposed to levels of heat stress that cause coral bleaching, on average, more than twice per decade during the 1985 - 2013 period, and nearly three quarters (21) have been exposed to severe and/or repeated heat stress since 2014.
Almost half of the 46 natural World Heritage sites where glaciers are currently found are also highly threatened by rising temperatures and could see their glaciers disappear by 2100. These include several iconic landscapes such as Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina (containing some of the largest glaciers on Earth), Te Wahipounamu – South West New Zealand (which contains three quarters of New Zealand’s glaciers), Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro National Park (home to Africa’s highest peak), and the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch (home to the largest Alpine glacier).
Pressure on natural sites from planned infrastructure is also increasing. Roads, dams, tourism facilities, mining and oil and gas projects are among the top potential threats. A third of animals are vanishing as roads spread through forests. It is projected that 25 million km of new paved roads will be developed globally by 2050 (enough to encircle the planet more than 600 times), and about 90 per cent will be in tropical forests. Bangladesh's The Sundarbans, a vast mangrove forest home to the royal Bengal tiger, could be severely altered by impacts of coal-fired power plants proposed near the site. The proposed Stiegler’s Gorge dam could cause irreversible damage to important habitats in Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve, home to the Critically Endangered black rhinoceros. Finally, lack of funding is threatening the effectiveness of the protection and management of natural World Heritage.
Garamba National Park © Nuria Ortega
In an armed conflict or emergency situation (e.g. natural hazards, oil spill, etc…), heritage is particularly at risk. In 2000, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre initiated the programme Biodiversity Conservation in Regions of Armed Conflict: Protecting World Heritage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, so as to preserve the five World Heritage Sites’ integrity in a protracted conflict situation.
Recognizing the challenge in trying to provide rapid access to funds in crisis or emergency situations (e.g. forest fires, sudden increase in poaching, armed conflicts, oil spill, etc.), the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and Fauna & Flora International launched the Rapid Response Facility in 2006. Since then, more than 25 sites have been supported contributing to the protection of over 300,000 km2 .
Archipiélago de Revillagigedo © Erick Higuera
Today, the UNESCO World Heritage List includes 50 marine sites across 37 countries. The French Austral Lands and Seas (France) – one of the ocean’s last wildernesses, home to over 50 million birds and among the largest marine protected areas on Earth – was added to the List in 2019. Other highlights are the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System (Belize) where fisheries no-take zones more than doubled in an effort to build the site's resilience in the face of climate change. The West Norwegian Fjords – Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord (Norway) adopted a landmark zero emissions policy and met up with Kluane / Wrangell-St. Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek (USA) to develop more sustainable practices among its visiting cruise ships. Yet there is an urgent need for change – a need that was once more confirmed with the inscription of the Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California (Mexico) on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2019.
© Christof Schenck
Examples such as the Simien National Park in Ethiopia, one of the first sites to be inscribed on the World Heritage List and home to extremely rare animal species, can serve as an inspiration. The site was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1996 due to the impact of a new road across it, excessive cattle grazing, agricultural encroachment and a drop in Simien fox (Walia ibex) and other large mammal populations. Thanks to international support and joint action on the ground, an alternative road to alleviate the disturbance of traffic on the main road that crosses the property has been considered, cattle overgrazing and visitor impact were reduced, and the site’s endemic animal populations have stabilized. As a result, the Simien National Park came off the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2017.
Examples such as the Comoé National Park in Côte d’Ivoire, one of the largest protected areas in West Africa, can serve as an inspiration. The site was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2003 due to farming, illegal gold mining and poaching affecting its species populations. Thanks to international support and joint action on the ground, species populations raised, including chimpanzees and elephants that were thought to have disappeared from the park. As a result, the Comoé National Park came off the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2017.
Our Mission: Bringing together nations to protect exceptional nature
The World Heritage Convention brings together almost all countries of the world around a common objective of conserving the most exceptional natural and cultural sites. But the Convention is not only addressing governments, it also brings together local communities and indigenous people, private sector and many other stakeholders.
The mission of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre is the pursuit of long-term conservation of biodiversity and sustainable development through the fullest and broadest application of the World Heritage Convention by all relevant stakeholders, from site level individuals to global organizations. Among one of the key tasks of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre is the monitoring of the state of conservation of sites. This includes providing technical assistance, and building capacity in the States Parties through a series of projects on the ground that enable bringing together governments, local communities and indigenous people, private sector and many other stakeholders.
Particular attention is given to the preservation of natural World Heritage sites in Africa. The conservation, sustainable exploitation and management of forest sites in Central Africa, and in particular in Cameroon, Congo, Gabon and the Central African Republic, have since 2004 benefited from the activities of the Central Africa World Heritage Forest Initiative (CAWHFI), which aims to strengthen the management of protected areas while improving their integration within the region's various ecological landscapes. Substantial funding is also provided to support emergency activities for Manovo - Gounda St. Floris National Park (Central African Republic), a site on the List of World Heritage in Danger that has been severely impacted by poaching and civil conflicts. Further support is earmarked for elephant and giraffe monitoring in Garamba National Park and mitigating conflict and protecting rightful access to natural resources in the Okapi Reserve in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Other projects include addressing urgent conservation issues in the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary (Senegal) and Lake Malawi National Park (Malawi).
Marine World Heritage sites often get a lot of public attention and they are at the leading edge of the marine conservation programmes in many countries. Launched in 2005, the mission of the World Heritage Marine Programme is to establish effective conservation of existing and potential marine areas of Outstanding Universal Value to make sure they will be maintained and thrive for generations to come. The programme has four focus areas to fulfil its mission: monitoring sites’ conservation status, building a global managers network, improving sustainable conservation and exploring World Heritage in the High Seas.
Engaging local communities and the private sector are key to secure broader and longer-term support in the management and sustainable development of a property. In this regard, the Community Management of Protected Areas Conservation (COMPACT) initiative was launched in 2000 and activities have been implemented in iconic sites such as the Okavango Delta (Botswana) and the Maloti-Drakensberg Park (Lesotho/South Africa). The UNESCO World Heritage Centre has had a very positive experience in developing partnerships with the private sector over the past few years, and has brokered agreements for World Heritage sites as “no-go” areas for mining and oil extraction.
Last but not least, in view of filling existing biodiversity gaps in the World Heritage List, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre provides technical support to States Parties in the preparation of nomination dossiers. Such support has led to inscription of several important natural sites in the Africa region, including the Okavango Delta in Botswana, Namib Sand Sea in Namibia and Sangha Trinational, a transboundary site in Cameroon, Central African Republic and Congo.
- World Heritage Series 45, The Future of the World Heritage Convention for Marine Conservation. Celebrating 10 years of the World Heritage Marine Programme, 2016
- World Heritage Series 44, World Heritage in the High Seas: An Idea Whose Time Has Come, 2016
- World Heritage Series 40, Engaging Local Communities in Stewardship of World Heritage, 2014
- World Heritage Series 37, Climate Change Adaptation for Natural World Heritage Sites – A Practical Guide, 2014
- World Heritage Series 32, Assessing Marine World Heritage from an Ecosystem Perspective, 2012
- World Heritage Series 30, Adapting to change: the state of conservation of World Heritage forests in 2011, 2011
- World Heritage Series 28, Navigating the Future of Marine World Heritage, 2011
- World Heritage Series 22, Climate Change and World Heritage, 2007
- World Heritage Series 21, World Heritage Forests, 2007
- World Heritage Series 17, Promoting and Preserving Congolese Heritage, 2006
- World Heritage Series 16, World Heritage at the Vth IUCN World Parks Congress, 2006
- World Heritage Series 4, Proceedings of the World Heritage Marine Biodiversity Workshop, 2004