International Earth Day is celebrated every year on 22 April to remind us that the Earth and its ecosystems provide us with sustenance, and that we have a collective responsibility to achieve balance among the economic, social and environmental needs of present and future generations.

This year’s Earth Day highlights the importance of protecting species. World Heritage sites are home to the world’s most exceptional species on earth. The marine environment of the Natural System of Wrangel Island Reserve (Russian Federation), for example, is an increasingly important feeding ground for the Gray whale migrating from Mexico, some of them coming from the World Heritage site Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino (Mexico). Wrangel Island is also the breeding habitat of Asia’s only Snow goose population, which is slowly making a recovery from catastrophically low levels.

Manú National Park (Peru) covers only 0.01% of the earth’s land surface and the tropical forest site supports approximately 10% of the world’s known bird species. Cape Floral Region Protected Areas (South Africa) is a haven for plant species and endemism (6,000 species endemic to South Africa), while also supporting almost 20% of the continent’s flora.  

In many places of the world, World Heritage sites are nature’s last strongholds of endangered species. Nearly a third of all marine sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List are threatened by unsustainable or illegal fisheries. Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries - Wolong, Mt Siguniang and Jiajin Mountains (China) is home to more than 30% of the world's pandas, one of the most iconic threatened species. 

The challenges facing World Heritage conservation, combined with the effects of climate change, are unprecedented in human history. The need for joint and collective collaboration among all stakeholders is a must. World Heritage sites are the litmus test for measuring success of the global protected area movement, and have the potential to be a learning laboratory and a source of inspiration for protected areas. The World Heritage Convention fosters a shared commitment by the global community to save these irreplaceable habitats.

We have to work together to safeguard these World Heritage places, many of which are critical ecosystems for threatened species and vital resources for our planet’s life support.

To find out more, see the World Heritage Review article, ‘World Heritage and species: safe havens for wildlife?’ https://whc.unesco.org/en/review/73/