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Natural World Heritage

Nature’s most precious gifts to humanity

The World Heritage Convention is one of the most successful international instruments to protect the most extraordinary natural places on the planet, characterized by their natural beauty or outstanding biodiversity, ecosystem and geological values. 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 to the planet's most outstanding natural heritage, protecting around 3,500,000 km² (more than the size of India) in over 250 sites across more than 100 countries.

A threatened
paradise

Natural World Heritage sites account for around 8% of the total surface covered by all 280,000+ terrestrial and marine protected areas worldwide. Yet they are under increasing pressure from climate change, invasive species and the negative impacts of tourism.

Our
Mission

To pursue long-term conservation of biodiversity and sustainable development through the fullest and broadest application of the World Heritage Convention for the benefit of current and future generations.

Support us

Play your part and support the critical work taking place to protect our planet’s most precious places.

Facts and figures

3.5M

Over 3.5 million km2 in total protected, of which 60% is marine

8%

Around 8% of the total surface covered by all 280,000+ terrestrial and marine protected areas worldwide

257

257 natural (including 39 mixed) World Heritage sites in 111 countries

2/3

2/3 of natural sites are crucial sources of water

50%

About half of sites prevent natural disasters such as floods or landslides

90%

Over 90% of listed natural sites create jobs and provide income from tourism and recreation

190Mt

World Heritage forests absorb approximately 190 million tons of CO2 each year (equivalent to half the United Kingdom’s annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuels)

15%

Marine and coastal sites host 15% of global blue carbon assets

Success stories

Removal from the List of World Heritage in Danger

Thanks to international support and joint action on the ground, several sites such as Sangay National Park (Ecuador), Simien National Park (Ethiopia), Comoé National Park (Côte d’Ivoire), Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System (Belize) and Salonga National Park (Democratic Republic of the Congo) have been removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger.

Lifting communities out of poverty

Wolrld Heritage sites support human wellbeing and are important motors for regional socio-economic development. Since World Heritage Listing in 1999, iSimangaliso Wetland Park (South Africa) generated over 12,000 jobs and 80% growth in sustainable tourism. In Lake Malawi National Park (Malawi), World Heritage status is helping communities to protect fish biodiversity.

Corporate sector commitment to protect World Heritage

More than 50 companies and industry associations have endorsed policies to safeguard UNESCO World Heritage sites in various sectors, including in extractive industries, hydropower, finance and insurance sectors. These policies are commonly known as the World Heritage 'no-go' commitment.

Protection of the last intact rainforests of Africa

Since 2002, the Central Africa World Heritage Forest Initiative (CAWHFI) has strengthened the protection of more than 225,000 km2  of rainforests in the Congo Basin.

Saving natural World Heritage sites from disasters and emergencies

In 2006, the World Heritage Centre launched the world’s fastest conservation fund, the Rapid Response Facility (RRF), 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
to humanity

Natural World Heritage sites contain some of the Earth's most valuable natural areas recognized as being of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) to humanity for their global significance to nature conservation. To date, there are 257 natural sites inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including 218 sites recognized for their natural value and 39 mixed sites (recognized under both natural and cultural criteria). The World Heritage Convention sets the highest international standards for the integrity, protection and management of these sites which account for around 3,500,000 km2 (more than the size of India) across more than 100 countries.

Natural World Heritage sites harbour landscapes of exceptional natural beauty, provide crucial habitats to many iconic and threatened species, represent Earth's most outstanding examples of ecological, biological and geological processes, and protect biodiversity hotspots. They include many iconic places such as the Serengeti National Park (Tanzania) that hosts the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world, the living museum of evolution of Galápagos Islands (Ecuador), Yellowstone National Park (United States of America) known for its wildlife and its many geothermal features and the world's largest coral reef system at Great Barrier Reef (Australia). Natural World Heritage sites are home to 80% of all mountain gorillas, one third of all elephants and tigers as well as 15% of all rhinos left on the planet, and are often a last refuge for species threatened with extinction, such as the vaquita, giant panda and orangutan.

Millions of people are directly dependent on the countless benefits and services these sites can provide, supporting livelihoods and wellbeing. Over 90% of listed natural sites create jobs and provide income from tourism and recreation. Two-thirds of natural sites are crucial sources of water, and about half help prevent hazards such as floods or landslides. They also have a central role in climate regulation and carbon sequestration as World Heritage forests absorb approximately 190 million tons of CO2 each year (equivalent to half the United Kingdom’s annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuels). Marine and coastal sites are also critical to mitigating climate impacts storing 1.3 billion tons of carbon (known as blue carbon) in seagrass meadows, tidal marshes and mangroves, representing 15% of global blue carbon assets.

Evolution of natural/mixed, terrestrial and marine World Heritage sites coverage in terms of area (km2)

Top 10 biggest natural World Heritage sites

Site Country Total area (km2)
1. French Austral Lands and Seas France 672,979
(size of France)
2. Phoenix Islands Protected Area Kiribati 408,258
3. Papahānaumokuākea United States of America 364,792
4. Great Barrier Reef Australia 348,233
5. Galápagos Islands Ecuador 146,962
6. Kluane / Wrangell-St Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek United States of America / Canada 97,283
7. Lake Baikal Russian Federation 85,508
8. Aïr and Ténéré Natural Reserves Niger 78,696
9. Tassili n’Ajjer Algeria 75,712
10. Central Amazon Conservation Complex Brazil 51,313

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, invasive species and the negative impacts of tourism  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.

To date 16 natural sites are on the List of World Heritage in Danger (of which 11 in Africa). 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. Forests, coral reefs and glaciers are among some of the most affected ecosystems. Other ecosystems, such as wetlands, low-lying deltas, permafrost and fire sensitive ecosystems are also affected.

Almost 2/3 of forests found in World Heritage sites are threatened by land use pressures and climate-related hazards such as wildfires. A first global scientific assessment of greenhouse gas emissions and sequestration in World Heritage forests revealed that at least 10 sites were net carbon sources since 2000 and that one single climate-related hazard could make a forest flip from a carbon sink to source.

World Heritage-listed coral reefs, such as the Great Barrier Reef (the world's largest coral reef system), the Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles) 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 by 2040, all World Heritage-listed  coral reefs could face annual severe bleaching events at least twice a decade.  

World Heritage glaciers have been retreating at an accelerated rate since 2000 due to warming temperatures. They are currently losing 58 billion tons of ice every year – equivalent to the combined annual water use of France and Spain– and are responsible for nearly 5% of observed global sea-level rise. Glaciers in a third of the 50 World Heritage sites are condemned to disappear by 2050, regardless of efforts to limit temperature increases. This includes the last remaining glaciers in Africa such as Mount Kilimanjaro as well as other iconic sites in Europe and North America such as the Dolomites (Italy), Pyrénées – Mont Perdu (France, Spain) and Yosemite National Park (United States of America).

The impacts of invasive species may seem less obvious in comparison as they develop over longer periods of time, but they have been affecting natural World Heritage sites for many decades. According to the IUCN World Heritage Outlook, more than 100 sites are affected by invasive species, particularly island sites. For instance, in Cuba's Alejandro de Humboldt National Park invasive alien trees are transforming the habitat by growing much faster than native trees. Fish (mostly trout), cats and rodents (mostly rats) are other invasive species threatening natural World Heritage sites such as East Rennell (Solomon Islands).

Pressure on natural sites from massive tourism and planned infrastructure is also increasing. Every year, natural World Heritage sites receive more than 100 million visitors and tourism infrastructure projects have been reported in more than 30 sites. Roads, dams, mining and oil and gas projects are among other top potential threats to more than 60 natural sites. 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 near the site. The Stiegler’s Gorge dam could cause irreversible damage to important habitats in Tanzania's Selous Game Reserve, home to the critically endangered black rhinoceros.

Growing threats and declining protection and management present a worrying combination for natural World Heritage sites. If natural World Heritage sites are not adequately conserved, their unique values could be irreversibly damaged or lost. Effective management is key to overcoming threats to these sites. Yet, lack of guarantee for long-term finance is the most challenging aspect of protection and management – an issue assessed as being of concern for almost half of natural World Heritage sites.

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 situations in sites that have been severely impacted by poaching and civil conflicts such as Manovo - Gounda St. Floris National Park (Central African Republic) and Complex W-Arly-Pendjari (Benin, Burkina Faso, Niger). 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 the Congo. Other projects include implementing protectives measures and addressing urgent conservation issues in the Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary (Senegal),  Lake Malawi National Park (Malawi), Air and Ténéré Natural Reserves (Niger), Salonga National Park (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Ecosystem and relict cultural landscape of Lopé-Okanda (Gabon) and Dja Faunal Reserve (Cameroon).

Marine World Heritage sites 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 three focus areas to fulfil its mission: monitoring sites’ conservation status, connecting site managers, and build climate leadership across the network of marine sites. Some initiatives include researching climate impacts through environmental DNA (eDNA), building resilience at World Heritage-listed coral reefs through the Resilient Reefs Initiative, and addressing climate science gaps.

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 corporate sector, and has brokered agreements for World Heritage sites as “no-go” areas for extractives (e.g. oil, gas, mining), finance, insurance and hydropower sectors industries .

Last but not least, in view of filling existing 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 (Botswana), Namib Sand Sea (Namibia) and Sangha Trinational (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Congo), the first transboundary tripartite site, and Ivindo National Park (Gabon).

Support us: Become a Futurekeeper

Natural World Heritage sites belong to humanity. It’s everyone’s responsibility to protect them. While the main causes of climate change are linked to human activity, we are just as much a part of the solution as the problem. Play your part and support the critical work taking place to protect our planet’s most precious places. Because We Are All Futurekeepers.

Your contribution will support actions at site-level to respond to inevitable climate-related changes in the near future. These include identifying knowledge gaps and improving monitoring networks, designing and implementing early warning and disaster risk reduction measures, making the sites a focus of targeted policy, as well as promoting knowledge exchange, stakeholder engagement and communication.

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