By Lorela U. Sandoval
Of the 57 Natural World Heritage Sites (NHWS), two thirds have been affected by illegal activities in poaching, logging, and fishing, thus risking some of the most unique and valued species and ecosystems in the world, as monitored by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
“It is alarming that even our planet’s greatest natural treasures are under pressure from illegal activities,” IUCN Director General Inger Andersen said in a statement. “World Heritage sites are recognised as the planet’s most unique and valuable places, for nature and for people. If destroyed, they are lost forever.”
He further said that the World Heritage status grants utmost protection to these important places and that the international community has responsibility to ensure protection.
“Only through strong international cooperation can we eliminate the illegal and unsustainable practices that are having such a devastating impact on these extraordinary places,” said Andersen.
The IUCN suggested putting on the List of World Heritage in Danger the Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California found in Mexico, because of the illegal gillnet fishing that endangers the vaquita—smallest porpoise in the world—with imminent extinction.
It has become a victim of by-catch from the illegal fishing of totoaba, a critically endangered fish whose swim bladder is highly valued in Asian markets.
Regardless of the extensive measures of Mexican government to fight illegal gillnet fishing, the vaquita faces severe risk with a population crashing to merely about 30 of it in the wild.
The IUCN called for a permanent ban on gillnets and for the strengthening of international cooperation to tackle the impending threats to the site.
In 2005, the said islands became a World Heritage Site because of its distinctive biodiversity, a home to a third of world’s cetacean species.
The IUCN also voiced out concerns about the unrelenting impacts of illegal activities in the exceptional biodiversity of the Rainforests of the Atsinanana in Madagascar and the Białowieża Forest, said to be the last of Europe’s primeval forests that are found in Belarus and Poland.
In 2010, the rainforests of Madagascar reached ‘in danger’ status for the illegal logging of rosewood and ebony, just three years after being recognized as World Heritage site.
The rainforests are major habitat for endangered lemurs that are also targets of poaching.
2016 saw an increase in illegal logging, despite ongoing efforts of Madagascar to address threats.
There is possibility of losing intact habitats if Poland doesn’t stop wood extraction and logging old-growth areas of the Białowieża Forest, the IUCN said.
The European Commission in fact has expressed its concern for the removal of ancient trees from said forest also considered a Natura 2000 site.
The forest was listed in 1979 as among the first World Heritage Sites, eventually extended in 1992 and 2014.
Shared between Belarus and Poland, the forest has a total area of 141,885 hectares and hosts over 250 birds, over 12,000 invertebrates, and the iconic European Bison.
The IUCN proposed to have a monitoring mission that will assess the situation, and should there be a confirmed danger to its Outstanding Universal Value, the forest will be considered next year on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The cooperation among nations has shown positive results against illegal activities in Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex in Thailand, the IUCN also said.
The cooperation between China, Cambodia, Viet Nam, and Lao People’s Democratic Republic, as well as intensified coordination within Thailand, brought about a decrease in illegal logging activities targeting Siamese rosewood.
The forest complex is among the most important watersheds in Thailand, besides its international importance to the conservation and survival of globally threatened birds, reptiles, and mammals.
Additional resources have been invested into the forest complex, including an action plan that aims to boost patrol efforts through space technology, according to the IUCN.
As World Heritage Committee’s official advisory body on nature, the IUCN recommends new sites for inclusion to the list of World Heritage Sites and proposes actions in the protection of these sites that face threats.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Convention needs to improve its conservation efforts on wilderness areas that are within NHWS, according to an international study by the University of Queensland (UQ).
Through the UNESCO’s formal process, the NWHS are recognized worldwide as containing some of the most valuable yet most threatened natural assets of the Earth.
The study said that merely 1.8% of world’s wilderness is secure in these sites.
Study’s lead author, James Allan, revealed broad gaps in wilderness coverage worldwide, although noting some sites such as Australia’s Purnululu National Park and Botswana’s Okavango Delta had excellent coverages.
Bolivia’s Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna Reserve and Myanmar’s Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve are examples of protected sites within said gaps.
While these sites have good wilderness coverage, they may also deserve consideration for a World Heritage Status, the study said.
“Globally important wilderness areas are increasingly being shown as not only strongholds for endangered biodiversity, but critical in the fight to abate climate change, for regulating local climates, and supporting many of the world’s most culturally diverse but politically and economically marginalised communities,” said Allan, who is a PhD student at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences in UQ.
He said wilderness areas face destruction at a worrying rate and thus need urgent protection.
“The World Heritage Convention has the ability to do this by improving wilderness coverage within Natural World Heritage Sites,” Allan said.
Noting that conservation of the wilderness was almost totally disregarded in environmental policy, James Watson, senior author and associate professor, has this to say as well: “There is not just an important opportunity but an urgent need for a global environmental convention to recognise the importance of conserving wilderness before it is too late.”
Watson said that the Convention should increase wilderness coverage within these sites to achieve its own objectives better, eventually raising “the profile of wilderness conservation globally, and provide wilderness areas with additional protection they need,” adding it’s a “win-win situation.”