Natural World Heritage sites at risk from human pressure: study

By Gemma Chilton 31 January 2017
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A new study led by the University of Queensland has warned that more than 100 Natural World Heritage sites are being destroyed by human activities.

ALMOST TWO-THIRDS OF Natural World Heritage sites are under growing pressure from human activities, according to a new study published today in the journal Biological Conservation.

The research, led by the University of Queensland (UQ), used newly available global datasets – Human Footprint and Global Forest Watch – to assess the pressures faced by Natural World Heritage sites, which are recognised by UNESCO as containing some of the Earth’s most valuable natural assets.

The study found that 63 per cent of these sites were under increased pressure from encroaching human activities such as roads, agriculture, urbanisation and infrastructure since 1993. This was the case across all continents except Europe, with the largest increases seen in Asia. The most impacted sites included Manas Wildlife Sanctuary on the foothills of the Himalayas in India and Komodo National Park in Indonesia.

The study also reported that forest loss occurred in 91 per cent of forest-containing sites – with the largest losses occurring in the Americas. For example, Canada’s largest national park, Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta (home to North America’s largest population of wild bison) has lost 11.7 per cent – or 2581 – of its forest since 2000.

“For a site to lose 10 or 20 per cent of its forested area in two decades is alarming and must be addressed,” said lead author James Allan, a PhD student at UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

While Australia’s 12 Natural World Heritage sites didn’t feature strongly in the findings, James said this wasn’t necessarily a sign we were on the right track. “Our sites are still in great condition, but that’s because they started off in such good condition – we’ve still damaged them a lot over the years,” he said, citing uranium mining in Kakadu National Park as a particular concern, along with weakened land clearing laws in Queensland and NSW.

Kakadu national Park

On a global scale, Australia’s Natural World Heritage sites such as Kakadu National Park (pictured) are in excellent condition – but human pressures remain a growing concern. (Image: Don Fuchs/Australian Geographic)

Knocking down nature’s Acropolis

Even world-famous locations such as Yellowstone National Park in the United States – celebrated for its geothermal features and wildlife – were impacted, with Yellowstone losing six per cent of its forests since 2000.

“The world would never accept the Acropolis being knocked down, nor 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,” said another senior author on the paper, Dr James Watson, from UQ and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

The human pressures considered by the Human Footprint dataset do not include invasive species, wildlife poaching, tourism pressure and rapid climate change, making these findings a “conservative assessment of the threats” faced by these globally significant natural sites, the researchers acknowledged. The study also only considered terrestrial sites, therefore excluding the likes of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which has suffered unprecedented bleaching due to climate change in recent years.

In addition to considering the Natural World Heritage sites, the study also looked at ‘buffer zones’ surrounding them – and found Oceania had the highest loss of forest in these vital areas. For example, Australia’s Heritage-listed Fossil Mammal Sites (Riversleigh and Naracoorte) lost nine per cent of their buffer forests. Without these buffer zones, Natural World Heritage sites can become “ecologically isolated”, said Allen, thus increasing the risk of eroding their natural values.

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

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee is meeting in Poland in July, and the study authors hope their new findings will stimulate further action.