It’s Time for the World Heritage Convention to Step Up Protection of Globally Significant Wilderness Areas

Torres del Paine, Chile. Photo credit: Gregoire Dubois.

By James Allan, James Watson, Bastian Bertzky & Tilman Jaeger

Earth’s last intact wilderness areas are being rapidly degraded. Predominantly free of human uses, especially industrial scale activities, large wilderness areas support an exceptional collection of globally significant environmental values, including very rich and often endangered biodiversity and critical ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and storage and water provision. Many indigenous people and local communities, which are often politically and economically marginalized, depend on wilderness areas for their subsistence and have deep bio-cultural connections.

Somewhat incredibly, more than 2 million square miles of terrestrial wilderness (around 10 percent of the total area) were lost in just the last two decades. If this continues, the consequences for both people and nature will be catastrophic.

Despite being irreplaceable and increasingly threatened, wilderness areas remain under-valued, under-protected, and have been almost completely ignored in international environmental policy. Immediate proactive action is required to save them. The question is where such action could come from.

In a paper just published in Conservation Biology, we argue that the World Heritage Convention has the ability to protect wilderness areas by improving coverage within Natural World Heritage Sites (NWHS). This is something very much in the World Heritage Convention’s best interests if it is to meet its core objective to identify and conserve the world’s most valuable sites.

The World Heritage Convention was adopted in 1972 by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to conserve the world’s most valuable natural and cultural sites – places of exceptional importance to all of humanity and future generations. Each one is unique and irreplaceable. Currently, 193 countries (almost the entire world) are Parties to the Convention (members), which has recognized 208 sites around the world for their exceptional natural values.

World Heritage Status is granted if a place has “Outstanding Universal Value” (OUV), which is based on three pillars. First, a site must meet one of the four natural criteria, covering aesthetic value, geological value, ecological and biological processes, and biodiversity significance. Second, a site must demonstrate “integrity” and “intactness” of its values (in other words, it must be in excellent condition). Finally, a site must be officially protected and effectively managed at the national level.

Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Photo credit: ©Dr. M.W. Atkinson/WCS.

Wilderness areas can be associated with all four of the natural criteria and are usually well placed to meet the integrity and intactness requirements. Wilderness quality is also a unique condition that by definition cannot be re-created once it is lost. The argument for protecting globally significant wilderness areas within NWHS is therefore compelling since it will help the World Heritage Convention better achieve its objectives.

We created the most up-to-date maps of terrestrial wilderness utilizing recent maps of human pressure and assessed the World Heritage Convention’s current coverage of wilderness areas. We found that more than 300 thousand square miles (around 2 percent) of the remaining wilderness areas are already protected in 52 NWHS.

For example, more than 90 percent of Purnululu National Park in the Kimberley region of Australia is a wilderness area. Similarly, the Okavango Delta in Botswana protects close to 7,000 square miles of wilderness area and contains many endangered large mammals.

In many cases, wilderness values are likely contributing substantially to the OUV of Natural World Heritage Sites, which is important information for management decisions. Protection efforts could be further strengthened to ensure wilderness quality and that ecological conditions are maintained. NWHS boundaries could also be reconfigured to better capture wilderness areas.

Our study also highlights broad gaps in wilderness coverage by the World Heritage Convention. Within these gaps we identified protected areas with good wilderness coverage. For example the Hukaung Valley Tiger Reserve in Myanmar or Eduardo Avaroa Andean Fauna Reserve in Bolivia protect 2,500 and 6,000 square miles of wilderness respectively.

The World Heritage List is still being expanded, presenting an important opportunity to take wilderness areas into account. The places we have identified – and others – could potentially be designated as new Heritage Sites if they meet the strict requirements for Outstanding Universal Value, including management and protection.

A camera trap captures a tigress moving her cubs in Thailand’s Huai Kha Khaeng reserve, a World Heritage Site. Photo credit: © WCS.

The World Heritage Convention could better achieve its objectives and make a substantial contribution to the conservation of wilderness areas through at least four avenues: 1) by formally acknowledging the contribution wilderness areas make to to OUV; 2) by strengthening protection of wilderness within Natural World Heritage Sites; 3) by expanding or re-configuring existing NWHS containing wilderness values; and 4) by encouraging new NWHS in wilderness areas. It is up to national governments to submit sites for World Heritage inscription, and we urge them to consider wilderness when doing so.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee meets in Poland this week. There are two sites with significant wilderness areas that are proposed as new NWHS at this meeting— Qinghai Hoh Xil in China and Los Alerces National Park in Argentina. We urge the Committee to approve these sites and use this to spur further opportunities to raise the profile of wilderness conservation worldwide. It is an obvious win-win. The clock is ticking fast for our last wilderness areas and the biodiversity they conserve. Immediate action is needed.

James Watson is an associate professor at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, global president of the Society for Conservation Biology, and director of science and research initiative at the Wildlife Conservation Society. James Allan is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland, Brisbane. Bastian Bertzky is a researcher at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, and a science adviser to IUCN’s World Heritage Programme. Tilman Jaeger is an Advisor to the IUCN World Heritage Programme.

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