List of World’s Natural Heritage Spots Grows

With the evidence of climate change impacts mounting and biodiversity loss rates rising, there is rarely good news on the nature front these days. Which is why it lifts the heart to see that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) last week recognized six new jewels of the natural world.

At this year’s 34th annual World Heritage Committee meeting, representatives from the 186 signatory states to the World Heritage Convention inscribed 21 new sites — 15 of which are cultural, 5 natural and one “mixed” (i.e., both natural and cultural).

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Advisory Body on natural sites to UNESCO, about 8% of the world’s protected areas (e.g., national parks, nature reserves) are now World Heritage Sites. These places all qualify for UNESCO’s  “outstanding universal value” criteria and include a Sri Lankan “super biodiversity hotspot”, the world’s largest intact coral archipelago ecosystem in Kiribati, and part of a major reindeer migration route in Siberia.

“Recognising these sites also signals the need for conservation action. Threats such as climate change will be a significant future challenge for most World Heritage sites,” said Tim Badman, Head of IUCN’s the World Heritage Programme, upon the closing of the meeting.

Here are brief descriptions of the spectacular natural places added to the List:

China Danxia (China)
This site in the sub-tropical zone of south-west China comprises six areas that host spectacular red cliffs and other types of erosional landforms like dramatic natural pillars, towers, ravines, valleys and waterfalls. These “landscapes have helped to conserve sub-tropical broad-leaved evergreen forests, and host many species of flora and fauna, about 400 of which are considered rare or threatened”, according to the details of the List.

Kiribati Phoenix Islands2 © Ameer Addulla

Kiribati Phoenix Islands2 © Ameer Addulla

Phoenix Islands Protected Area (Kiribati)
This 408,250 km² expanse of marine and terrestrial habitats in the Southern Pacific Ocean is the globe’s largest designated marine protected area. The site includes the Phoenix Islands, one of Kiribati’s three island groups, and “conserves one of the world’s largest intact oceanic coral archipelago ecosystems, together with 14 known underwater sea mounts (presumed to be extinct volcanoes) and other deep-sea habitats”. If that doesn’t convince you of its List-worthiness, the area hosts approximately 800 known species of fauna, including about 200 coral species, 500 fish species, 18 marine mammals and 44 bird species.

The Putorana plateau. Kureika valley. © UNESCO/Romanov A.

The Putorana plateau. Kureika valley. © UNESCO/Romanov A.

Putorana Plateau (Russian Federation)
This state nature reserve is located in the centre of the Putorana Plateau in northern Central Siberia, about 100 km north of the Arctic Circle. The part of the plateau that is inscribed as World Heritage “harbours a complete set of subarctic and arctic ecosystems in an isolated mountain range, including pristine taiga, forest tundra, tundra and arctic desert systems, as well as untouched cold-water lake and river systems.” Crossing the site is a major reindeer migration route that is “an exceptional, large-scale and increasingly rare natural phenomenon”.

Close Cirque de Salazie, Reunion Island. Photo by Simon Bonaventure.

Cirque de Salazie, Reunion Island. Photo by Simon Bonaventure.

Pitons, Cirques and Remparts of Reunion Island (France)
With two towering volcanic peaks, massive walls and three cliff-rimmed cirques (a half-open steep-sided hollow at the head of a valley or on a mountainside, formed by glacial erosion), this site certainly seems to live up to the descriptor of “visually striking landscape”. However, its importance to biodiversity is also impressive — its ecosystems include subtropical rainforests, cloud forests and heaths, and offer an ideal harbour for a wide diversity of plants.

Knuckles Mountain Range, Sri Lanka. Photo by Miyuru Ratnayake.

Knuckles Mountain Range, Sri Lanka. Photo by Miyuru Ratnayake.

Central Highlands of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka’s highlands are situated in the south-central part of the island. The site is actually a trio: the Peak Wilderness Protected Area, the Horton Plains National Park and the Knuckles Conservation Forest. These mountain forests in a region considered “a super biodiversity hotspot” are “home to an extraordinary range of flora and fauna, including several endangered species such as the western-purple-faced langur,  the Horton Plains slender loris and the Sri Lankan leopard”.

Papahanaumokuakea2 © J Tamelander IUCN

Papahanaumokuakea2 © J Tamelander IUCN

Papahānaumokuākea (United States)
Last but not least is the year’s one mixed site that was inscribed for both its natural and cultural values.  Papahānaumokuākea “is a vast and isolated linear cluster of small, low lying islands and atolls” roughly 250 km to the northwest of the main Hawaiian archipelago. The site includes the surrounding ocean, extending over 1,931 km and making it one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.  Made up of pelagic and deepwater habitats, its features include submerged banks, extensive coral reefs and lagoons.

Papahanaumokuakea © J Tamelander IUCN

Papahanaumokuakea © J Tamelander IUCN

It is a place with deep cosmological and traditional significance for living Native Hawaiian culture. Not only it is an ancestral environment and an embodiment of the Hawaiian concept of kinship between people and the natural world, it is also the place where native Hawaiians believe life originates and spirits return after death.

Clear and present danger

The Committee, after examining the state of conservation of sites that are already listed as World Heritage, also updated its List of World Heritage in Danger. Rainforest areas of Madagascar and the wetlands of Everglades National Park, USA, have been added to the list of places in peril.

However, IUCN is worried about the removal of Galapagos Islands. Despite progress since being given “danger status” in 2007 (but originally inscribed in 1978), the islands are still threatened by serious conservation problems like invasive species.

“For severely threatened sites like the rainforests of Madagascar and the Everglades, Danger Listing can be a powerful conservation tool, because it focuses the world’s attention and mobilises conservation support,” says Allen Putney, Vice Chair for World Heritage of IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas.  “But only if this attention and support is translated into concrete and practical conservation action on the ground.”

With so many of Earth’s precious ecosystems under threat, wouldn’t it be lovely if, in this International Year of Biodiversity, we could begin to appreciate all the wondrous places and the ecosystems they nurture before they end up on a danger list?

Creative Commons License
List of world’s natural heritage spots grows by Carol Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.



Carol is a journalist with a green heart who believes that presenting information in a positive and accessible manner is essential to activating more people to join the search for equitable and sustainable solutions to global problems. A native of Montreal, Canada, she joined the UNU communications team in 2008 while living in Tokyo and, after relocating to Vancouver, continued to telecommute to Our World as writer/editor through 2015.

Join the Discussion

  • AlanZulch

    This is great, Carol. It is a real pleasure to see some positive news, and to learn more about these newly designated sites.

    The whole World Heritage program is so rarely recognized and has remained virtually unknown, or at least unappreciated, among most people I know. It’d be great to have more such sites featured in the future. I’m particularly intrigued by the cultural designates and would love to hear more about them.

  • BrendanBarrett

    This was shared with me via Jane Park of Creative Commons.

    Fotopedia, in collaboration with the UNESCO World Heritage Center, has created a breathtaking new application for the iPhone and iPad. The app builds on the concept of a coffee table book, updating and enhancing the browsing experience for the web.

    UNESCO World Heritage “seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” With 911 properties, UNESCO has identified 890 heritage sites around the world. Now for the first time, you can access these sites as one comprehensive collection via the Fotopedia Heritage project.

    This project would not be possible without Creative Commons, as over 18,000 of the pictures in Fotopedia Heritage book are under one of the CC licenses. The pictures come from all around the world; as individual photographers and organizations license their high quality photos under Creative Commons, the book will only grow as a community contributed and shareable resource.

    F0r more see:

  • Stev Wang

    Well, it’s a good list actually but without complete pictures for each natural heritage sites. To be honest, I recommend Comodo Island and Rainforest in Kalimantan (Borneo) to be added in this list because both are very fascinating natural sites in Indonesia beside other very amazing landscapes such as beach in Bali and Lombok, mountainous in Bromo and Dieng, also three-colors lake in Kelimutu…Visit these sites and you’ll rethinking that this list is not satisfied anough for all…Thank you…Stev Wang-Indonesia

    • Thanks Stev. You are right, you have a lot to value in Indonesia (I will personally always and forever remember my travels around Bali).