The 5 new World Heritage Sites most important for biodiversity

From Persian leopards to Ice Ace–old fauna

Birds flying over coastal regions near the Yellow Sea. © Yancheng Broadcasting Television
25 July 2019
Sandra Cordon

From the home of the stately king penguin and yellow-nosed albatross, to the territory of the iconic Persian leopard, to Iceland’s volcanic fire and glacial ice, an extensive display of the globe’s biodiversity has just been inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

The World Heritage Committee convened in early July in Baku, Azerbaijan, and added 29 sites to the List, which now numbers 1,121 places worldwide. Most represent unique cultural phenomena, such as the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon in Iraq – one of the most anticipated additions this year.

But four natural sites in very different parts of the planet were also inscribed for what UNESCO describes as their “important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.” Plus one ‘mixed’ property in Brazil was added, for its rich biodiversity and cultural significance both.

A spot on the World Heritage List brings additional support for conservation to the sites, which are judged to provide “outstanding value to humanity,” as well as more protection in confronting a number of threats, from armed conflict to poaching to pollution to climate change.

“You can actually do a lot in terms of climate change adaptation and mitigation,” says Mechtild Rössler, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris. “A well-run World Heritage Site is more resilient to climate change because the site manager can identify threats and try to address these issues. This inscription is the highest recognition that a site can get.”

Without further ado, these five new UNESCO World Heritage Sites are:

The French Austral Lands and Seas

A remote overseas territory of volcanic islands in the southern reaches of the Indian Ocean with no permanent inhabitants.

This territory includes the Crozet Archipelago, the Kerguelen Islands, Saint-Paul and Amsterdam Islands and 60 small sub-Antarctic islands, which together support one of the highest concentrations of birds and marine mammals in the world, including the planet’s largest population of king penguins and yellow-nosed albatrosses.

The habitats of king penguins in the Crozet archipelago are in critical danger due to climate change. © Antoine Dervaux
Saint-Paul Island, a scientific research site within the territory. © Nelly Gravier

Iceland’s Vatnajökull National Park

A volcanic region covering an area of more than 1.4 million hectares, or almost 14 percent of the country.

This World Heritage Site includes 10 central volcanoes, whose unique interactions with glaciers and ice caps create an ever-changing display of rivers, sandur plains and canyons. Some of the groundwater fauna found here has also  survived since the Ice Age.

The Hoffelsjökull glacier is an outlet of one of Europe’s largest ice caps. © Thorvardur Arnason
Fláajökull, a slow flowing glacier on the east side of the Breiðabunga volcano. © Thorvardur Arnason
The Park’s Kambar ridge. © Snorri Baldursson

Iran’s Hyrcanian forests

A broad-leaved forested mass stretching 850 kilometers along the southern coast of the Caspian Sea.

With portions dating back some 50 million years, these forests survived the Ice Age and once covered much of the region due to their warmer climes. They continue to boast an immense array of rare biodiversity. To date, 180 bird species and 58 mammal species have been recorded living among such rare trees as alder, elm and wild cherry, including the Persian leopard (Panthera pardus tulliana).

Beech trees in the Hycranian forests of Iran’s Mazandaran Province. © Fariba Babaei

Migratory bird sanctuaries along the coast of Yellow Sea–Bohai Gulf of China

Bordering the waters that sit between China and North and and South Korea with an intertidal mudflat system considered to be the largest in the world, according to UNESCO.

The mudflats serve as growth areas for many species of fish and crustaceans, while the intertidal areas are a crucial stopping point for many migratory birds, including some of the world’s most endangered.

A colorful area of the mudflats, as seen from above. © Yancheng Broadcasting Television
The red-crowned crane, one of the rarest cranes in the world is found in the mudflats. © Yancheng Broadcasting Television
Two common kingfishers. © Yancheng Broadcasting Television

Paraty and Ilha Grande in Brazil

A colonial Portuguese port town and the island off its coast.

At the foot of the Serra da Bocaina mountain range, Paraty is extraordinarily well-preserved, with buildings lining its cobblestone streets dating back to the 17th century, the beginning of Brazil’s gold rush and slave trade that ensued. Four protected areas of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest fall within the bounds of this site, with Ilha Grande home to one of the most pristine remnants of the original forest, as well as an impressive variety of rare animals such as the jaguar (Panthera onca), the white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari) and several different primates.

A traditional caiçara canoe. Oscar Liberal © IPHAN
The Colonial Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows in Paraty. Oscar Liberal © IPHAN

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