A herd of bison grazes in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park in Wyo. File photo: Reuters
A herd of bison grazes in the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park in Wyo. File photo: Reuters

100 World Heritage Sites under pressure

By Shaun Smillie Time of article published Mar 4, 2017

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Across the planet, a study has revealed that more than 100 natural World Heritage Sites are under threat from increasing human encroachment and deforestation.

In the study an international team of researchers from the University of Queensland, Wildlife University of Northern British Columbia and the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that the human footprint over these protected sites had increased by 63% over the last two decades.

The only continent that didn’t see any increase was Europe.

One of the big surprises was the discovery that the Yellowstone National Park had lost six percent of its forest. This loss has been attributed to the arrival of the pine beetle and global warming.

Other sites, particularly in Asia, were found to be in an even poorer state. These included the Manas Wildlife Sanctuary in India, the Chitwan National Park in Nepal and the Simien National Park in Ethiopia.

In the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras, the study found that illegal drug trafficking in the park had led to widespread deforestation and illegal settlements. The reserve had lost 8% of its forests since 1993.

Each of these sites has been claimed by the Unesco World Heritage convention as a place of value that needs to be safeguarded for future generations.

“World Heritage natural sites should be maintained and protected fully. For a site to lose 10 or 20 percent of its forested area in two decades is alarming and must be addressed,” says the lead author, James Allan, from the University of Queensland, in a statement.

His co-author, Dr James Watson of the University of Queensland and WCS, adds: “The world would never accept the Acropolis being knocked down, or a couple of pyramids being flattened for housing estates or roads, yet right now, across our planet, we are simply letting many of our natural World Heritage Sites become severely altered.”

The researchers pointed out that a South African World Heritage Site, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, had also lost 18% of its forest. But this was a good thing. The forests cleared were pine and eucalyptus plantations.

“For a long time the ancient grasslands have been missing, but now they have made a comeback in the park - this since the pine and eucalyptus plantations were cleared,” said Professor William Bond of the department of Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town. “Deforestation here was a wonderful thing.”

This, Bond points out, is the downside of man-made forests that are planted in the name of conservation.

Conservationists, he explains, often see grasslands as the by-product of human encroachment and deforestation. Forestation was having its effect on environment too.

“In South Africa, since 1990, extensive areas of grassland have been gobbled up by trees,” says Bond, who wasn’t involved in the study. “Some of these grasslands are millions of years old.”

But while the iSimangaliso Wetland Park might be experiencing good deforestation, elsewhere in South Africa human pressure is having a profound effect on indigenous forest-dwelling birds.

A recent study found that the ranges of 28 of South Africa’s 57 forest dwelling bird species had declined over the last two decades.

Researchers from Stellenbosch University (SU) and South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs came to this conclusion after analysing data collected by the South African Bird Atlas Project.

They found that indigenous forests were not only threatened by deforestation, but were under pressure from communities who were collecting firewood, building materials, food and traditional medicines.

Allan wants the Unesco World Heritage committee to immediately assess the threatened sites they have identified. This, when the committee meets in July.

Saturday Star

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