Like any superhero worth their cape, UNESCO is on the side of the underdog. Armed with a global spotlight and a list of internationally-approved criteria, it answers the call of the helpless endangered species, the threatened pristine wilderness, and fragile underwater wonderlands—all silently imploring universal shelter from that ubiquitous arch villain—greed.
The establishment of a Natural Heritage Site implies accepted responsibility—by its government, world corporations, and the public at large—for long-term protection and conservation of these “irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.” While the United Nations has no legal power in this arena, the moral pressure on individual governments is great. Of the 878 UNESCO World Heritage Site properties, 174 of them fall under the category, “Natural Heritage.” David Sheppard, the head of IUCN’s Protected Areas Program calls them “the creme de la creme of what the world has to offer.” We visit many Natural Heritage Sites on our expeditions. Among our favorites:
INDONESIA – Komodo National Park (1991)
The remote three-island Komodo chain sits at the center of the Indonesian archipelago, its rugged tawny terrain wreathed by sapphire waters and dazzling white beaches. Named for the 10-foot-long monitor lizard, the Komodo dragon—whose previously mythological existence was confirmed by science in 1911—the islands received their first tourists only in the 1970s. Today, the remaining 5,700 lizards, whose origins reach back some 40 million years, are studied in the context of understanding evolution. Timor deer, the favorite food of the dragons, live in the island forests, along with 100 species of birds, including orange-footed scrub fowl and yellow-crested cockatoos.
Designated a Biosphere Reserve in 1977, established as a National Park in 1980, and declared a Natural World Heritage Site in 1991, the Komodo Islands draw global attention not only for the gargantuan reptile, but also for the unique marine environment. Two separate marine habitats, tropical and temperate, exist within a few miles of each other, a result of upwellings caused by the collision of deep ocean currents from the Flores Sea, the Indian Ocean, and Antarctica. Vast supplies of rich nutrients and plankton attract more than 1,000 species of fish, as well as blue whales, dolphins, sea turtles, dugong and manta rays.
BRAZIL – Pantanal Conservation Area (2000)
The world’s largest freshwater wetland system, and an ecological paradise, the Pantanal covers 88,000 square miles, 80 percent of which lie within Brazil’s borders. It is the third largest Biosphere Reserve on the planet.
Numerous globally threatened species thrive in the continually flooded plain and forests. Among the land and aquatic wildlife are 260 species of fish, along with caiman, river otters, anacondas, jaguars, tapirs, monkeys, giant anteaters, and capybaras, the world’s largest rodents. The Pantanal is also home to 650 species of birds—storks, parrots, toucans, kites, and hawks among them.
Even though the Natural Heritage status thwarted the digging of a 100-mile industrial channel through the region—intended as a highway for barges carrying soybeans grown around the wetlands for export to Europe—the threat of polluting toxins to the health of the river systems has resulted in an average annual devastation of more than two percent. If corporate endeavors are permitted to continue, the Pantanal could disappear in just 40 years.
RUSSIA – Volcanoes of Kamchatka (1996)
Crowned with nearly 300 volcanoes, 29 of them active, Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula forms part of the northwestern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire. Greenpeace prepared the nomination for Natural Heritage inscription with the aid of the German Union for Nature Conservation and several Russian conservation organizations. Six sites, including the Valley of the Geysers, are sheltered under UNESCO; together they comprise “the most outstanding examples of the volcanic regions in the world.”
In the thick forests and pristine tundra thrive an incredible 37 species of wildlife and 16 endemic botanicals. All eleven known species of salmonids coexist and spawn in the wild rivers, attracting such birds of prey as the endangered Steller’s sea eagles (half the world’s population lives here). It is the omnipresence of the volcanoes that capture the imagination, however… the high concentration of symmetrical peaks that soar to 9,000 feet skyward, making this “a landscape of exceptional natural beauty.”
UGANDA – Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (1994)
A wild tract of dense montane and lowland forest, most of it accessible only by foot, Bwindi—which means impenetrable—National Park is an astonishing showcase of biodiversity. The park reaches from 3,000 to 7,500 feet; its physical attributes include ancient forests that survived the last ice age, dramatic gorges, and a myriad of cascading streams.
This southwestern corner of Uganda boasts one of the richest ecosystems on the African continent. More than 160 species of trees and 100 species of ferns comprise the tangle of jungle, which in turn provides food and shelter for 345 species of birds, 202 of butterflies, and 120 of mammals. Eleven species of primates make their home in this magical landscape, among them large numbers of chimpanzees, the elegant black-and-white colobus monkeys, and—the chief reason for the park’s protected status: about 340 of the critically endangered mountain gorillas, or half the world’s population. Despite the strict time restraints, the few permits issued daily, and the arduous effort it takes to track these magnificent beings, an eye-to-eye encounter with a mountain gorilla is one of the most profound wildlife experiences on the planet.
Other destinations we visit that include Natural Heritage Sites: Galápagos, Seychelles; Panama, Ireland, New Zealand, India, Turkey, Vietnam, Japan, Argentina, and more.