World Heritage in Danger

Some of the world’s most remarkable places are at risk of being wiped off the map—unless UNESCO and its partners save them.

One of the truly remarkable things about Planet Earth is its diversity, be it geographic, environmental, historical, or cultural. This variety has created a world dotted with incredible places, both natural and manmade; locations in which viewers are struck with a sense of wonder. Many of these places have been recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), earning the distinction of World Heritage sites.

The World Heritage designation is given to those places UNESCO recognizes as having "outstanding universal value to humanity." Potential sites are measured against a list of selection criteria, including things like:

  • Representing a masterpiece of creative genius
  • Demonstrating a valuable exchange in concepts like art, architecture, or technology
  • Exemplifying a unique cultural tradition of civilization
  • Containing extraordinary natural beauty
  • Containing exemplary and significant habitats for conserving biodiversity

Egypt's Memphis and its Necropolis were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1979. Photo: Pixabay

If a certain location is deemed to meet at least one of UNESCO's ten official criteria, it is inscribed on the World Heritage List. The sites that make the cut enjoy a range of benefits, both tangible and intangible. First and foremost, they are recognized as being so important that they belong to all of humanity, not just the country in which they are located; tied to this importance is a need to protect them for all future generations to enjoy.

In practical terms, this recognition raises the profile of the designated site. Increased awareness almost always leads to an increase in funding for organizations and government actors working to preserve these sites, and can even include financial assistance and expert guidance from UNESCO itself.

World Heritage sites fall into three general categories: cultural, natural, or mixed (meaning a site has both cultural and natural significance). To date, the list consists of 1,092 properties scattered across 167 countries.

All 1,092 World Heritage sites, mapped. Data: UNESCO

For a site to be considered for inscription, its home country must first sign the Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which UNESCO adopted in 1972. As a signatory, a country is then able to submit sites through the nomination process, which is often a years-long affair. New sites are inscribed on the list annually—21 sites were added in 2016, another 26 in 2017, and 20 more were added just last year.

Rapa Nui National Park | Chile

A map showing the location of Easter Island

A portion of this South Pacific island was inscribed as a cultural World Heritage site in 1995. Called Rapa Nui in the indigenous Polynesian tongue, but better known as Easter Island in the west, the miniscule speck of land is one of the most isolated inhabited places on earth.

Despite the island's geographic isolation—or perhaps because of it—Rapa Nui was once home to a vibrant and artistically skilled Polynesian society. From the 10th to 16th centuries, this ingenious community erected a series of shrines and massive stone sculptures known as moai (pictured here; photo: Pixabay).

These solemn, mysterious statues have captured the western world's imagination since they were first documented by European explorers in the early 18th century.

A scenic sunset creates dramatic silhouettes of moai statues along the coast of Easter Island. Photo: Pixabay

Visitors to the island will no doubt be awed by its collection of approximately 900 statues, more than 300 ceremonial platforms, and thousands of structures related to agriculture, funeral rites, housing, production, and other ancient activities.

Laurisilva of Madeira | Portugal

A map showing the location of Madeira

Located within Madeira Natural Park on the Portuguese-administered island of the same name, Laurisilva of Madeira conserves the largest surviving laurel forest in the world. Once abundant, this vegetation type is now found only in the Azores, Madeira, and the Canary Islands. Given its tremendous ecological significance—not to mention its lush beauty—the forest was designated a natural World Heritage site in 1999.

It is believed that most of the forest has never been felled; in fact, some of its biggest trees have been growing since before the island was even settled, making them more than 800 years old. (Photo: Jnvalves)

Levadas and their accompanying footpaths provide ample opportunities for scenic walks through this dense Portuguese forest. Photo: Jörg Schmalenberger

The settlers of Madeira constructed water channels, known as levadas, which run through the forest, clinging to the cliffs and steep-sided valleys. The levadas bring water from the forest to settlements further south, and run adjacent to stone paths that allow visitors to navigate otherwise impenetrable vegetation.

An imperiled list

While the fundamental purpose of the World Heritage program is to preserve these immeasurably valuable sites for centuries to come, some locations are under constant threat. Armed conflict, natural disasters, poaching, pollution, poorly managed tourism, and rampant urbanization have all jeopardized the longevity of many designated cultural and natural sites. To elevate the precarious situation of these properties, UNESCO also maintains a List of World Heritage in Danger.

Yemen's Old Walled City of Shibam has been on the List of World Heritage in Danger since 2015. Civil unrest and potential flooding pose significant risks to its preservation. Photo: Jialiang Gao

The goal of the danger list is to focus attention on the sites at greatest risk of being lost forever, and to hopefully induce the international community to take protective action. A site is placed on this list when the World Heritage Committee determines that it is threatened by either 'ascertained' or 'perceived' danger. Ascertained danger means the threat is specific, proven, and ongoing, like the visible deterioration of city structures, or a rapid decline in critical species populations. Perceived danger, meanwhile, refers to threats that could eventually become detrimental to the site if left unchecked. Threats of this kind can include ongoing violence, planned settlement expansions, climate change, or a change in governmental policy.

Cultural and natural sites each have their own list of ascertained and perceived threats, but a site must only meet one of the selection criteria to be moved to the List of World Heritage in Danger. The list currently includes 54 sites.

All World Heritage Sites included on the danger list, mapped. (Unthreatened sites are shown in blue.) Data: UNESCO

While the list of World Heritage Sites has grown at a relatively steady pace since its inception nearly half a century ago, the list of endangered sites has expanded at an increase rate: in 1990, just over two percent of all sites were listed as endangered; by 2018, this figure had more than doubled, peaking at five percent in 2016.

This chart illustrates the proportional increase in endangered sites since 1972, the year the World Heritage Convention was formally adopted. (Source: UNESCO)

This uptick in inscriptions to the danger list is due, at least in part, to an increase in political instability around the globe. Many of these treasured sites have become literal battlegrounds. In the past decade alone, more than a dozen World Heritage Sites in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Iraq alone were added to the danger list as a direct result of armed conflict. Of the 54 endangered sites, 30 were inscribed in the ten years.

Timbuktu | Mali

A map showing the location of Timbuktu

Timbuktu's three great mosques testify to the Malian Empire's pivotal role in spreading Islam throughout West Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. Given its spiritual and cultural importance, the site was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1988.

What's more, Timbuktu's towering religious structures provide superb examples of earthen architecture, as well as traditional techniques for its maintenance—a practice that continues to this day. (Photo: Gilles Mairet)

The three big Mosques of Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia still bear witness to Timbuktu's prestigious past. Photo: UNESCO

Timbuktu was first placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 1990. Although it was removed from the list in 2005, the Committee re-inscribed it on the danger list seven years later. Desertification, an insufficient management plan, and war pose the biggest threats to the site today.

Everglades National Park | United States

A map showing the location of the Everglades

Situated at Florida's southern tip, the Everglades provide both remarkable scenery and critical wildlife habitat. It was inscribed as a natural heritage site in 1979.

The national park provides sanctuary for birds and reptiles alike. In fact, it is the most significant breeding ground for wading birds in North America, it serves as a major migration corridor, and provides refuge for over 20 rare, endangered, or threatened species like the Florida panther, crocodile, and manatee. (Photo: Pixabay)

The Everglades' mixture of subtropical and temperate wildlife species is found nowhere else in the United States. Photo: Pexels

Originally inscribed on the danger list in 1993, the Everglades were removed for a three-year spell in 2007 before being re-inscribed in 2010. Expanding human settlements, damage from hurricanes, and invasive species are among the chief threats to this cherished ecosystem.

The benefits of inscription

While some governments resist having their World Heritage Sites added to the danger list—perhaps due to embarrassment—most welcome the designation. If a site were to lose those attributes that give it "outstanding universal value," it could be stricken from the World Heritage list altogether. (Thankfully, this has only happened to two sites, as of 2018.) The danger list serves as a sort of last-chance mechanism to prevent such a tragic outcome.

A sanctuary for the Arabian Oryx (pictured here) in Oman was the first site to be delisted by the World Heritage Committee, after the Omani government reduced the size of the reserve by 90 percent. Photo: Sharp Photography

When a site is added to the danger list, the host country's government must work with UNESCO's World Heritage Committee to create and implement a plan for mitigating the threats to that site's integrity. Ongoing monitoring of the site is always a critical component of these plans.

But the listing also makes the site eligible for additional funding, particularly from UNESCO itself. Plus, the designation signals the need for dire action from international organizations, who typically rally funding of their own and come together for the sake of urgent, targeted conservation intervention.

In fact, even the prospect of a site being inscribed on the danger list can be enough to spur the international community into immediate action. This has sometimes been enough to mitigate threats before a site is officially placed on the list of imperiled sites.

Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley | Afghanistan

A map showing the location of Bamiyan Valley

The Cultural Landscape and Archaeological Remains of the Bamiyan Valley lie nestled between the mountains in Afghanistan's portion of the Hindu Kush range. Here, a collection of cave paintings, Buddhist sculptures, and the remains of a fortress evoke the rich culture that flourished as far back as the 1st century. Despite this, the cultural site was only added to the World Heritage list as recently as 2003. (Photo: AlfredoGMx)

The Bamiyan Valley contains numerous Buddhist monastic ensembles and sanctuaries, as well as fortified edifices from the Islamic period. Photo: UNESCO

The Bamiyan Valley has been on the danger list from the time it was first inscribed as a World Heritage site. In fact, two years before its addition to the list, two of the property's most impressive Buddhist statues were destroyed by the Taliban.

Afghanistan's civil unrest continues to threaten the site's longevity. Additionally, concerns over some of the caves' structural integrity, as well as the gradual deterioration of the site's murals, imperil this ancient site.

Garamba National Park | DR Congo

A map showing the location of Garamba National Park

Boasting a tremendous diversity of habitats—ranging from grasslands to woodlands to marshlands—Garamba National Park is home to several species of charismatic megafauna, including hippos, elephants, and even a few giraffes.

The protected area became a national park in 1938, but was added to the World Heritage list in 1980. (Photo: Pixabay)

As many as 22,000 elephants once roamed Garamba National Park. Since 1970, that number has declined to fewer than 1,300. Photo: Pixabay

A number of armed groups occupy the jungles that stretch from southern Central African Republic, to northern Democratic Republic of Congo, and into South Sudan. Situated at the heart of this, Garamba's wildlife and vegetation—as well as the park rangers that protect them—are up against rebels who trade in ivory to secure weapons and rely on the forest for food and fuel. As a result of this unrest, Garamba has been inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger since 1996.

Leaving the list for good reason

The ultimate goal of the List of World Heritage in Danger is to induce focused, intensive conservation efforts, and to mitigate any threats posed to the sites. In an ideal world, the list would work itself out of existence. While that hasn't happened yet, there have been several success stories of sites improving to the point of overcoming any ascertained or perceived threats.

Illegal excavation, pillaging, and lingering landmines once threatened Cambodia's Angkor Archaeological Park. With concerted effort, these threats were eliminated, and UNESCO removed the site from the danger list in 2004. Photo: Pixabay

While removing a site from the danger list doesn't mean it can't later be re-inscribed—something that has occurred for a number of sites—each delisting provides a compelling example of what concerted preservation action can achieve.

International actors are critical to these efforts, but local stakeholders are playing increasingly important roles in conserving those places of outstanding universal value. These local voices are especially essential, since they represent those people most affected (both positively and negatively) by the increase in tourism and attention that accompanies World Heritage recognition.

To date, increased preservation efforts have resulted in 34 properties being removed from, and remaining off of, the List of World Heritage in Danger. That's 34 informative and inspiring models of what can happen when nonprofits, governments, and international organizations answer UNESCO's call to action. Another way to look at it: 34 down, 54 to go.

Historical Monuments of Mtskheta | Georgia

A map showing the location of the historical monuments of Mtskheta

Georgia's former capital, Mtskheta, contains several churches that are quintessential examples of the region's religious architecture. The archaeological remains found here testify to the high culture in the arts of building, masonry, pottery, and other crafts that were flourishing at the time, and earned the cultural site its spot on the World Heritage List in 1994. (Photo: Sosomk)

Mtskheta was where, in the year 337, Christianity was proclaimed as the official religion of Georgia. Photo: John Deckinga

The Historical Monuments of Mtskheta were placed on UNESCO's danger list in 2009, due to their deteriorating stonework and fresco paintings. It remained on the list as the surrounding urban sprawl posed considerable risk to its longevity.

But Georgia's considerable efforts to improve the management and safeguarding of the site paid off. In the summer of 2016, the World Heritage Committee officially removed Mtskheta from the List in Danger.

Los Katíos National Park | Colombia

A map showing the location of Los Katios

Comprising low hills, forests, and humid plains, Los Katíos claims an exceptional level of biodiversity; several threatened animal species are found in the national park, alongside numerous endemic plants. In fact, Los Katíos is the only place in South America where the American Crocodile, Giant Anteater and Central American Tapir can be found. Given all this, the site was inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1994. (Photo: UNESCO)

Los Katíos was declared a national park in 1973, but its boundaries were increased in 1979 to their current extent. Photo: UNESCO

At the request of the Colombian government, Los Katíos was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2009. Its inscription was an effort to combat deforestation, unsanctioned settlements, and illegal hunting.

Thanks to significant intervention by the government, bolstered by numerous international supporters, the park has rebounded from threats posed by unchecked resource extraction. The World Heritage Committee removed it from the danger list in 2015.

This story was created by the StoryMaps team using the new ArcGIS StoryMaps Beta. Learn more about this next-generation storytelling tool—and try it yourself—here.