- The World Heritage Convention is already used to protect many wilderness areas around the globe, but there are significant gaps in protection, especially in large, intact wilderness areas.
- Two of 24 global-scale wilderness areas are completely absent from the World Heritage List; eight other wilderness areas have less than 1 percent of their total area within a World Heritage site.
- Several countries are already working towards a World Heritage-plus-large wilderness landscapes approach, but it hasn’t been a very systematic process.
Fifteen years ago, Cyril Kormos helped create the Central Suriname Nature Reserve — 1.6 million hectares (about 4 million acres) of protected tropical forest that provides habitat for jaguars, giant river otters, eight species of primates and 400 species of birds, including the harpy eagle — an experience that stuck with him.
Kormos, the Vice-Chair for World Heritage at the International Union for Conservation of Nature–World Commission on Protected Areas and Vice-President for Policy at the WILD Foundation, describes the nature reserve, which was designated as a World Heritage site in 2000, as a “big, intact, wild tropical forest site” — and he says his work on the proposal for the reserve is partly where the idea for the World Heritage Wilderness Complex came from.
Governments must submit proposals to the World Heritage Committee for new sites to be listed or to change the boundaries of an existing site, Kormos said, which takes time.
But according to Kormos, there are things that can be done right away to create additional protections for threatened landscapes in and around World Heritage sites.
“You can create new protected areas around or near World Heritage sites, and you can work on connectivity initiatives, create corridors between World Heritage sites or from one World Heritage site to another protected area,” he said, adding that some countries are already doing just that.
Kormos and a team of fellow conservation experts recently published an article in the journal Conservation Letters to show how the World Heritage Convention itself “could make a bigger and more systematic contribution to global wilderness conservation” by creating a new mechanism the team calls the “World Heritage Wilderness Complex.”
“A number of countries are in effect working towards a World Heritage, wilderness and large landscapes approach already, but it hasn’t been a very systematic process,” Kormos said. “Establishing a ‘World Heritage Wilderness Complex’ designation under the Convention would provide an incentive and a mechanism for implementing this approach much more methodically — and in more countries.”
The World Heritage Convention is already used to protect many wilderness areas around the globe — places where human disturbance of ecosystems has been minimal, meaning they’re still capable of providing ecosystem services like climate stabilization, water regulation, food security, and biodiversity protection. More than 60 of the 228 natural World Heritage sites overlap with one or more of the 24 global-scale wilderness areas identified in a 2003 paper by one of Kormos’ co-authors, for instance.
However, two of the 24 global-scale wilderness areas are completely absent from the World Heritage List: the Bañados del Este wetlands in Uruguay and the Chaco dry forests in South America. Meanwhile, eight other wilderness areas have less than 1 percent of their total area within a World Heritage site.
Kormos says there would be significant benefits to more systematically identifying and protecting wilderness areas under the World Heritage Convention, but because the Convention’s existing tools are not explicitly wilderness-focused, they are limited in how effectively they could be used to implement a wilderness approach to conservation.
There are a number of tools proposed by Kormos and team in the Conservation Letters article for implementing a World Heritage and wilderness approach, including expansion of existing sites and creating bigger buffer zones.
The key innovation, however, is the World Heritage Wilderness Complex, which would include two or more existing World Heritage sites. It’s imperative that “the sites are large enough and have sufficient buffer zones to maintain ecological integrity and have the functional connectivity between them needed to protect and maintain outstanding universal value,” according to the article.
Given that many countries are already working to integrate World Heritage sites into broader conservation landscapes, the World Heritage Wilderness Complex mechanism, Kormos writes, “would constitute a logical extension of existing wilderness conservation efforts under the Convention” and “would strengthen emerging practice while providing incentives for its more strategic application.”
- Kormos, C. F., Bertzky, B., Jaeger, T., Shi, Y., Badman, T., Hilty, J. A., … & Watson, J. E. (2015). A Wilderness Approach under the World Heritage Convention. Conservation Letters.
- Mittermeier, R. A., Mittermeier, C. G., Brooks, T. M., Pilgrim, J. D., Konstant, W. R., Da Fonseca, G. A., & Kormos, C. (2003). Wilderness and biodiversity conservation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(18), 10309-10313.