In a new paper published today in the journal Conservation Letters, leading conservationists from around the world make the case for protecting new wilderness areas under the World Heritage Convention—especially in an era of increasing climate change and biodiversity loss.
Conserving large, intact wilderness areas that are free from industrial infrastructure is critical for the future survival of a wide range of plant and animal species, and essential to the livelihoods of local communities and indigenous cultures.
“The World Heritage Convention is a powerful international instrument and it can provide the leadership required for wilderness and large-landscape conservation,” explains the paper’s lead author Cyril Kormos, Vice Chair for IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas. “Protecting intact nature at large scales helps stabilize the climate and allow species to move and adapt to changes in the environment, so protecting them is a high-priority response to climate change.”
Although protecting large parks and heritage areas is proven to be a highly effective strategy for preserving intact ecosystems and biodiversity, many World Heritage sites worldwide are still seeing biodiversity losses due to a lack of connectivity for wide-ranging species, such as grizzly bears, which require vast protected landscapes in order to survive.
In the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, for example, Pronghorn migrations, which are included in Yellowstone National Park’s World Heritage values, have dropped by up to 75 percent.
The report’s authors include experts from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which is the official advisory body on natural World Heritage, as well as Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society and the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y).
“The Yellowstone to Yukon region contains one of the greatest concentrations of World Heritage sites on Earth: Yellowstone, Waterton-Glacier, Canadian Rockies Parks and Nahanni National Park Reserve,” said paper co-author Harvey Locke, Y2Y’s Co-founder and Strategic Advisor. “These parks have globally significant wilderness values. Protecting wilderness within them from commercial development pressures and connecting them is essential to nature being able to adapt to climate change.”
The calls for a new wilderness approach would ensure the integrity of natural World Heritage sites is maintained and improved, and would not only boost protection of intact nature, but could also help engage indigenous peoples in the World Heritage Convention. Wilderness landscapes support the livelihoods of local communities and host thousands of indigenous cultures. In many cases, these areas remain intact because they have been under the stewardship of indigenous peoples for centuries.
“The World Heritage Convention is in a unique position to offer guidance for innovation and strategic conservation, ensuring listed sites benefit from the highest standards of protection,” says Tim Badman, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme. “Increasing the coverage and connectivity of well-managed wilderness areas within the World Heritage List can only contribute to its strength and relevance.”
To provide technical guidance for this new approach, IUCN is currently undertaking a study to identify wilderness gaps on the World Heritage List and candidate sites for potential inscriptions.