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Almost Half of Natural World Heritage Sites Are Threatened by Criminal Activity

A WWF report found that illegal poaching, logging, and fishing impacts 45 percent of the designated locations

An African elephant bull in a freshwater marsh in Botswana's Okavango Delta. (imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo)
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There are more than 200 designated natural World Heritage sites across the globe, from the Galapagos Islands, to Serengeti National Park, to the Great Barrier Reef. These beautiful and diverse places, which are home to some of the world’s rarest species, should be protected by their Heritage status. But a new report by the World Wildlife Fund has found that nearly half of all Natural Heritage sites are threatened by criminal activity.

The report notes that animals and plants protected by CITES—or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which regulates the trade of an array of wildlife—are “illegally harvested” in 45 percent of World Heritage sites​.  Illegal logging was reported in 26 sites, and illegal fishing was reported in almost 50 percent of the 39 marine properties. Poaching of endangered species like elephants, rhinos, and tigers occurs in at least 43 protected locations.

World Heritage Sites are particularly ripe territory for poachers because they are home to clusters of vulnerable wildlife populations. The world’s last Javan rhinos, for instance, live Ujung Kulon National Park in Indonesia. The Okavango Delta World Heritage site is an important habitat for Botswana’s African elephants, which make up 31 percent of all African elephants, the report notes. If the pillaging of World Heritage Sites continues, a number of already-threatened species may be driven to extinction.

The species most at risk, the Agence France Presse reports, is likely the vaquita, a very small and very cute porpoise that is native to Mexico’s Gulf of California—areas of which are designated Natural Heritage Sites. Vaquitas aren’t the target of fishing activity; they get swept up in nets as fishermen (illegally) trawl the waters for an endangered fish called the totoaba. Now, there are no more than 30 vaquitas left in the Gulf of California.

Putting a stop to criminal activity at World Heritage sites is guaranteed to be a tricky business. The illegal wildlife market is booming, pulling in $15 to $20 billion each year, according to the WWF report. The illegal timber trade, which is to blame for some 90 percent of deforestation in major tropical countries, is valued at $30 to $100 billion annually. The financial incentives for illegally harvesting wildlife are, in other words, quite high. And the current international approach to protecting World Heritage sites is, according to the report, “not working.”

The report consequently recommends a number of measures to tackle the problem, like increasing the collaboration between CITES and the World Heritage Convention, which currently focus on different elements of the wildlife trafficking chain. Providing sustainable employment to locals who might be enticed into the illegal wildlife trade may also deter criminal activity, the report says.

Plants and animal species are not the only ones threatened by the degradation of World Heritage sites. As the Press Association notes, Heritage properties provide local populations with an array of services, from clean water to tourism jobs. Protecting these sites is of vital importance—to wildlife and humans alike.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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