According to the UN cultural organization Unesco, the more than 200 natural world heritage sites around the globe are essential for the protection of biodiversity. "We can now look at the world heritage sites as a last bulwark against extinction," said Lazare Eloundou Assomo, head of the Paris-based UNESCO World Heritage Centre.
According to a study published on Thursday by the cultural organization and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), World Heritage sites are home to around a fifth of the world's recorded species, even though they only make up one percent of the earth's surface.
A UNESCO committee decides which areas are to be listed as World Natural Heritage. There are three such sites in Germany, including the Messel Pit Fossil Site in Hesse and the Wadden Sea.
"The World Heritage sites that affect biodiversity are considered a bit of a last resort for all these species," said Eloundou Assomo. According to the report, the sites are home to more than 75,000 species of plants and more than 30,000 species of animals. Some of the most threatened species also live in the protected areas, most of them plants, but among the 20,000 or so endangered species in the sites are also Javan rhinos, mountain gorillas and California porpoises. About a third of the remaining elephants, tigers and pandas live in the World Heritage Sites, while giraffes, lions, rhinos and great apes are one in ten animals.
However, UNESCO and IUCN also warn: The world heritage sites are coming under pressure from climate change as well as poaching, the expansion of agriculture and the excessive exploitation of resources. In order to maintain the protective effect of the areas for biodiversity, countries would have to take them into account in their national action plans for species protection. The World Heritage sites should be a priority in these strategies, Eloundou Assomo urged.
For the analysis, IUCN and Unesco took into account not only the more than 200 natural world heritage sites, but also around 20 percent of the world cultural heritage sites that were ascribed a role in species protection - such as national parks listed as cultural heritage.