Cape Town - Almost a third of all natural World Heritage Sites globally has the threat of oil, gas and mining exploration hanging over it, according to a new report released by the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) UK.
More alarming, however, is that this threat rises to an alarming 61% in Africa, WWF says.
Currently, 93% of natural World Heritage Sites deliver recreation and tourism benefit, 91% provide employment and 84% contribute to their respective countries' education.
Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon National Park in the US and China's Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries - home to more than 30% of the world's endangered pandas - are among the 'incredible places' being put at risk, wildlife charity WWF says.
Of 229 natural or mixed World Heritage sites, which have been designated wholly or partly because of their natural formations, habitats for threatened species or their conservation, scientific or aesthetic value, 114 are under threat.
South Africa is home to eight of the Africa's 135 official heritage sites, as determined by Unesco's World Heritage Committee. Our country has a total of 4 cultural, 3 natural and one mixed (cultural and natural) heritage sites.
Worldwide, there are 981 World Heritage Sites.
South Africa's World Heritage Sites are iSimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu-Natal, Robben Island in the Western Cape, Cradle of Humankind in Gauteng, uKhahlamba Drakensberg Park in KwaZulu-Natal, Mapungubwe National Park in Limpopo, the Cape Floral Region in the Eastern and Western Cape, Vredefort Dome in the Free State and the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape in the Northern Cape.
The WWF's new assessment - in a report called Safeguarding Outstanding Natural Value - puts the risk at a higher level than previously thought. The report also brings to light the risk to investors of involvement with extractives companies working, or intending to work, in or near these special places.
Covering less than 1% of the planet and containing outstanding natural value such as iconic landscapes and species, natural World Heritage Sites are in increasing danger of exploitation and irreparable damage, which in turn damages the communities who depend on these amazing places for their livelihoods.
Furthermore, natural World Heritage Sites are home to some of the rarest and most treasured animals on Earth, such as mountain gorillas, African elephants, snow leopards, whales and marine turtles.
The threat level relates to active operations by extractive companies, or intrusion that may come as a result of concessions for exploration of minerals or oil and gas overlapping these sites.
Investors are being warned in the report of their risk exposure if they back the companies involved, both in terms of financial risk and threats to their reputation; in short, there is too much risk for not enough reward in this case.
WWF is calling on investors to use the evidence in the report to engage with the extractive sector at industry level to encourage the wider adoption of ‘no go’ and ‘no impact’ commitments for natural WHS, and for companies to proactively disclose active, existing, or intended activity within, or adjacent to, natural World Heritage Sites.
“We are going to the ends of the Earth in pursuit of more resources – resources, including minerals, oil and gas, that are becoming more difficult and more expensive to extract," David Nussbaum for WWF-UK says.
"Some of the world’s most treasured places are threatened by destructive industrial activities that imperil the very values for which they have been granted the highest level of international recognition: outstanding natural value. Protecting these iconic places is not only important in terms of their environmental worth; it is crucial for the livelihoods and future of the people who depend on them."
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