Australia's shame: World Heritage sites in peril

The world is struggling to protect its most crucial natural areas.  Poorer countries are faring the worst, but even a wealthy nation like Australia isn't doing very well.

Iconic species in trouble... the white lemuroid possum, found only in the Queensland Wet Tropics, was driven to the edge of extinction by a 2005 heat wave  (photo (c) Jonathan Munro)

Iconic species in trouble... the white lemuroid possum, found only in the Queensland Wet Tropics, was driven to the edge of extinction by a 2005 heat wave (photo (c) Jonathan Munro)

In total, 156 sites on the World Heritage List are recognized for their outstanding biodiversity values -- they protect parts of 31 of the world's 35 biodiversity hotspots, and a portion of all of its high-biodiversity wilderness areas.

But the first World Heritage Outlook Report -- released last week at the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia -- found that many of these sites are struggling.  Nearly a tenth (8%) are in critical condition, and nearly a third (29%) of 'significant concern'.

Unfortunately for global biodiversity, many of the critical sites are tropical forests.  These include Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- home to the iconic mountain gorilla -- and the Tropical Rainforests Heritage of Sumatra, Indonesia, the last place on Earth where orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos still coexist.

Also in critical condition is Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a key refuge for bonobos, the smaller and remarkably placid cousins of chimpanzees.

Developing nations face many governance, economic, and social disadvantages that are creating profound challenges for nature conservation.

But even in wealthy, stable Australia, the picture is not good.  For example, the World Heritage Committee has repeatedly threatened to declare the Great Barrier Reef a World Heritage Site in Danger.

And the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area is in the 'significant concern' category.  The site -- renowned for its unique biodiversity and cultural values -- faces a battery of threats, including its extreme vulnerability to climate change, scores of invasive species, growing threats from infrastructure and urbanization, and other perils.

Remarkably, research published last year in the leading journal Science rated the Queensland Wet Tropics the second most irreplaceable World Heritage site globally for its outstanding biodiversity values. 

There be dragons... a Boyd's forest dragon, another unique denizen of the Queensland Wet Tropics  (photo (c) Martin Cohen)

There be dragons... a Boyd's forest dragon, another unique denizen of the Queensland Wet Tropics (photo (c) Martin Cohen)

Notably, World Heritage magazine recently identified the Queensland Wet Tropics site as one of six 'Best Practice' examples globally.  So why is the site now perceived to be in so much danger?

In short, politics.  Both the federal government in Australia and the state government of Queensland are not considered conservation-friendly.  As a result, the Wet Tropics Management Authority, which is responsible for managing and protecting the Queensland rainforests, has been paralyzed.

The board currently has no budget, and only two of its six required non-Executive Board Members.  The federal and Queensland governments have decided not to make any new Board appointments until a Queensland government “review” of World Heritage management.

The news gets worse.  The federal government is now proposing to greatly weaken environmental impact assessments in Queensland.  One shudders to think about the potential implications.

If the Australian and Queensland governments continue down this path, one of the world's most important natural areas could face even greater perils. 

It’s time for the Australian and international communities to demand action from Australia's political leaders.  It's simply shameful to play political football with a site of such outstanding natural and cultural values -- a site that increasingly appears to be in imminent danger.

 

Study: Global urban footprint will triple by 2030

If you think cities are big and numerous now, just wait another 15 years.

Our new normal?  (photo by William Laurance)

Our new normal? (photo by William Laurance)

By 2030, some 5 billion people will be living in cities -- many of them mega-cities that each sustain over 10 million residents.  And the total area affected globally by urban sprawl will triple, compared to that in the year 2000.

Those are just a few of the alarming predictions of a recent study by Karen Seto and colleagues, published in the leading journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA.

Seto and her team also estimate that, by 2030, an additional 120 million hectares of land will be engulfed by cities -- an area the size of South Africa. 

Notably, some of the most dramatic urban expansion will occur in certain biodiversity hotspots -- regions with high biodiversity and large concentrations of locally endemic species that have already suffered severe habitat loss.

In fact, the most explosive urban expansion will occur in hotspots that have been relatively undisturbed so far by urban development.  These include the Eastern Afromontane hotspot, the Guinean Forests of West Africa hotspot, and the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka hotspot.

In each of these biodiversity hotspots, the expansion in urban lands from 2000 to 2030 is expected to range from 900 to 1900 percent, according to the study.

Such changes reflect the dramatic growth in human populations still occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, as well as increasing urbanization trends globally.

Other places slated for sharp increases in urban area include eastern China, Turkey, the Himalayas, and parts of Mexico.

The world that Seto and colleagues project is not a distant, dystopian future.  This is our near-term tomorrow. 

This will be our reality if we fail to address unbridled population growth in those regions of the Earth most at risk.

As Seto and colleagues show, our new reality will be a planet increasingly dominated by sprawling cities.  Whether those will be polluted, stressful cities or innovative, well-designed cities remains to be seen.