In a little over 2 weeks the 38th Session of the World Heritage Sites Committee will take place. On the list of properties under review are 15 natural world properties. The committee will be looking at what steps have been taken to try to protect or conserve these globally valuable habitats.

The provisional agenda for the meeting which takes place in Doha, Qatar between 15th and 25th June has been published. Of the 15 sites being examined two are being recommended for inclusion on the ‘in danger’ register. The two most common threats to sites being examined this year appears to be tourism and dams.

Of the 15 natural world WHS sites under consideration the following are the 5 most notable for wildlife and habitat and are worthy of following during the meeting.

1. Lake Turkana National Park in Kenya – to be added to the ‘in danger’ register.

The Lake Turkana National Park is being recommended to be added to the ‘in danger’ register because of the Omo River dam development in Ethiopia. Despite repeated requests by the UNESCO WHS committee for a mission to be invited to assess the impact of the dam on Lake Turkana over recent years Ethiopia has consistently refused to communicate with UNESCO over the project.

Large-scale irrigation projects have begun in Ethiopia and the dam reservoir is set to be filled later this year. There are fears that the major change in water flow could impact on the unique value of the Turkana National Park and the committee is recommending that the site is urgently placed on the ‘in danger’ register.

Lake Turkana is the largest desert lake in the world and is a major breeding ground for hippos, nile crocodiles and other reptiles. It is a major stop over for migrant birds.

2. Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania – to be added to the ‘in danger’ register.

Poaching is the main threat to the unique value of the Selous Game Reserve. The committee notes that since 1982 when the reserve was first given World Heritage Status the reserve has lost 90% of its elephant population. The threat to the elephants has continued to increase in recent years. There has also been dramatic drops in black rhino numbers in recent years.

In addition to the imminent threat posed by poachers to the sustainability of the reserve the committee also raises concerns of the change in the law that permits oil, gas and resource exploitation within game reserves in Tanzania. Of particular concern is the proposed Mkuju Uranium mine and contaminated water runoff. The proposed mine is upstream of the park and could pose the threat.

Concerns are also noted over two dam projects – Stiegers Gorge and Kidunda  – that could impact on the reserve.

3. Dja Faunal Reserve in Cameroon – potential to be added to ‘in danger’ register next year.

While the WHS committee recognises the improved investment that the government is making in the reserve unless radical action is taken this year there is the real risk that the site will meet the criteria for it to be placed on the ‘in danger’ list by the end of 2014.

Of particular concern is increasing levels of poaching for the bush meat trade and also the impact of the Mekin Dam. They recommend that the filling up of the dam be delayed until a full environmental and social impact assessment has been completed and mitigation to protect the reserve it put in place.

The committee also highlights the reduction in the reserve area after the boundaries of the reserve was redrawn. The protection of the park is based on the boundaries of the park when it was first inscribed onto the World Heritage Site list in 1987. Any redrawing of the boundaries could reduce its unique value and viability of the reserve.

There are also concerns over the deforestation and plantations of palm and rubber in Sud Hevea Cameroun.

The Dja Faunal Reserve is the largest rainforest ecosystem in Africa and is one of the most biodiverse regions on the continent. It is home to 107 mammal species. It is an important part of the Congo Basin system.

4. Chitwan National Park in Nepal.

The Chitwan National Park is one of two WHS in Nepal that is under examination this year. The biggest concerns in Nepal is with the Chitwan National Park as the government has plans for a railway and road to cut through the park.

The East-West electric railway and Tarai Hulaki road will cut across the heart of the park and is being opposed by a number of local and international organisations. A number of government ministries and departments are also opposed to the route. An alternative route that follows the line of the established road and skirts around the park seems to have be disregarded by the government. The road and rail networks are to be funded by aid from India.

There are fears that the new transport routes will fragment important habit, boost development along the route, increase deforestation and also increase poaching. As the park is an important reserve for both tigers and the greater one-horned rhinoceros there are fears the road and rail could impact on the population in the reserve.

The committee notes that while an environmental impact assessment is currently being undertaken for the railway line the road appears to be under construction without adequate assessment. They also note with concern reports of road bridges being built in the buffer zone already.

The Chitwan National Park is an important reserve that is found in the foothills of the Himalaya mountains. It is one of the last remaining natural breeding grounds of the Bengal tiger and an important habitat for the highly endangered greater one-horned rhino.

5. The Sundarbans in Bangladesh.

A major development and coal plant outside the world Heritage Site in Bangladesh is causing concerns for the committee. The coal fired plant at Khulna – and with a second planned to be built – will see coal transported along the Pashur River. This will involve widening and dredging the river where it runs adjacent to the reserve.

There are real fears that the constant dredging and bank erosion caused by the wake of passing large ships could impact on the river channels of the Sundarbans. There are also fears for the impact of dust that is released during the transport of the coal alongside the Sundarbans.

This disruption could impact on the habitat of important river species such as the freshwater dolphins of the region and the critically endangered Batagur turtle. There are also concerns that the coal dust could impact on the mangroves and other endangered species if a layer of dust starts to build up on top of the river water especially in slow flowing pools.

Currently there has been insufficient environmental impact assessment of the transport of coal alongside the park and little in the way of mitigation plans to reduce the impact of increased river traffic and dredging. The committee notes though that a full environmental impact assessment is planned to be carried out before the major dredging operation is to begin and that Bangladesh has invited specialist from the WHS and IUCN to be part of the team undertaking the assessment.

The committee also recommends that Bangladesh puts in an International Assistance request to help fund ecological monitoring and site enhancement following the cyclone that impacted the Sunderbans.

The Sundarbans are one of the largest freshwater mangrove ecosystems in the world. They lie on the delta formed by the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. The Sundarbans is an important region for birdlife with over 260 species of birds recorded. The region is also noted for its population of endangered species such as river dolphins and the Bengal tiger.

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