UNESCO is synonymous with pristine gifts of Mother Nature and the extraordinary locations that reflect our cultural imprint on the world. Unfortunately, the organization has deemed 46 of its 1007 heritage sites to be “in danger.”
Here is a sample of both cultural and natural sites—known and lesser known—whose fragile conditions may one day suffer irreversible damage. Many, however, are on the brink of becoming a mere memory, while some already have.
1. Kahuzi-Biega National Park – Democratic Republic of Congo
UNESCO considers each of the DRC’s five listed sites, all of which are national parks, to be “in danger.” The tropical forest of Kahuzi-Biega is home to the Eastern Lowland Gorillas, also known as Grauer’s gorillas, whose males garner the title of ‘Silverback.’ It is possible to see these beautiful animals in the high altitudes of the park where two families, named Chimanuka and Mugaruka, are used to human presence.
As is the case with the country’s national parks, a lack of resources, human encroachment, deforestation, civil conflict, and most of all poaching have left these treasuries of flora and fauna in a precarious state. The last census in 2011 estimates the park’s gorilla population at a mere 181 individuals. Other endangered park residents include forest elephants, whose numbers plunged in the 1990s and early 2000s.
2. Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam – Afghanistan
At 65 meters high, this 12th-century minaret stands like a lone sentinel amid a craggy landscape in the Hari River Valley of Ghor Province. An exquisite illustration of Islamic architecture, the Minaret measures nine meters in diameter and consists of fired bricks, geometric reliefs and ancient Kufic script in turquoise tiles that indicate construction in 1194 AD. Historians believe the Minaret is a vestige of the ancient site of Firuzkuh—the summer capital of the Ghurid Dynasty, whose rein incorporated Central Asia and swathes of the Indian Subcontinent.
Despite having survived the centuries, the Minaret’s conservation remains under an environmental threat from the erosion of the nearby riverbank, along with issues surrounding the site’s overall security.
3. Everglades National Park – USA
Comprising of 1.5 million acres of saw-grass prairies, the US government established the Everglades National Park in 1947 to preserve a section of the Everglades ecosystem. The park is a refuge for 20 endangered species, such as the Florida panther and manatee, as well as the breeding grounds for migratory birds. Moreover, it’s the only place on Earth where crocodiles and alligators share the same body of water. There are a further 200 archaeological sites from human activity that date as far back as 1000 BC.
Due to a decline in water inflow by 60%, along with a further loss in marine animals and habitat, the United States requested UNESCO to place the national park on its endangered list yet again in 2010—three years after its removal in 2007. The first time was after Hurricane Andrew in 1993.
4. Ancient city of Aleppo – Syria
Aleppo, which has existed since the 2nd millennium BC, is just one example of all of Syria’s six UNESCO sites recognized as being endangered. Examples with extensive damage from the relentless civil war include they city’s 13th century citadel, the burned-out Souk al-Madina—a once bustling stop along the Silk Route—and the collapse of the Great Umayyad Mosque’s 50-meter Seljuk Minaret from the 11th century. Looting of the country’s heritage sites and the sale of artifacts for arms is also rampant on the black market.
Although it is nearly impossible to conduct an in-depth survey of the devastation on the ground, satellite images have revealed the current conditions of Syria’s heritage sites to be simply catastrophic and irreplaceable.
5. Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity and Pilgrimage Route – Palestinian Territory of the West Bank
A fourteen-point star in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity marks the spot in one of the holiest locations in all of Christendom. Since the 4th century AD, pilgrims have come to this spiritual place they declare to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Administered by Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Franciscan clergies, the Church of the Nativity has stood over the sacred grotto since the 6th century, following a fire that destroyed the original structure built in 339 AD.
The Church of the Nativity and its corresponding Pilgrimage Route are under continuous threat from the impact of tourism, pollution, traffic and development in the surrounding area. UNESCO claims that such activities have had repercussions not only on the site itself but also on the “sense of place and spiritual associations.”
6. Timbuktu – Mali
First settled in the 12th century by the nomadic Tuareg Berber tribe, or the “Blue Men of the Sahara” for their indigo-colored robes and turbans, this ancient city at the gates of the Sahara was not only an important trading hub for gold and salt on the trans-Saharan caravan route, but it was also a center for culture and learning. The city’s three mosques, revered for their unique structures made from the very earth they have stood upon for centuries, are the reminders of the three hundred years of expansion of Islam throughout North Africa and the role Timbuktu played in that.
Although the local tradition of the conservation of the mosques continues against the desert elements, the city’s heritage sites suffered heavy damage during Mali’s internal conflict in early 2013. Fourteen of Timbuktu’s famed mausoleums lay in rubble, along with the complete loss of 4,203 rare manuscripts. These priceless items from the 14th and 16th centuries contained passages on astronomy, mathematics, law and medicine and the religious teachings of Islam. Another 300,000 manuscripts are also missing, and the current condition of these is worrisome to historians.
For more information on these sites and others, visit UNESCO’s website.