15 Endangered UNESCO Sites

Everglades NPS // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Everglades NPS // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons / Everglades NPS // Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Formed in 1945, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is known as the “intellectual” agency of the United Nations, a specialized sector that was founded on the belief that “peace must be established on the basis of humanity’s moral and intellectual solidarity.” Among the organization’s many projects is the World Heritage, a committee that has spent the past 40 years deeming certain locations around the world worthy of preservation.

Since inscribing its first sites in 1978, the organization has named a total of 1031 World Heritage Sites, from ancient cities in Iraq to the Statue of Liberty. Unfortunately, 48 of these sites are now considered endangered for reasons ranging from erosion to tourism. Here are just 15 of UNESCO’s endangered sites, and what the organization is doing to protect the their history.


South Florida’s subtropical Everglades National Park is America’s only endangered UNESCO site. According to UNESCO, the Everglades “contains the largest mangrove ecosystem in the western hemisphere, the largest continuous stand of sawgrass prairie, and the most significant breeding ground for wading birds in North America.” It’s a sanctuary for birds and home to over 20 rare, endangered, and threatened animal species, including alligators, crocodiles, manatees, and the Florida panther. From 1993 to 2007, the biosphere reserve was on the endangered list, then enjoyed three years of non-endangerment before it landed back on the list in 2010. During the past 50 years, the Everglades has lost half of its original size due to residential development, the growth of the sugar industry (sugarcane is grown in the region), and flooding. As a result, the Everglades has lost 90 percent of its bird population. In an effort to help, the state of Florida purchased land in the Everglades which was being used for sugarcane cultivation and to store water, and is in the midst of completing a project to build a bridge to divert traffic away from the marshes.


Musa Al-Shaer /AFP/Getty Images

Just outside of Jerusalem, what’s been identified as the birthplace of Jesus became a designated UNESCO site in 2012, and was placed on the endangered list the same year. The Church of the Nativity, first built in 339 A.D. and then restored after a fire in the mid-6th century, is the oldest Christian church still in daily use. The church’s roof needs restoring, and the increase in vehicular traffic and industry to the area have caused pollution, which has impacted both the church and other buildings along what is known as the Pilgrimage Route. In 2013, a plan to restore the church and better manage its surrounding area was put into effect; in 2014, the church saw its first repairs in over 500 years.


Fun fact: Madagascar broke off from Africa 60 million years ago, and it’s home to the only non-zoo lemur population in the world. Atsinanana, in the eastern region of the country, hosts six national parks, which are important to the island’s ecosystems. In 2007, the rainforest was inscribed on UNESCO’s list, and in 2010 it was added as endangered. The rainforest contains a lot of biodiversity: 12,000 endemic plant species, all five families of Malagasy primates, the Madagascar climbing frog, and fossas. The problem this rainforest, and many other rainforests in the world, are facing is illegal logging. In 2009, about 52,000 tons of wood from about 100,000 trees were cut. UNESCO is trying to work with logging companies to decrease the amount of rainforest destruction.


By Arthurv - English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

You might think that this Liverpool port city was designated a UNESCO site in 2004 because the Beatles are from the town, but that’s just a coincidence. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Liverpool was a major trading center and aided the growth of the British Empire. It became a port for the import/export of slaves, emigrants, and non-human cargo. Six locations comprise the city: The Pier Head, with three buildings; The Albert Dock, including warehouses and offices; The Stanley Dock; the Duke Street Conservation Area; The Cultural Quarter, with its statues and civic buildings; and the Commercial Quarter, including Liverpool Town Hall. Liverpool Waters, a proposed construction project, is the main concern here, as UNESCO wants any new construction to “complement the historic Pier Head buildings.” Because of the new construction threat, in 2012 the port landed on the endangered list.


Built in the 5th century, Timbuktu became an intellectual region for the spread of Islam throughout West Africa in the 1400s and 1500s. Three mosques and 16 mausoleums comprise the site, which is located near the gateway to the Sahara, which made it a prime location for the trading of gold and salt. Because the buildings are so antiquated, they require careful maintenance, and there’s a constant threat of urbanization. From 1990 to 2005, it was on the endangered list but was removed when the architecture was fixed. However in 2012, an Islamic terrorist group associated with Al-Qaeda destroyed the entombed grave of Sidi Mahmoud Ben Amar, saying they considered idolatry a sin. After the attacks, UNESCO established a fund to restore the tomb and to maintain the integrity of the historic site.


Laughing Bird Caye / Photo by Victoria Reay/Flickr

Comprised of seven protected areas, the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System—the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere—is home to more than 500 kinds of fish, 178 types of terrestrial plants, and 350 species of mollusks, along with turtles, jaguars, and threatened birds. The reef showed up on the endangered list in 2009 because of “management challenges,” over-harvesting of marine life, coastal development, tourism, and oil and gas exploitation. Plans are in the works to tighten up fishing regulations and, with the Environmental Impact Assessment, there hopefully will be an overall increase in sustainability in the region.


With an altitude of 1752 meters, the thick forests of Mount Nimbia rise above the savannahs and pastures of the Gulf of Guinea. More than 317 vertebrate species, including 107 mammals, and 2500 invertebrate species live in the reserve—many of them endemic. Mount Nimbia is home to the endangered viviparous toads, West African lions, and adorable pygmy hippos. Though the area is not open to visitors, poachers trespass and stake their claim on many of the animals, and the need for farmland has led to fires to clear the forests. Even though the area’s been designated as protected since 1943, in 1992 UNESCO named it an endangered site.


By Nuria Ortega, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has five sites on the endangered list, including Garamba National Park. From 1984 to 1992 it was listed as endangered because of the decreased northern white rhino population, but it recovered until 1996, when it fell into endangered territory again. The park houses elephants, giraffes, hippopotamuses, and used to have northern white rhinos, but only three—yes, three—now exist in the entire world. The biggest problem facing Garamba is uncontrollable poaching. In 2014, Congolese and South Sudan poachers murdered 68 elephants in a two-month period. In 2015, poachers killed three park rangers and a military officer who were trying to protect the elephants. In the 1960s, the elephant population was 20,000; in 2012 it was only 2000. Because of the renegade poachers—who attack from helicopters—the situation continues to be dire.


Another Congo site—this one located in a Congolese tropical forest—Kahuzi-Biega National Park contains two extinct volcanoes (the park is named after them) and a population of about 250 lowland gorillas. The park also contains 13 other primates including chimps, a variety of other mammals, and over 349 bird species. In 1980 it became an UNESCO site, and in 1997 it became endangered—largely due to its population of rare animals. Poaching is a huge concern, and so is the lack of security, a buffer zone, management, and political instability causing the human population to be displaced.


Ramzi Haidar /AFP/Getty Images

The Ancient City of Aleppo—once an intersection for many trade routes—was designated a UNESCO site in 1986 and landed on the endangered list in 2013 as a result of the Battle of Aleppo, which has led to much of the city being destroyed. But plans are in the works to restore the city and to add a buffer zone to protect Aleppo from further damage. Besides Aleppo, Syria’s ancient cities of Bosra and Damascus; villages of North Syria, Crac des Chevaliers, and Qal’at Salah El-Din; and Palmyra are also on the endangered list.


The capital of Yemen from the 13th to 15th centuries, Zabid also became an entryway to the spread of Islam throughout the country, mainly because of its 86 mosques that educated the masses. UNESCO inscribed the city in 1993 in appreciation of the domestic and military architecture of watchtowers and citadels, but deemed it endangered in 2000. Insufficient upkeep over the past 15 years, the use of concrete and corrugated steel sheeting, and the addition of electricity have caused the buildings to deteriorate to the point where up to 40 percent of the structures are weak. To combat further decay, an infrastructure improvement project was instilled in 2004.


Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Located in the South Pacific, the Solomon Islands are hard to get to, but that doesn’t exclude them from threats. East Rennell makes up the southern third of Rennell Island and is the southernmost island in the archipelago. It’s also the largest raised coral atoll in the entire world. The island’s mostly covered by dense forest, but they have Lake Tegano, which is home to a variety of endemic species. The island has about 1200 residents, who rely on the land for sustenance; among the plants they harvest are taro and coconut, both of which are becoming scarce because of rising sea levels and climate change. Eleven types of bats live on the island, along with 730 insect species, and 27 kinds of land snails, leading UNESCO to refer to Rennell as “a true natural laboratory for scientific study.” Besides the climate change issue, logging, mining, and commercial fishing have thrown Rennell onto the endangered list. A National Protected Areas Act, passed in 2010, is helping to preserve the area.


In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Spanish empire built several batteries, castles, and forts to protect transatlantic trade. Some of them look like that fortress from the season one finale of True Detective, and were just as effective. Portobelo and San Lorenzo, the fortifications on the Caribbean side of Panama, are divided by sections; San Fernando, near the Bay of Portobelo, includes Lower Battery, Upper Battery, and Hilltop Stronghold. Santiago contains castles and ruins, and the Chagres River has the San Lorenzo Castle. Its military architecture, most of which still stands today, is one of the reasons UNESCO inscribed the site in 1980, but decay from urban growth and lack of maintenance landed it on the endangered list in 2012. Despite many legislations and plans being enacted over the years, effective protection and management remains a pivotal issue.


By Hermann Luyken - Own work (Own picture), CC BY-SA 3.0

Saltpeter, better known as potassium nitrate, is used in fertilizers and fireworks. From 1880 to around 1960, pampinos (workers) mined the salt during harsh conditions in the middle of Chile’s Pampas desert. Once production left the area in the 1960s, it basically became a ghost town; in 1970 it was declared a National Monument and opened up to tourists. When the site was in production, it generated the largest deposit of saltpeter in the world, transforming agriculture as we know it, and making Chile a rich country. Over 200 works remain, from a swimming pool to a railway to the refineries of Santa Laura and Humberstone, the more successful of the two refineries. Because of salt water mist drifting in from the Pacific Ocean damaging metals, an earthquake, and lack of maintenance, UNESCO added the site to its endangered list in 2005.


Believed to be constructed in 850 A.D., Chan Chan was once the capital city of the Chimor empire with an estimated population of about 40,000 to 60,000. The city—the largest in pre-Columbian America—was at is peak in the 15th century, just before it fell to the Incas. The site was marked as endangered in 1986, because of its vulnerability to climate change. The site has been further threatened because of frequent plundering of its remains, and the proposed construction of a road that would cross the city.