Save Virunga National Park: an exceptional World Heritage Site in Danger

World Heritage

The UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage has been designed to protect among others the natural objects with the “significant importance”.

About UNESCO World Heritage

The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage was adopted at the 17th session of the General Conference of UNESCO on November 16, 1972, and it came into force on December 17, 1975. Its main goal is to involve the world community in conservation of unique cultural and natural properties. In 1975, the Convention was ratified by 21 countries. Over the next 35 years, it was signed by another 166 countries, and at the middle of 2010 the number of States Parties reached 187. This Convention has the more signatories than any other UNESCO convention. In 1976, to ensure effective implementation of the Convention, the World Heritage Committee and the World Heritage Foundation were formed.

Two years later, the first cultural and natural properties were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The first natural territories to receive status of World Heritage properties were the Galapagos Islands (USA), Yellowstone National Park (USA), Nahanni National Park (Canada), and Simien National Park (Ethiopia). Over the years, the List has grown to encompass a wide variety of regions and properties: by the middle of 2010, it included 180 natural, 704 cultural and 27 mixed natural and cultural properties in 151 countries of the world. Most cultural properties in the List are in Italy, Spain, Germany and France (more than 30 properties in each). The United States and Australia have the greatest number of World Heritage natural properties (more than 10 properties each). The Convention also protects such world-renowned natural sites as the Great Barrier Reef, the Hawaiian Islands, the Grand Canyon, Mount Kilimanjaro and Lake Baikal.

Undoubtedly, it is a big honor for a territory to be on a list of the world’s most valuable natural sites. It is also a big responsibility. A territory, once nominated, can be inscribed in the World Heritage List only after thorough evaluation to determine that it meets at least one of four criteria developed by experts from the World Heritage Committee.

These criteria are:

1. Contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.

Virunga:  √

2. Be outstanding examples representing major stages of the earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features.

Virunga:  √

3. Be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals.

Virunga:  √

4. Contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including habitats containing threatened species of universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

Virunga:  √

Protection, management, authenticity and integrity of the property are also the important factors that are taken into account during its evaluation before the inscription into the List. World Natural Heritage status provides additional guarantees of conservation and integrity of the unique ecosystems: gives higher status to the territory, promotes popularity of the properties and development of alternative types of nature management; ensures priority funding for the properties.

Source*: Greenpeace Russia reveals, works out the grounds and participates in protection of
such unique natural complexes. *Adapted with Virunga shots & text


Needless to say that Virunga National Park meets all four criteria and represents one of the most mystical and valuable properties of the world.

Virunga National Park is notable for its chain of active volcanoes and the greatest diversity of habitats of any park in Africa: from steppes, savannas and lava plains, swamps, lowland and Afromontane forests, to the unique Afroalpine vegetation and icefields of the Ruwenzori mountains, which culminate in peaks above 5000m. The site includes the spectacular Ruwenzori and Virunga Massifs, including Africa’s two most active volcanoes. The great diversity of habitats harbors an exceptional biodiversity, including endemic as well as rare and globally endangered species, such as the mountain gorilla.

Threats to the Site (1994)

Virunga National Park was inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger at the 18th Session of the World Heritage Committee (1994) in the wake of the war in neighbouring Rwanda and the subsequent massive influx of refugees from that country which led to massive deforestation and poaching at the site. Many members of the Park staff had not been remunerated for almost a year. Poaching of wildlife has continued and the staff lacks the means of patrolling the Park’s 650 km long boundary. The human population in the fishing village near Lake Edward has increased several fold, posing a serious threat to the integrity of the Park. The fuel wood requirements of almost one million refugees camping inside the Park is estimated at 600 metric tons/day and is leading to widespread depletion of forests in the lowlands. Fortunately, the mountain gorilla whose habitat is at a higher altitude, have been spared so far.

In December 1996, the World Heritage Committee had considerable discussion on the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the human tragedy unfolding there. The Committee noted that a major effort would be required over the next decade to rehabilitate and strengthen management of Virunga and to obtain local support for its conservation. Its decision was communicated to UNHCR and other agencies involved in the management of refugee camps in and around Virunga. The national government was informed of the Committee’s willingness to co-operate with IUCN as well as other institutions such as the World Bank, and to provide technical co-operation and training assistance, the better to face current threats to the site.

Source:  Unesco WHS

What is the value of such a World Heritage site compared to oil?