Africa could soon lose its cultural heritage sites

Natural and cultural sites in Africa are under threat from poaching, uncontrolled human development, invasive species and civil unrest.

According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), despite the continent having less than 10 per cent of sites on the World Heritage list, it has more than 40 per cent on the list of World Heritage sites in danger.

IUCN is now warning that the continent could lose some of its most important heritage Sites if nothing is done to save the situation.

The major threat to the continent’s natural sites, at the moment, is commercial and subsistence hunting, which has so far affected 23 sites and is expected to spread to others as the demand for wildlife products increases.

“The results of the IUCN World Heritage Outlook show that poaching is the most serious current threat to the natural World Heritage Sites in Africa,” said IUCN in its analysis on the status of the sites.

Other threats on the top 10 list are invasive species, crops, fires, logging, war and civil unrest, housing and urban areas and livestock grazing.

The threats have prompted the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) — the UN’s body in charge of preserving heritage — to support the continent’s governments in their efforts to mitigate the threats.

Africa has 37 natural and four mixed World Heritage Sites (both of natural and cultural importance) in 24 countries covering 36,592,365 hectares. The average site size is 892,497 hectares.

According to IUCN, 13 of the sites are listed as in danger, while 10 are on the significant concern list.

A site is considered to be in danger or in critical condition if its conservation outlook is severely threatened and requires urgent, additional large-scale conservation measures. These sites face a range of threats and in many cases have a low capacity to address them.

On the other hand, a site’s conservation outlook is considered to be of significant concern, if its values are threatened by a number of current andor potential threats and significant additional conservation measures are required to preserve these values over the medium to long term.

Recently, the Kenya government announced that it will hive off 216 acres of land from the Nairobi National Park for the construction of the standard gauge railway. Though the park is not on the list of Sites in danger, environmentalists fear that such an action could also affect other sites on the Unesco list.

Last year, the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) ruled against a hugely controversial plan by the Tanzania government to build a paved road through the Serengeti National Park, terming it “unlawful” due to the expected environmental impacts.

READ: EA Court now puts permanent stop to road across Serengeti

The case was filed by the Africa Network for Animal Welfare in 2010 and sought a permanent injunction against the proposed highway, accusing the government of violating the East African Community Treaty’s provision on the promotion of sustainable utilisation of natural resources of partner states.

Serengeti National Park is listed as a site of significant concern, meaning that more work needs to be done to preserve it.

Potential threats

IUCN warns that in future, the most significant potential threats will be mining, oil and gas exploration and exploitation, and construction of dams and roads.

The five East African countries, for example, are already experiencing a construction boom, as acres of land are cleared to create space for construction of dams, roads and railways and new buildings.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (Unctad), the contribution of the construction sector to GDP increased in all the five East African countries between 2001-2004 and 2009-2012.

In addition, the five countries are also undertaking large scale oil and gas exploration, which involves clearing large chunks of land.

“Construction of new roads and exploitation of oil and gas normally involves land use conversion and in some cases the opening up of virgin land in protected areas. The activities are a real threat to World Heritage Sites, especially in Africa,” said environmentalist James Kiyangah, who works with local communities to promote ecotourism.

Uganda, for example, which discovered oil in 2006 in the Albertine Rift Basin, expects to commence commercial production by early 2018, and there are already concerns about the negative effects on ecosystems considered valuable. Kenya and Tanzania have also embarked on a massive oil and gas hunt, issuing multiple licences to multinational companies.

In East Africa, the heritage sites that are in danger or in critical condition are Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania and Lake Turkana National Parks in Kenya.

READ: UNESCO lists Tanzanian reserve among endangered heritage sites

Lake Turkana National Parks (Sibiloi, Central Island and South Island National Parks) are home to numerous species of fish, a stopover for migrant waterfowl and a major breeding ground for the Nile crocodile and hippopotamus.

The Koobi Fora deposits, which are also part of the Lake Turkana National Parks, are rich in pre-human, mammalian and other fossil remains and have contributed greatly to man’s understanding of palaeoenvironments (environments that existed in the geological past).

Environmental groups warn that the lake’s unique qualities are under threat as the demand for water escalates with the construction of dams on the Omo River, which is the lake’s major source of water. 

In a report dated February 2012 submitted to Unesco, Kenya conceded that the Gibe III dam does indeed pose a threat to the Lake Turkana National Parks, describing its ecosystem as delicate. The country also said that there is little it can do because the issue is trans-boundary in nature because it involves Ethiopia and cannot be resolved by a single country.

READ: Gibe III dam project to go on, Kenya, Ethiopia must save environs

The Ethiopian government has however insisted that the dam does not pose a major threat to the lake, saying an environmental impact assessment approved the billion dollar project and that the reduction in water levels is a result of complex factors, among them climate change and poor land use.

However, despite the assurances, early this year International Rivers, a watchdog group, warned of increased conflicts in the region, saying the dam has the potential of reducing water flow to Lake Turkana by up to 70 per cent.

The Selous Game Reserve is under major threat from rampant poaching, which has led to a sharp decline of elephant and rhino populations. According to studies done by conservation organisations, in the period between 2009 and 2013, the reserve lost as many as 25,000 elephants (66 per cent of the reserve’s population).

Other sites that are of major concern are the Tombs of the Buganda Kings in Uganda. The tombs are regarded as a major spiritual centre for the Buganda people, the largest ethnic group in the country. In addition, four successive Kabakas (kings) of Buganda were buried in the same tomb at Kasubi making it an important heritage site.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has five protected areas on the list of World Heritage Sites in danger. The sites are Garamba National Park, Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Okapi Wildlife Reserve, Salonga National Park and Virunga National Park.

The protected sites in DRC are home to some of the rarest mammals, among them the endemic bonobo, also known as the pygmy chimpanzee, the common chimpanzee, the eastern gorilla consisting of two subspecies — the mountain gorilla and Grauer’s gorilla, also called the eastern lowlands gorilla — and the okapi.

The heritage sites in the DRC have seen a decline in species numbers due to wanton destruction of its biodiversity as a result of political instability, influx of refugees, illegal settlers, poaching, removal and burning of timber and the presence of militia groups.

According to IUCN, the conservation outlook for 44 per cent of all natural sites in Africa is either good or good with some concerns 24 per cent of all sites are of significant concern while 32 per cent of all sites are of critical concern.

“The majority of all World Heritage Sites that were assessed as having a critical outlook are located in West and Central Africa. This is also reflected in the large number of sites listed as being in danger in this region,” said IUCN.

The majority of the Sites that have a good conservation outlook are found in Europe and parts of North America, Asia and Australia.
Only three sites in Africa are considered to be in good condition.

They are the Namib Sand Sea in Namibia, Tsingy de Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve in Madagascar and Wadi Al-Hitan in Egypt.