The Kenya Lake System, one of four new or expanded "natural properties" added to the UN's World Heritage List, is home to some of Earth's highest avian diversity, including 13 globally threatened species and familiar birds such as flamingos and great white pelicans. Many of Africa's iconic mammal species, including black rhinos, giraffes, lions, and cheetahs, are also found here in abundance.
"It is wonderful to see these spectacular lake sites in Kenya, and their rich bird life, achieving recognition as natural sites of the highest global importance," Tim Badman, director of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Heritage Programme, said in a statement.
As of the June 2011 updates, the World Heritage List now totals 936 natural, cultural, and "mixed" properties. What makes the designation—intended to encourage conservation—special, according to the UN, is that it implies "the sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located." (See the World Heritage site-selection criteria.)
Photograph by Roy Toft, National Geographic
New Site: Ogasawara Islands
An aerial view captures the sweep of sea and sky surrounding Japan's Ogasawara Islands, also known as the Bonin Islands—and now one of the newest World Heritage natural properties. The archipelago is home to nearly 200 endangered bird species and at least one critically endangered bat—the Bonin flying fox. (See pictures of a new volcanic island forming in the Bonin Islands.)
More than 400 native plants grow here at an evolutionary crossroads, where species from both southeast and northwest Asia coexist alongside others found nowhere else in the world.
"The remoteness of the Ogasawara Islands has allowed animals and plants to evolve practically undisturbed, making it a living evolutionary laboratory," Peter Shadie, deputy head of IUCN's World Heritage delegation, told the press.
This mixed realm of marine and coastal habitats sprawling along Australia's remote western shore features natural wonders below ground, where a web of underground caves and streams houses its own unique ecosystem. Ningaloo also includes offshore waters full of whale sharks and sea turtles and one of the world's great nearshore coral reefs.
"The coast tells an extraordinary story of biological isolation, climate change, the movement of continents, and environmental conservation," said IUCN's Badman.
Train tracks disappear into the vastness of Jordan's Wadi Rum, a desert realm dotted with towering rock formations, cliffs, arches, and gorges.
The area is home to the elusive Arabian oryx and Bedouin groups that have long coexisted with the area's natural wonders—which helps explain why Wadi Rum was designated a "mixed natural and cultural" World Heritage site. Petroglyphs, inscriptions, and archaeological sites have endured in Wadi Rum for some 12,000 years of human history.
(See a picture of Wadi Rum that was entered in the 2011 National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest.)
Photograph by Taylor S. Kennedy, National Geographic
Expanded: Ancient Beech Forests of Europe
Germany's ancient beech forests are part of a still evolving ecological system of woodlands that has been recolonizing parts of the Northern Hemisphere since the end of the Ice Age.
Five newly listed German forests—including this one in Kellerwald-Edersee National Park—recently joined Slovakian and Ukrainian World Heritage beech forests, expanding what's now called the Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and the Ancient Beech Forests of Germany.
The reserve is intended to protect the watershed of the Plátano River and parts of several others, where both greenery and rushing water cascade down mountainsides toward Caribbean mangroves, lagoons, coastal grasslands, and beaches. Some 2,000 indigenous people still dwell here near the Maya site of Ciudad Blanca.
The 6.2-million-acre (2.5-million-hectare) Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra site, which includes three national parks, is becoming an increasingly isolated refuge in the face of widespread deforestation—resulting in the site's addition to the List of World Heritage in Danger.
"This move mobilizes international support for the planet's extraordinary places that are facing serious threats to their conservation," IUCN's Tim Badman said in a statement. "International efforts are essential to secure the future of our planet's remarkable natural reserves and the life-support services they provide."
More than 10,000 different plants grow here, surrounded by some 600 birds and 200 mammal species, including Sumatran tigers, rhinos, and elephants.
Photograph by Michael Nichols, National Geographic
Off the Danger List: Manas Wildlife Sanctuary
The inhabitants of India's Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, such as this water buffalo, became part of a World Heritage success story when recent improvements prompted the site's removal from the List of World Heritage in Danger.
Now recovering from the ethnic unrest that had landed the sanctuary on the at-risk list in 1992, the woods, wetlands, and grasslands of Assam's Himalayan foothills are home to tigers, Indian rhinos, and elephants. As such, the site is among India's most biologically diverse areas.