A major list of the world’s wildest natural treasures was just expanded—although a number of sites were also removed.
The International Coordinating Council of the Man and the Biosphere Programme (MAB), meeting this week in Paris, added 23 new sites to the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves (WNBR), a program of the United Nations.
Proposals for 28 new reserves and site extensions in 22 countries were considered (11 of those reserve extensions were approved and one reserve was renamed). Previously, the network consisted of 669 sites in 120 countries.
At the same time, the council approved requests by the U.S. and Bulgaria to remove some of those countries’ biosphere reserves from the official list. The U.S. withdrew 17 sites (out of the country’s previous total of 47 sites), and Bulgaria withdrew three. Prior to this year, a total of 18 sites had been removed from the program since 1997, by seven countries.
In statements emailed to National Geographic, UNESCO and U.S. State Department officials said that the 17 sites in question voluntarily withdrew from the program, but some are planning to re-enter at a later date. Nineteen sites in the U.S. remain fully compliant with the UNESCO biosphere-reserve designation, and ten others are under review.
“Withdrawal is not unusual and other countries have withdrawn sites in the past (the U.K., Austria, Australia, Norway, Bulgaria, Sweden), often because there was no human population in the reserves or because of lack of support from local communities,” says UNESCO spokesperson Agnès Bardon in a statement.
Vernon Gilbert, a former UNESCO official and the head of the non-profit U.S. Biosphere Reserves Association, says that beginning in the late 1990s, some U.S. advocacy groups and politicians decried the program as a threat to U.S. property rights and sovereignty.
The blowback hamstrung the country’s participation in UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme, which designates the reserves. A 2005 Congressional investigation into the affiliated U.S. program, spearheaded by Congressman Richard Pombo (R-CA), didn’t help matters.
In recent years, Gilbert says that the U.S. has renewed participation in the program. However, after more than a decade of relative inaction, some of the U.S. reserves were behind on meeting UNESCO guidelines and review schedules, leading some to decide for now against maintaining the designation.
“There’s a lot of activity now, but not nearly what we had,” says Gilbert. “There were some agencies and some areas that thought, ‘This is not worth it,’ and I can’t blame them… But it is, because biosphere reserves help to conserve important natural areas and the genetic material they contain.”
Withdrawn sites can rejoin the network at any time according to biosphere reserve guidelines, and UNESCO spokespersons say they expect some to resubmit for membership as early as September. The U.S. sites include a mix of national forests, preserves, and reserves, from Alaska to the Virgin Islands (see a complete list below)
Biosphere reserves are areas comprising terrestrial, marine, and coastal ecosystems and are designated “learning places” for testing different sustainable approaches, UNESCO said in a news statement.
Each reserve also aims to reconcile biodiversity conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources.
Launched in the early 1970s, the Man and the Biosphere Programme aims at improving people’s relationship with their environment, targeting the ecological, social, and economic dimensions of biodiversity loss and the reduction of this loss, UNESCO said.
Each year, new sites are designated by the MAB Council. Biosphere reserves are nominated by national governments and remain under the sovereign jurisdiction of the states where they’re located.
The following Biosphere Reserves joined the network this year (the following information is reprinted from UNESCO’s official press release):
Mono Biosphere Reserve (Benin)—Located in the southwest of the country, this 9,462-ha site comprises ecosystems that include mangroves, wetlands, savannah and forests. It is home to notable biodiversity flagship species such as the dugong, or sea cows, hippos and two monkey species. Nearly 180,000 inhabitants live within the reserve, mostly from livestock and small-scale farming of palm oil and coconuts, as well as fishing.
Mono Transboundary Biosphere Reserve (Benin/Togo)—Located in the southern parts of Benin and Togo, the 346,285 ha. site stretches over the alluvial plain, delta and coast of the Mono River. It brings together Benin’s and Togo’s national biosphere reserves of the same name and features a mosaic of landscapes and ecosystems, mangroves, savannahs, lagoons, and flood plains as well as forests, some of which are sacred. The biosphere reserve is home to some two million people, whose main activity is small-scale farming (palm oil and coconuts), livestock grazing, forestry and fishing.
Savegre Biosphere Reserve (Costa Rica)—This site is located on the central Pacific coast, 190 km from the capital, San José. This reserve has high biodiversity value, hosting 20 percent of the total flora of the country, 54 percent of its mammals and 59 percent of its birds. It has approximately 50,000 inhabitants, whose main activities are agriculture and livestock rearing. Crop production is significant in high altitude areas, including plantations of apple, pomegranate and avocado. During recent years, ecotourism has increased and has become a source of socio-economic growth in the region.
Moen Biosphere Reserve (Denmark)—This reserve consists of a series of islands and islets in the southern Baltic Sea, over approximately 45,118 ha. Its landscapes include woodlands, grasslands, meadows, wetlands, coastal areas, ponds and steep hills. This biosphere reserve includes a number of small villages, scattered farms and residential areas with a total population of some 45,806 inhabitants. The main activities are trade, agriculture, fishing and tourism.
La Selle - Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo Transboundary Biosphere Reserve (Dominican Republic / Haiti)—This biosphere reserve includes the reserves of La Selle in Haiti, designated in 2012, and Jaragua-Bahoruco in the Dominican Republic, designated in 2002. These two reserves represent ecological corridors divided by a political and administrative frontier. Bringing them together should allow better management of the environment.
Bosques de Paz Transboundary Biosphere Reserve (Ecuador/Peru)—Located in the southwest of Ecuador and in northwest of Peru, this site covers a total area of 1,616,988 ha. It includes territories of the western foothills of the Andes, with altitudes reaching up to 3,000 metres, which have generated a biodiversity with a high degree of endemism. The biosphere reserve includes the seasonally dry forests of Ecuador and Peru, which form the heart of the Endemic Region of Tumbes, one of the most important biodiversity hotspots of the world. This region has 59 endemic species, of which 14 are threatened. Most of its 617,000 inhabitants make a living from livestock and tourism.
Majang Forest Biosphere Reserve (Ethiopia)—Located in the west of the country, this biosphere reserve includes Afromontane forests in one of the most fragmented and threatened regions in the world. The landscape also includes several wetlands and marshes. At altitudes above 1,000 metres, vegetation chiefly consists of ferns and bamboo, while palm trees cover the lower areas. The biodiversity rich region is home to 550 higher plant species, 33 species of mammal and 130 species of birds alongside a human population of about 52,000.
Black Forest Biosphere Reserve (Germany)—Located in the south of the country, this biosphere reserve contains low mountain ranges, forests shaped by silviculture, lowland and mountain hay meadows and lowland moors. The total surface area of the site is 63,325 ha, 70 percent of which is forested. 38,000 inhabitants live in the area, which has preserved its traditions and maintain a significant craft industry. Sustainable tourism is widely encouraged.
San Marcos de Colón Biosphere Reserve (Honduras) – This site, which covers a surface area of 57,810 ha, is located some 12 km from the Nicaraguan border, at an altitude of 500 to 1700 metres. It is characterized by significant biodiversity and the presence of several endemic species of fauna. Eighteen villages are located on the site whose population numbers 26,350 inhabitants. Their principal activities include horticulture, fruit and coffee production, the growth of ornamental plants, cattle rearing and dairy production. The region is also known for its saddlery products (belts, harnesses, boots etc.).
Tepilora, Rio Posada and Montalbo Biosphere Reserve (Italy)—Located in Sardinia, this biosphere reserve has a total surface area of over 140,000 ha, and presents mountainous areas to the west and a flat strip to the east, rivers and coastal areas. Around 50,000 people live on this site, which includes the Montalbo massif.
Sobo, Katamuki and Okue Biosphere Reserve (Japan)—This site, which is part of the Sobo-Katamuki-Okue mountain range, is characterized by precipitous mountains. Forests cover 85 percent of the 243,672 ha of the site, which is a hotspot of biodiversity in the region. The area has fewer than 100,000 inhabitants, whose livelihood comes from farming and exploiting forest resources, including wood production, shitake mushroom cultivation, and charcoal production.
Minakami Biosphere Reserve (Japan)—The site includes the central divide of the rivers of the island of Honshu formed by a 2,000-metre-high backbone. Significant environmental differences between the eastern and western slopes, between mountainous and lowland areas create a distinct biological and cultural diversity. More than 21,000 people live in the reserve, which covers a total of 91,368 ha. Their main activities are agriculture and tourism.
Altyn Emel Biosphere Reserve (Kazakhstan)—This biosphere reserve covers the same areas as the Altyn Emel state national nature park, one of the country’s protected areas, which is very important for the conservation of the region’s biological diversity. It includes a large number of endemic plants. The site comprises deserts, riparian forests and floodplains of the Ili River, deciduous and spruce forests as well as salt marshes. The resident population of about 4,000 lives mainly from agriculture and cattle rearing as well as ecotourism and recreational tourism.
Karatau Biosphere Reserve (Kazakhstan)—Located in the central part of the Karatau ridgeway, a branch of Northwestern Tien Shan, one of the world’s largest mountain ranges, the reserve covers a total surface area of 151,800 ha and is inhabited by 83,000 people. It is an extremely important natural complex for the conservation of West Tien Shan biodiversity. Karatau occupies first place among Central Asian regions in terms of its wealth of endemic species. The region’s economy rests primarily on cattle rearing, agriculture, ecotourism and recreational tourism.
Indawgyi Biosphere Reserve (Myanmar)—Indawgyi Lake is the largest body of freshwater in Myanmar. With a total surface area of 133,715 ha, the site consists of a large open lake with floating vegetation areas, a swamp forest and seasonally flooded grasslands. The hills surrounding the lake are covered by subtropical moist broadleaf forests that harbour a number of threatened forest birds and mammals, including primates. The local population derives most of its income from farmlands bordering the lake.
Gadabedji Biosphere Reserve (Niger)—Located in the centre of the country, the site extends over an area of 1,413,625 ha. It comprises a mosaic of savannahs, depressions, pits and sand dunes. Its fauna includes mammals such as Dorcas, gazelles, pale fox, and golden jackals. The human population of the reserve belongs to two main ethnic groups, Touaregs and Peulhs, totalling close to 20,000 inhabitants, whose main activity is nomadic pastoralism.
Itaipu Biosphere Reserve (Paraguay)—Located in the east of the country, the reserve covers a surface area of over a million hectares. It comprises an area of semi-deciduous sub-tropical forest also known as the Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest. It is one of the most important ecosystems for the conservation of biological diversity on a global scale, due to its large number of endemic species, wealth of species and original cover. It is home to large predators such as harpies, jaguars, pumas and large herbivores such as tapirs. It has a permanent population of over 450,000 inhabitants.
Castro Verde Biosphere Reserve (Portugal)—Located in southern Portugal, in the hinterland of the Baixo Alentejo region, the biosphere reserve covers an area of almost 57,000 ha. It encompasses the most important cereal steppe area in Portugal, one of the most threatened rural landscapes in the Mediterranean region. It has a high degree of endemism in its flora. There is a bird community of some 200 species, including steppe birds such as the great bustard and endemic species such as the Iberian Imperial eagle, one of the most endangered birds of prey in the world. Some 7,200 inhabitants make a living from the extensive production of cereals and livestock rearing in the reserve.
Khakassky Biosphere Reserve (Russian Federation)—Located at the heart of the Eurasian continent and known for its rich biodiversity, more than 80 % of this biosphere reserve is covered by mountain-taiga. With a surface area of almost 2 million hectares, it is home to 5,500 permanent inhabitants. Sustainable forest management and agriculture, beekeeping and tourism are the main economic activities practised in the site.
Kizlyar Bay Biosphere Reserve (Russian Federation)—Kizlyar Bay is one of the largest bays in the Caspian Sea and one of the largest migratory routes for birds in Eurasia. It represents a diversity of marine, coastal and desert-steppe ecosystems, including populations of threatened animals, such as the Caspian Sea, many species of birds and sturgeons. With a surface area of 354,100 ha, it has a permanent population of 1,600 inhabitants who depend on fishing, land use (grazing and haymaking), hunting and tourism.
Metsola Biosphere Reserve (Russian Federation)—Located at the border with Finland, the site comprises the Kostomukshsky reserve and contains one of the oldest intact north-taiga forests in Northwest Russia. Some 30,000 permanent inhabitants live in this biosphere reserve, with a surface area of 345,700 ha. The north-taiga forests are essential for the reproduction of many bird species. The local population lives from forestry, agriculture, fishing, hunting and gathering non-timber forest products.
Great Altay Transboundary Biosphere Reserve (Russian Federation / Republic of Kazakhstan)—The reserve is composed of the Katunskiy biosphere reserve (Russian Federation, designated in 2000) and the Katon-Karagay biosphere reserve (Kazakhstan, designated in 2014). With a surface area of over 1.5 million ha, the area is used for livestock rearing, grazing, red deer farming, fodder production and apiculture. Tourism, hunting, fishing, and the collection of non-timber forest products are also widespread.
Backo Podunavlje Biosphere Reserve (Serbia)—Located in the northwestern part of Serbia, this site, with a surface area of 176,635 ha, extends over the alluvial zones of the central Danube plain. It is composed of remnants of historic floodplains and human-made landscapes influenced by agriculture and human settlements. The floodplain includes alluvial forests, marshes, reed beds, freshwater habitats, alluvial wetlands, as well as flood-protected forests. The main activities of the 147,400 inhabitants are agriculture, forestry and industry.
Garden Route Biosphere Reserve (South Africa)—With a total area of 698,363 ha and a population of over 450,000, this site is part of the Cape Floristic Region biodiversity hotspot region. The Knysna estuary is of great importance for the conservation of this biodiversity. The eastern part of the biosphere reserve is characterised by the presence of wetlands in which farming practices and urban development could have a negative impact. Faunal diversity includes large mammals such as elephants, rhino and buffalo.
Jebel Al Dair Biosphere Reserve (Sudan)—This reserve is constituted of the Al Dair massif, composed of dry savannah woodlands, forested ecosystems and a network of streams. It is one of the last remaining areas with rich biodiversity in the semi-arid North Kordofan. The site numbers 112 plant species, most with medicinal and aromatic uses. There are also 220 bird species and 22 mammal and reptile species.
Mono Biosphere Reserve (Togo)—The site covering an area of 203,789 ha in the southeast of the country encompasses several coastal ecosystems – mangroves, wetlands, forests and flood plains, as well as farmlands used for small-scale production of palm oil and coconuts. There is also fishing and livestock rearing. The presence of sacred forests and isolated sacred trees is testimony to the vitality of the traditional cultural practices of the biosphere reserve’s 1,835,000 inhabitants.
Fitzgerald Biosphere Reserve—extension and renaming of the former Fitzgerald River National Park Biosphere Reserve (Australia) – Located in the state of Western Australia, this biosphere reserve was originally designated in 1978. With its extension, the reserve will now cover a total surface area of 1,530,000 ha. The main ecosystems represented are forests, river basins, small mountain ranges, wetlands and estuaries.
Central Balkan Biosphere Reserve (Bulgaria)—Located in the centre of the country, this new reserve encompasses four existing biosphere reserves: Steneto, Tsaritchina, Djendema and Boatin, all designated in 1977. The new reserve includes the Central Balkan national park and contains rare and endangered wildlife species. It contains the most important old beech forest massif in the country (71% of the national park). The main activities include transhumance, grazing and hiking tourism. The total area of the reserve is 369,000 ha with a population of 129,600 inhabitants.
Uzunbudzhak Biosphere Reserve (Bulgaria)—About 3,700 people live on this site, which has a surface area of 78,425 ha, and was designated a biosphere reserve in 1977. The landscape is among the most representative of Europe, with temperate forests with evergreen laurel undergrowth. It includes the Strandja National Park, which is very rich in biodiversity, and karst caves.
Chervenata Stena Biosphere Reserve (Bulgaria)—Designated in 1977, the biosphere reserve will now cover a surface area of 65,409 ha with the extension. Located in the south Bulgarian mountains, it contains mid-mountainous forest landscapes as well as high mountain meadows. The main activities of reserve’s 60,000 inhabitants include organic agriculture, stockbreeding and eco-tourism.
Srébarna Biosphere Reserve (Bulgaria)—Originally designated in 1977, the biosphere reserve is located in the northeast of the country and covers a surface area of 52,000 ha with a population of 61,365. It has high biodiversity. The existing biosphere reserve has been extended to include the municipality of Silistra, which hosts numerous cultural events and traditional festivals.
Meggido Biosphere Reserve (Israel)—Renaming of Ramot Menashe Biosphere Reserve.
Manu Biosphere Reserve (Peru)—Designated in 1977, the biosphere reserve is located between the regions of Cusco and Madre de Dios. It has a large diversity of ecosystems, ranging from high grasslands to tropical rainforests and cloud forests. It contains almost all the ecosystems, flora and fauna of the Peruvian Amazon. With this extension, the area of the reserve is increased from 1,881,200 ha to 2,438,956 ha.
Masurian Lakes Biosphere Reserve [Extension and renaming of the former biosphere reserve of Lake Luknajno] (Poland)—The biosphere reserve, originally designated in 1976, is located in northern Poland. With an original surface area of 1,400 ha, it now covers 58,693 ha and is home to a population of nearly 8,300 people.
Marismas del Odiel Biosphere Reserve (Spain)—Designated in 1983, the biosphere reserve is located in the Gulf of Cadiz, in the southwestern part of the Iberian Peninsula. The surface area of the site has been increased from 7,158 ha to 18,875 ha and is home to a population of 33,700. The biosphere reserve occupies the mouth of the Odiel River, in the province of Huelva, as well as a coastal fringe.
Lake Manyara Biosphere Reserve (Tanzania)—Designated in 1981, the biosphere reserve is located in the East African Rift Valley. It has a surface area of 346,741 ha and a population of over 257,000 inhabitants. It includes the Lake Manyara National Park and Burunge Wildlife Conservation Area and has a history of Maasai pastoralist presence dating to the 18th century. It is home to many animal species such as the spotted hyena, hippopotamus and the common genet, as well as several threatened species.
Serengeti-Ngorongoro Biosphere Reserve (Tanzania)—The biosphere reserve covers a surface area of 4,397,314 ha and was originally designated in 1981. It includes the Serengeti National Park and the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in the north of Tanzania. It supports about 1.5 million wildebeest, 900,000 Thompson gazelles and 300,000 zebras. Topis, giraffes, black rhino, antelopes and primates are also well represented. The large herbivores support five main predator species including lions, leopards, cheetahs, spotted hyenas and wild dogs. The reserve is also home to the indigenous Maasai people. It has a fast-growing tourist industry.
East Usambara Biosphere Reserve (Tanzania)—The site, designated in 2000, is representative of forest ecosystems, and includes fragments of tropical forests and forms part of the Eastern Arc Mountains, one of 35 global biodiversity hotspots. The mountains constitute an important water source for neighbouring communities and the city of Tanga. With a surface area of 83,994 ha and a population of 184,253, this biosphere reserve is home to endemic species such as the Usambara eagle owl, the Usambara weaver and the African violet.
U.S. sites removed from the biosphere reserve list this week:
- Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge - US Fish & Wildlife Service
- Beaver Creek Experimental Watershed - US Forest Service
- California Coast Ranges - University of California Natural Reserve System
- Carolinian South-Atlantic - Non-Game and Heritage Trust (South Carolina)
- Central Plains Experimental Range - USDA Agricultural Research Service
- Coram Experimental Forest - US Forest Service
- Desert Experimental Range - US Forest Service
- Fraser Experimental Forest - US Forest Service
- H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest - US Forest Service / Oregon State University
- Hubbard Brook - US Forest Service
- Konza Prairie Research Natural Area - Kansas State University
- Land Between the Lakes - US Forest Service
- Niwot Ridge Mountain Research Station - University of Colorado
- Noatak National Preserve - National Park Service
- Stanislas-Tuolumne Experimental Forest - US Forest Service
- Three Sisters Wilderness - US Forest Service
- Virgin Islands - National Park Service
This story was updated at 1:30 pm on June 15 with additional info on the biosphere reserves withdrawing from the program.