for National Geographic News
The UN this week designated seven natural landmarks as new World Heritage sitesplaces the World Heritage Committee considers to be of outstanding value to all humanity:
Coiba National Park, Panama: Site of islands that harbor many species not found anywhere else
Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, Thailand: Rugged, mountainous home to many rare species
Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord, Norway: Among the world's longest, deepest, and most scenic fjords
Gulf of California, Mexico: Home to 39 percent of marine-mammal species
Shiretoko Peninsula, Japan: Marine-terrestrial region notable for the southernmost instance of seasonal sea ice
Vredefort Dome, South Africa: World's oldest and largest known meteorite impact site
Wadi Al-Hitan ("whale valley"), Egypt: Fossil site of last known legged whale (See desert whale photo.)
(For more on the new sites, see sidebar.)
With representatives of 21 countries, the World Heritage Committee is an arm of the United Nation's Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The group made the "natural site" designations Wednesday as part of their meeting this week in Durban, South Africa.
Later today the committee is expected to announce cultural-site designations.
"Outstanding Universal Value"
In all, 795 cultural and natural sites in more than 130 countries are now protected under the Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. More than 180 countries have signed the 1972 treaty.
Member countries nominate new World Heritage sites each year and agree to preserve existing World Heritage sites by providing appropriate legal and regulatory frameworks.
The protected sites are as unique and diverse as the wilds of East Africa's Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and Statue of Liberty in the United States.
One World Heritage site is currently in danger of being delisted because of its inability to stop poachers. The Democratic Republic of Congo's Garamba National Park, it seems, is unable to stop hunters from killing the few remaining northern white rhinoceroses.
After a long and heated debate earlier this week, the committee agreed that if the rhinos were to be killed off in Garamba, the park would no longer make be a place of "outstanding universal value"the basic criterion for World Heritage sites.
"The northern white rhino is a flagship species for this site, and every effort must be made to protect the remaining five to ten individuals," said David Sheppard, head of the World Conservation Union's delegation to the meeting.
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