Human destruction of natural world heritage in award spotlight

Humanity has devised a system for recognising the planet’s most precious and unique natural environments – but humans continue damaging those exact same sites.


From left, UQ Faculty of Science Executive Dean Professor Melissa Brown, PhD student James Allan and UQ Provost Professor Aidan Byrne.

A University of Queensland-led international investigation that measured that human-caused damage for the first time has been recognised with an award from global academic publisher Elsevier this week.

Associate Publisher Virginia Prada López said the Elsevier Atlas Award showcased research that could or had already significantly affected people’s lives around the world.

“We hope that bringing wider attention to this research will help lead to better management of Earth’s natural world heritage sites,” she said.

Lead author James Allan, a PhD student in the UQ School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, said the research found that more than 100 Natural World Heritage sites were being degraded by encroaching human land uses and infrastructure.

“Our most concerning finding is that many sites are being seriously damaged, possibly even beyond repair,” he said.

Elsevier, a global publisher of 1800 journals on science, health and technology, chose “Recent increases in human pressure and forest loss threaten many Natural World Heritage Sites” for the award from thousands of published articles.

The study involved experts from the Wildlife Conservation Society, the University of Northern British Columbia, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the  Joint Research Centre of the European Commission, and the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre.

It was published in Biological Conservation.

Researcher Dr James Watson, of UQ and the Wildlife Conservation Society, said urgent action was needed “to save these amazing places before it is too late”.

“They are global assets, recognised by the international community as the jewels in the crown when it comes to nature conservation, and they are worth protecting for all of humanity,” Dr Watson said.

The article now features on, the publisher’s website, which is visited by almost three million people each month. The paper is freely available on Elsevier’s ScienceDirect to ensure wide access. 

The authors have increased access to the work by developing a digital platform to present their results on each of the examined sites.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) – the advisory body on nature under the World Heritage Convention – is working to make the study’s information available to people working on the protection and management of Natural World Heritage sites.

IUCN geographic information analyst Yichuan Shi said the work had “great potential to inform national authorities and the international community”.

Media: James Allan,, +61 424 982 651; Dr James Watson (Australia),, +61 409 185 592; Ewa Magiera, IUCN media relations (Switzerland),, +41 76 505 33 78.


Last updated:
29 May 2017