World Heritage and Wilderness


The World Heritage Convention has played a key role in protecting some of the most iconic wilderness areas on Earth: from Yellowstone to the Galápagos Islands to the Serengeti. Wild Heritage is working with partners to leverage the World Heritage Convention for more wilderness conservation globally.

Photo: Igor Shpilenok



The World Heritage Convention protects the most outstanding places on Earth – sites that are so exceptional that they are immediately recognizable as places that should be protected forever and for the benefit of all humankind.

Many of the world’s greatest wilderness areas are inscribed on the World Heritage List – Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Galapagos, Virunga, the Serengeti, the Okavango Delta, the Great Barrier Reef – and the list goes on. These extraordinary land and seascapes, including some of the planet’s last great wildlife spectacles, are better protected by governments because of the World Heritage Convention. The Convention also helps to recognize community and Indigenous Peoples’ rights and to protect local livelihoods, a critical point as many of the world’s great wilderness areas are still in good condition as a result of indigenous and community stewardship over centuries or millennia. Many wilderness areas are also recognized by the World Heritage Convention for their outstanding cultural values.

But there are many more wilderness areas that could be added to the World Heritage List, and many existing World Heritage sites that should be expanded and connected to other protected areas to strengthen their wilderness values. Wild Heritage is working to leverage the World Heritage Convention for additional wilderness conservation around the world.

Current Initiatives

Wild Heritage Executive Director Cyril Kormos serves on IUCN-WCPA’s Steering Committee as Vice Chair for World Heritage and chairs the IUCN-WCPA World Heritage Network.
He also serves on IUCN’s World Heritage Panel, which reviews nominations by national governments for new World Heritage sites and provides recommendations to the World Heritage Committee.
Wild Heritage Executive Director Cyril Kormos will co-Chair the World Heritage Stream at WILD11, the 11th  World Wilderness Congress in China in 2019.
Wild Heritage will partner with IUCN, ICIMOD and National Geographic on a scoping exercise to identify opportunities for new and expanded World Heritage sites in the Himalayan region.

Research and Publications

Summer 2019

Presenting at the World Heritage Committee

World Heritage FAQ

What is the World Heritage Convention?

The Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, commonly known as the World Heritage Convention, protects natural and cultural sites that have “Outstanding Universal Value,” i.e. sites whose significance is “so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.” In other words, the World Heritage Convention seeks to protect the greatest places on Earth. These extraordinary sites are inscribed on the prestigious UNESCO World Heritage List.

Final judgment as to whether a site proposed by a national government (referred to as “States Parties” under the Convention) may be inscribed on the World Heritage List rests with the World Heritage Committee (“the Committee”). The Committee is the Convention’s decision-making body and is made up of twenty-one States Parties. The Committee also exercises oversight of existing World Heritage sites to ensure they are well-managed and have the capacity to maintain their Outstanding Universal Value for the benefit of future generations.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) serves as the technical advisor (“Advisory Body”) to the Convention. IUCN evaluates nominations for new natural and “mixed” (sites that are inscribed for both natural and cultural values) sites through its World Heritage Panel and issues its recommendations to the Committee. IUCN also monitors the good management of sites already inscribed on the World Heritage List and reports to the Committee regarding management concerns.

For more information, please see: and

Wild Heritage Executive Director Cyril Kormos serves on the World Heritage Panel ex officio as IUCN-WCPA Vice Chair for Wild Heritage and also chairs the IUCN-WCPA World Heritage Network (


Why is the World Heritage Convention so critically important?Protecting World Heritage sites is a key litmus test for the conservation community. If we cannot protect the greatest places on the planet, our chances of achieving conservation in the many other places around the world where conservation is needed are low. World Heritage is a litmus test we cannot afford to fail!

  • The Convention was adopted in 1972 in response to growing international concern that many extraordinary cultural and natural sites around the world were being damaged or destroyed.

  • The Convention has now been ratified by 191 countries, making it almost universally embraced.

  • The Convention protects many of the most iconic sites on the planet – e.g. Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Galapagos, the Serengeti, Lake Baikal, the Great Barrier Reef etc.

  • The Convention helps protect a vast area globally: natural and mixed sites total over 300 million hectares – almost the size of India.

  • The Convention has “teeth”. Once a site is inscribed on the World Heritage List, its management is elevated to a matter of international concern. The Convention, with IUCN’s independent expert advice, exercises oversight to help ensure World Heritage sites are well managed.

  • The prestige associated with World Heritage sites also helps protect them:World Heritage sites are more often featured in the media.

    • World Heritage sites attract tourism and donor funding. 

    • Civil society also monitors World Heritage sites closely. 

    • Governments value the prestige associated with World Heritage sites (and the added tourism and funding) which provides an incentive to ensure their good management.

    • The World Heritage Convention is the only international convention that recognizes the close, often inseparable links between natural and cultural values.

    • The World Heritage Convention is increasingly playing a key role in recognizing and helping to protect the rights of local communities and Indigenous Peoples.

    • The World Heritage Convention is well-adapted to landscape scale planning. World Heritage sites may be transboundary (e.g. Glacier Waterton International Peace Park or La Amistad International Park) or may in fact be clusters of sites (“serial sites”).

    • As a UN convention specifically focused on preserving heritage it has an obvious and strong link to youth around the world.

Has the World Heritage Convention been effective at protecting wilderness?

Yes! The World Heritage Convention has been a highly effective mechanism for protecting wilderness globally, on land and at sea.

  • World Heritage sites include the biggest protected areas on the planet, on land and at sea:

    • On land: Kluane / Wrangell-St Elias / Glacier Bay / Tatshenshini-Alsek between the US and Canada, almost 9 million hectares, Lake Baikal in Russia, just under 9 million hectares or the Air and Ténéré Natural Reserves in Niger, almost 8 million hectares.

    • At sea: the Phoenix Islands Protected Areas in Kiribati, over 40 million hectares, Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the US, over 36 million hectares or the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, over 34 million hectares.

  • Although there are only 247 natural and mixed World Heritage sites (as of 2018), these sites total over 300 million hectares, an area only slightly smaller than India and representing about 8% of the planet’s total protected area estate on land and sea!

  • 108 of the natural and mixed sites on the Word Heritage List were inscribed specifically on the basis of their wilderness values.

  • Many of these sites (e.g. Virunga, the Okavango Delta, Waterton Glacier International Peace Park, the Grand Canyon) have been better protected from industrial threats as a result of their World Heritage Status.