The Okavango Delta, Serengeti, Kilimanjaro and Virunga National Parks no doubt conjure up a myriad of images in your mind. Elephants with raised trunks, wading up to their bellies in slowly moving river waters amidst tall straight reeds bent by small colorful birds. Wildebeest by the thousands, their nostrils flaring, kicking up clouds of dust while thundering across a vast savannah. A photo perfect image of a lone snow-capped mountain rising high in the distance, and in the foreground, a tower of majestic Masai giraffes moving gracefully across the vista. Gorillas sitting loosely together in a clearing watching the little ones play.
These four iconic destinations, along with nearly 50 more across the African continent, are extremely special. UNESCO has designated them as Natural World Heritage Sites – places of such importance to the natural world and humankind that they need to be protected forever.
UNESCO’s Natural World Heritage Site brand is a rare and extremely coveted title. This elite group of protected sites is recognized for their ‘outstanding universal value’ and must meet at least one of the four Natural World Heritage criteria set forth by UNESCO.
According to UNESCO, a Natural World Heritage Site must:
- possess superlative natural phenomena or are areas of exceptional aesthetic importance and natural beauty;
- contain the most significant natural habitats for conservation of biological diversity including those containing threatened species;
- be home to outstanding examples of on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and or animals;
- possess outstanding examples of the earth’s history, on-going geological processes, or geomorphic or physiographic features.
Africa currently has between 50 and 55 Natural World Heritage Sites, depending on your geopolitical persuasion. To put this in perspective, the United States only has 13 Natural World Heritage Sites, China 18 and South America 24. The World Heritage Committee reviews nominations annually, so the number worldwide continues to grow.
Individuals who understand that Natural World Heritage Sites represents ‘the best of the best’ are eager to include them in their African holiday itineraries, knowing that they will have an exceptional experience. In fact, many international travelers proudly collect World Heritage locations and keep a tally of how many they have visited just as birdwatchers maintain their species lists.
South Africa possesses five Natural World Heritage sites, the most of any country on the continent. They include Vredefort Dome, the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains, the Cape Floral Region Protected Areas, Maloti-Drakensberg Park and iSimangaliso Wetland Park. However, while Tanzania may only have four, these protected areas are some of the most iconic World Heritage Sites in the world and include Kilimanjaro National Park, Serengeti National Park, Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Selous Game Reserve. Many African nations have at least one site. For the full list of Natural World Heritage Sites in Africa visit UNESCO’ website so you can see which ones you may wish to include during your African travels.