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04202014-1What do Yellowstone National Park, the Galapagos Islands, Ethiopia’s Simien National Park, the Xinjiang Tianshan mountain range in China, Italy’s Mount Etna, and the Namib Sand Sea in Namibia have in common? Each is considered a natural treasure. They, along with over 150 other natural places--forests, parks, mountains, deserts, islands, lakes, rivers, and reefs--have been deemed by the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) worthy of special attention and conservation. Called World Natural Heritage Sites, they are recognized for their remarkable beauty, ecological or geological significance, or unique biological diversity.

This Earth Day, April 22, renew your promise to reduce, to reuse, and to recycle, but also pause to appreciate the unique and beautiful places Mother Earth shares with us. Learn more about UNESCO’s World Natural Heritage Sites.

World Heritage Sites—

04202014-2 UNESCO’s World Heritage Site designation grew from a worldwide interest in protecting Egypt’s Abu Simbel temples, and in conserving historical, cultural, and natural places around the world. Scroll down to read the Brief History of the World Heritage program and the benefits of participating in the program. Look for answers to these basic questions: What is a World Heritage Site? What are the two types of World Heritage Sites? Where are the most Sites? How are Sites chosen? As the UNESCO Kids website mentions, potential World Heritage Sites must meet at least one of ten criteria. World Natural Heritage Sites must fulfill criterion vii, viii, ix, or x.  Of course every potential World Heritage Site is not accepted; there is a nomination process.

04202014-3 Countries worldwide contain World Heritage Sites. Play with an interactive map of all the World Heritage Sites, cultural and natural. Use the legend (in the right margin) to locate cultural and natural Sites; zoom in and click on an icon to identify Sites around the world. Scroll down to read a list of Sites by country. Use the menu in the right margin to change the mapping and listing criteria; select ‘year’ to read the list of World Heritage Sites by induction year. Finally, view a map showing all the World Natural Heritage Sites. Let’s spend more time in some of these places.

Amazing Places Around the World—

In 1978, UNESCO announced the first twelve World Heritage Sites. Four were natural sites. Found in the Pacific Ocean, in Canada, Wyoming, and the African nation of Ethiopia, these four natural places are as diverse as they are unique. Use the UNESCO website to learn more about each.

04202014-5Located off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands have long been famous for how their secrets inspired Charles Darwin and revolutionized evolution. Visit the UNESCO website for a full description of the Galapagos and to read how it meets World Heritage criteria. View a gallery of Galapagos photographs. For a sense of the biodiversity that makes the Galapagos unique, watch a video or two. Be sure to watch the video at the bottom of the page; it is the only one with narration. When you are ready to leave the Galapagos, travel north to two other inaugural World Natural Heritage Sites: Yellowstone National Park and Nahanni National Park.

04202014-4Yellowstone National Park has long been a favorite destination for nature enthusiasts. Explore what makes Yellowstone unique: read why it fulfills all four natural criteria, learn more about the Park, and discover the endangered species that call Yellowstone home.  Watch a video that examines Yellowstone's balance of nature.  (Be sure to choose English before you click the video icon.) View a selection of photographs taken inside the Park.

04202014-6 Like Yellowstone, Nahanni National Park displays both unfettered beauty and showcases Earth’s development; however, they support very different ecosystems and species. Located in Canada’s remote Northwest Territory, Nahanni National Park is a destination you won’t stumble upon accidentally. Open the interactive map to see where Nahanni National Park is located. Read the Statement of Significance that explains why Nahanni is important and which World Heritage criteria it fulfills. Scroll down to read the Long Description and a list of threatened species that live in Nahanni National Park. Visit Parks Canada and watch a short video that celebrates the history and features of Nahanni National Park.

04202014-9 Simien National Park in Ethiopia is a World Heritage Site many will never visit. Revisit the UNESCO’s interactive map to see where it is. Still, its biodiversity and beauty make it an exceptional place. It was the fourth place inducted as a World Natural Heritage Site in 1978.  Begin by reading how Simien National Park fulfills the World Heritage criteria. Although Simien National Park’s biodiversity and beauty qualify it as a World Heritage Site, human activity threatens its integrity. Scroll down to read more about these threats and how UNESCO and park managers plan to protect Simien’s biodiversity. View a gallery of images, and watch a brief video about some of Simien’s inhabitants.

04202014-8 Every year, UNESCO adopts more World Heritage Sites. 193 places are now designated World Natural Heritage Sites. In 2013, five places were added to the list: El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve (Mexico), Mount Etna (Italy), Namib Sand Sea (Namibia), Tajik National Park (Mountains of the Pamirs) (Tajikistan), Xinjiang Tianshan (China). Read the descriptions, criteria, and view the galleries to find out what makes each place a treasure worth protecting and sharing. Which places are you most interested in visiting? Why?