How to Lose World Heritage Site Status

A swath of desert just inland from the Arabian Sea coast and a meandering stretch of a major central European river framed by 18th and 19th-century architecture may not seem as though they would have anything in common, but they very much do. Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary and Germany’s Dresden Elbe Valley are the only two places to have ever been removed from UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites since the programme began in 1978; both for very different reasons.

Generally, before a site is delisted from the register, it is placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage in Danger list; a method of creating awareness about heritage sites whose futures are in serious jeopardy. As of now, there are 38 World Heritage Sites on this list. For sites that made the list based upon their environmental significance, factors such as lack of legal preservation and human encroachment adversely affect their status as World Heritage Sites. Some of these sites, such as the historic centre of Timbuktu in Mali or the DR Congo’s Salonga National Park, were placed on the list because they are vulnerable to armed conflict, which may end up destroying the cultural or environmental legacies of the sites. Some sites are ancient buildings which face challenging and expensive battles to preserve them against them elements, or are collections of similarly-themed buildings that would be disrupted by new modern construction. Dresden made the danger list based on this latter criteria. The oryx sanctuary never even got the chance to be on the list before its status was revoked.

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The Arabian oryx was extinct in the wild by 1972 due to overhunting. Conservation efforts at zoos begun in 1962 allowed reintroduction of oryx into the wild in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Bahrain in addition to Oman. Source: MathKnight, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reem-Lavan001.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary occupied a portion of central Oman’s al-Wusta governorate and was intended to try and preserve a herd of oryx reintroduced to the wild in 1982, twenty years after a last-ditch effort to restore the world Arabian oryx herd was inaguarated at the Phoenix Zoo using three oryx found in the wild near the Omani border plus six oryx taken from various zoos. This project would be essential to the species’ survival; the final herd of Arabian oryx found in the world were killed by hunters on Oman’s Jiddat al-Harasis in October 1972. Within two years, the sultanate began plans to reintroduce oryx to the region, and in 1979 a camp was established at Jiddat al-Harasis to foster the animal’s reintroduction. 16 oryx were imported from the San Diego Wild Animal Park between 1980 and 1982, augmented over the years by both captive-bred and naturally-bred oryx. As the population crept into the hundreds, the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary was officially declared by royal decree in 1994, covering 27 500 km2 (8 000 sq mi), and the site was accepted that year as a World Heritage Site. UNESCO cited not only the oryx population, but diverse flora including several endemic plants and the location of the sanctuary as the only wild breeding sites in Arabia of the endangered Houbara Bustard and ‘the largest wild population of Arabian gazelle in existence’ (interestingly, a paper published this past April determined that the Arabian gazelle is no longer considered to be a valid species, and specimens previously identified as Arabian gazelles were actually mountain gazelles).

The centre of the sanctuary near Jaalani.

Sadly, with the growth in numbers came a commensurate growth in poaching. Between 1996 and 1999, nearly half the herd was taken down via poaching, and from a height of 450 oryx, by 2007 the numbers had declined to 65 with just four breeding pairs remaining. The death sentence for the sanctuary came not from the elimination of oryx, however, but from the quest for oil. The Omani government announced plans to explore for petroleum in a region encompassing 90 percent of the oryx sanctuary. Once confirmation was received from the government that exploration was to proceed, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee deleted the sanctuary from the list in 2007, an unprecendented move. The move came so abruptly UNESCO didn’t even have the opportunity to move the sanctuary onto its list of sites in danger. As for the state of the Arabian oryx, while the population in Oman’s sanctuary declined rapidly over the past 17 years, the current wild population in the Middle East is believed to have grown to around 1 000 animals, helping to promote the species from endangered to merely threatened. Another 6-7 000 exist in captivity or semi-captivity.

Two years later, the dagger fell upon the Elbe River valley surrounding Dresden, even though the attractive architecture along its riverbanks had not been structurally compromised. Instead, UNESCO cited the visual disruption that was to be caused by a new four-lane bridge across the Elbe. In 2004, the landscape along an 18 km (11 mi)-long stretch of the Elbe was declared a World Heritage Site for its cultural significance. As cited by UNESCO,

The 18th- and 19th-century cultural landscape of Dresden Elbe Valley extends some 18 km along the river from Übigau Palace and Ostragehege fields in the north-west to the Pillnitz Palace and the Elbe River Island in the south-east. It features low meadows, and is crowned by the Pillnitz Palace and the centre of Dresden with its numerous monuments and parks from the 16th to 20th centuries. The landscape also features 19th- and 20th-century suburban villas and gardens and valuable natural features. Some terraced slopes along the river are still used for viticulture and some old villages have retained their historic structure and elements from the industrial revolution, notably the 147-m Blue Wonder steel bridge (1891–93), the single-rail suspension cable railway (1898–1901), and the funicular (1894–95). The passenger steamships (the oldest from 1879) and shipyard (c. 1900) are still in use. (UNESCO World Heritage Centre)

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Brühl’s Terrace, a group of mid-18th-century buildings in the centre of Dresden. Source: Bgabel, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DD-canaletto-blick.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

Dresden_Loschwitz_-_Schloss_Albrechtsberg;_Foto_Christoph_Münch

Albrechtsburg Castle, erected in 1854 in the borough of Loschwitz. Source: C. Münch, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dresden_Loschwitz_-_Schloss_Albrechtsberg;_Foto_Christoph_Münch.jpg. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.

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Considered a masterpiece upon its construction in 1893, the Blue Wonder (Blaues Wunder) bridge crosses the Elbe between the boroughs of Blasewitz and Loschwitz, both are which are full of historically significant buildings. Source: Brücke-Osteuropa, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Loschwitzer_Brücke_-_Blaues_Wunder_1.jpg.

This designation, however, came eight years after Dresden council agreed to build a four-lane highway bridge (the Waldschlösschen Bridge) across the Elbe about halfway between the central business district and the eastern boroughs of Blasewitz and Loschwitz in order to alleviate traffic issues. The World Heritage Committee determined that a modern construction of this size at that location along the river would represent a failure to maintain its ‘outstanding universal value as inscribed’, and when a public referendum in 2005 resulted in approval for the Waldschlösschen Bridge, the valley was added to the List of Heritage in Danger. Under the prospect of losing international clout as well as potential tourist revenue, Dresden council in response halted the beginning of bridge construction, leading to a feud between the council and the state of Saxony, which wanted bridge construction to proceed regardless of UNESCO’s opinion (UNESCO later advocated for the construction of a tunnel instead; this fell on deaf ears). The state successfully appealed in court, and construction of the bridge was approved in 2007, beginning later that year. In 2009, the World Heritage Committee voted 14-to-5, with two abstentions, to remove the Dresden Elbe Valley as a World Heritage Site. Under UNESCO law, Germany may attempt again to have parts of the Dresden Elbe Valley landscape nominated for World Heritage status, but that it would have to be presented under different criteria and boundaries as the original site is now fundamentally compromised in their eyes due to the presence of the bridge.

Further Reading

Abramsohn, J. (2009). Dresden loses UNESCO world heritage status. Deutsche Welle, 25 June 2009. Available at http://www.dw.de/dresden-loses-unesco-world-heritage-status/a-4415238. Accessed 21 June 2013.

Arabian Oryx Project, The (2002). Timeline. Available at http://web.archive.org/web/20080731235200/http://www.oryxoman.com/timeline/htmlconsole.htm. Accessed 21 June 2013.

Beyer, S. (2007). A Bridge Too Far for UNESCO: World Heritage Dresden Gets Yellow Card. Der Spiegelhttp://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/a-bridge-too-far-for-unesco-world-heritage-dresden-gets-yellow-card-a-492389.html. Accessed 21 June 2013.

Hirsch, A. (2013). Mali: Timbuktu’s literary gems face Islamists and decay in fight for survival. The Guardian, 21 May 2013. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/20/mali-literary-treasures-battle-survival. Accessed 21 June 2013.

IUCN SSC Antelope Specialist Group (2011). Oryx leucoryx. In IUCN (2012). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, version 2012.2. Available at http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/15569/0. Accessed 21 June 2013.

Kermeliotis, T. (2013). New fears for Timbuktu in Mali conflict. CNN, 28 January 2013. Available at http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/18/world/africa/mali-timbuktu-destruction-unesco. Accessed 21 June 2013.

Spiegel, Der (2009). Unesco-Entscheidung: Dresdner Elbtal verliert Weltkulturerbe-Status. 25 June 2009. Available at http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/gesellschaft/unesco-entscheidung-dresdner-elbtal-verliert-weltkulturerbe-status-a-631956.html. Accessed 21 June 2013.

UNESCO World Heritage Centre (2007). Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary: first site ever to be deleted from UNESCO’s World Heritage List. 28 June 2007. Available at http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/362. Accessed 21 June 2013.

UNESCO World Heritage Centre (2009). Dresden is deleted from UNESCO’s World Heritage List. 25 June 2009. Available at http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/522/. Accessed 21 June 2013.

UNESCO World Heritage Centre (2013). World Heritage List. Available at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/. Accessed 21 June 2013.

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