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Half of Natural Heritage Sites Threatened by Industry

Natural World Heritage Sites, including the Great Barrier Reef and Machu Picchu, are threatened by mining, oil exploration and illegal logging, conservation group WWF warned. Continue reading →

Almost half of all natural World Heritage Sites, including the Great Barrier Reef and Machu Picchu, are threatened by industrial activities such as mining, oil exploration and illegal logging, conservation group WWF warned Wednesday.

The 114 threatened sites, virtually half the total listed by UNESCO, provide food, water, shelter and medicine to over 11 million people - more than the population of Portugal, according to a WWF-commissioned report.

The sites are meant to be protected for future generations.

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"Despite the obvious benefits of these natural areas, we still haven't managed to decouple economic development from environmental degradation," WWF director general Marco Lambertini said in a foreword.

"Instead, too often, we grant concessions for exploration of oil, gas or minerals, and plan large-scale industrial projects without considering social and environmental risks."

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) lists 197 "natural" and 32 "mixed" Heritage Sites in 96 countries around the world, alongside 802 cultural sites.

The 229 natural and mixed sites, nominated by governments of the countries in which they are found, include national parks and nature reserves, forests, coral reefs, islands and coastal areas.

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But among the 114 sites highlighted by the WWF, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the world's biggest coral reef ecosystem, is threatened by both mining and shipping.

In the United States, the Grand Canyon Natural Park is threatened by dams or unsustainable water use.

And the 15th-century Inca citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru, named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, is threatened by logging, the WWF said.

The report said oil or gas concessions had been granted in 40 of the sites and mining concessions in 42.

Twenty-eight sites were at risk from dams or unsustainable water use, a further 28 from illegal logging, two from overfishing, and 20 from construction of roads or railways. Many sites were threatened in more than one category.

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Countries are meant to assume responsibility under the World Heritage Convention to protect listed sites within their borders.

‘Not anti-development'

"The World Heritage Committee is clear and definitive that extractive activities should not occur in World Heritage sites," WWF global conservation director Deon Nel told AFP by email.

"It has consistently maintained a position that oil, gas and mineral exploration and exploitation is ‘incompatible with World Heritage status.' Despite this, about a third of natural sites have concessions allocated across them."

The WWF urged governments to cancel all such concessions, and also called on companies to refrain from harmful activities in protected areas, and on financial institutions not to fund them.

The report relies in large part on data from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which monitors UNESCO's natural Heritage Sites.

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It found that two-thirds of Heritage Sites are important for water provision, more than 90 percent provide jobs in tourism and other sectors, and over half provide flood prevention services and store potentially harmful carbon.

"Healthy natural World Heritage sites contribute to poverty reduction, help alleviate food insecurity, combat climate change and restore and promote the sustainable use of ecosystems," said Lambertini.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest proportion of Heritage Sites at risk, followed by South Asia.

"Protecting natural areas and ecosystems is not anti-development," stressed Lambertini.

"It is in the interest of long-term, robust and sustainable development that benefits people and natural systems, including our social stability, economic prosperity, and individual well-being."

The Hanging Monastery

If you're looking for a truly off-the-beaten path adventure with a spiritual side, few destinations rival these sacred sites. A combination of architectural marvels and temples built by eccentric orders, the spiritual sanctuaries in this slideshow are truly beyond belief. We begin with the Hanging Monastery on Hengshan Mountain in China. Carved into a cliff nearly 250 feet above the ground, the monastery appears to be floating in the air. The temple contains several shrines as well as silver, gold and clay statues representative of Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist teachings. Known properly as Xuankong Si, the temple was built in 491 and remains standing today, though it was renovated during both the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and again by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Is It a Temple, or a UFO?

Wat Phra Dhammakaya is sacred ground to members of the Dhammakaya Movement, a once controversial Buddhist sect. But to non-devotees, this temple simply looks out of this world. Shaped as what appears to be an unidentified flying object painted in gold, this abbot is a recent arrival having been established in 1970. The temple attracts a large following. Here, ordinary believers gathered in 2010 for what is known the Morality Revival Project: One-hundred thousand ordinary men elected to become monks for 49 days for spiritual cleansing.

A Monastery Devoted to...Sex?

Chimi Llakhang near Punakha, Bhutan is not what would typically come to mind when you think of a religious order. Built in the 15th century, the temple's founder, Drukpa Kinley, was known as a "Divine Madman" and thought of as a saint despite his affinity for alcohol, womanizing, blasphemy, and crude humor. Nonethless, Kinley is revered within this monastery. To honor his legacy, Chimi Llakhang is adorned with colorful paintings and carvings of phalluses throughout the temple grounds along with nearly 100 tall prayer flags. Often, childless women within Bhutan will travel to the monastery and perform a fertility ritual, which involves a monk striking a devotee with a wooden phallus to ward off evil.

The Temple Where Rats Rule

The Karni Mata temple in India has something every wandering soul seeking spiritual fulfillment yearns for: thousands and thousands of rats. Considered the reincarnations of once living humans, the rats are sacred to the temple and its patrons. While the rodents would be treated as pests anywhere else in the world, here they are offered food and shelter. The temple is dedicated to Karni Mata, a 14th-century mystic who was believed to be the incarnation of Durga, the goddess of victory. Although a tourist draw, most visitors to the temple are Hindu pilgrims.

The Party Place the Pope Shut Down

Not every holy order has a vow of silence. In fact, Santa Croce in Venice, Italy, had a reputation as something of a party monastery. The chapter was known for organizing evening events hosted by a nun who had once been a nightclub dancer. Santa Croce was even famous for attracting the likes of celebrities and VIPs like Madonna. Unfortunately, it may be too late to pay a visit to this holy site. Because of its reputation, Pope Benedict XVI ordered its closure earlier this year.

A Temple Suspended in Air

Located in Kalampaka, Greece, the Meteora are series of 24 Eastern Orthodox monasteries atop towers of rock built starting in the 11th century. The rock towers themselves are some 60 million years old, emerging from the cone of a river and further transformed by earthquakes according to the World Heritage Convention. In Greek, Meteora means "suspended in air," and the monasteries are an architectural marvel akin to the Hanging Temple that opened this story.

A Religious Brewery

The Trappists, known formally as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, are a Catholic monastic group with a strong faith. They adhere to a vow of silence that they take so seriously they even have their own sign language variation. So for anyone who hasn't heard of the order before, it may come as a surprise that the Trappists are also regarded of the creators of some of the finest beers in the world. Arrive at a Trappist order with a brewery on site, such as Westvleteren Abbey in Belgium, and you can expect to find these brewmasters at work. You can even sample their craft. Just try not to get too out of hand after a few drinks. Remember, you're still on holy ground.

The Tiger Temple

If you are a truly indiscriminate animal lover but you've already seen Karni Mata temple (or rats just aren't your thing), why not visit the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi, Thailand? Known locally as Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua, the monastery takes in abandoned and orphaned animals. Founded in 1994, the temple was intended to be animal sanctuary. The temple received its first tiger cub in 1999 and currently has nearly 100 on its premises. The tigers are often brought in as cubs, their mothers killed by local poachers.

Sandstone Erotica

If you're thinking about stopping by the Khajuraho monuments in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, you might considering leaving the kids at home. Built between the 10th and 11th centuries, the temples at Khajuraho are adorned with hundreds of sandstone statues. Rather than depicting conservatively dressed religious figures engaged in silent prayer, the architects behind this site instead chose to carve erotic sculptures depicting scantily clad men and women in sexually explicit positions.

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