UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites now boasts a total of 1121 sites from 167 countries, including 213 WNH sites. These also include the inscription of 29 new sites approved by the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO at Baku, Azerbaijan in July 2019.
Out of the 29 new sites inscribed, only 4 were under the category of natural heritage and remaining were cultural heritage (with one as both cultural and natural). The total area covered by the World Natural Heritage sites is growing steeply. At present, it is 300 million hectares, having nearly doubled in the last decade. This is good news for the conservation of nature.
Considering, that the area covered by Kaas Plateau (one of the 39 serial sites of the Western Ghats, which was inscribed as WNH site) is only about 1600 hectares, its importance appears to be insignificant. But the mega example this mini-site has created in encountering the growing challenges and threats is simply amazing.
Kaas Plateau, a northernmost natural heritage site in the Western Ghats is in the close vicinity of high mountains. Just about 25 km from the district city of Satara, 140 km from the megacity of Pune and 280 km from India’s financial capital, Mumbai, it is literally encircled by fast urbanizing habitats. The tourists from these cities, with their increased mobility, barge-in at the gates of the Kaas Plateau every year posing unparalleled threat to the sprawling carpets of fragile wildflowers of varied species. The world knows ‘wild fauna’ tourism, but this tiny site is famous for ‘wild flora’ tourism.
The horde of tourists not only pose a threat that endangers the wildflowers, but it also risks the very basis of the ‘outstanding universal value’ of the Kaas Plateau, the criteria on which the site is inscribed by UNESCO.
The climate change associated with extreme weather events and the potential danger of indiscriminate human intervention under the shadow of development also poses the perils that menace the sustainable living of the local communities.
UNESCO has the provision of adding the heritage site ‘under danger’ list if the species are on the verge of extinction. Indeed, for the same reason, the Island and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California in the meeting in Baku were added to the ‘list of World Heritage in Danger’.
TERRE Policy Centre, recognizing these threats have been tracking the progress of the sustainable management (or lack of it) of the site and publishing the Annual Report Cards (ARC) voluntarily right from the year 2013. The report recognizes the cumulative efforts of the Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC), Forest Division of district Satara of State Government, local community, researchers, experts, and journalists. The Annual Report Card is an important document that tracks the progress of the management of the site and provides a recommendation to conserve the site in the coming year.
There is an urgent need for raising the awareness among the tourists and developing a network of the JFMCs of the 39 sites of the Western Ghats, starting with 4 sites of the northern cluster that are in the periphery of 300 km. Such network of JFMCs would help in sharing information and learning from successes and failures.