East Asian sites of natural value given Unesco World Heritage status

PHOTO: Pixabay

At the 44th session of the Unesco World Heritage Committee - which, because of coronavirus restrictions, had been delayed a year and took place largely online (it was officially hosted by Fuzhou, China) - 34 properties were inscribed onto "the list".

Five of these are in East Asia. As well as Quanzhou - described by Unesco as the Emporium of the World in Song-Yuan China - and the Jomon Prehistoric Sites of Northern Japan, another site in Japan, and one each in South Korea and Thailand, were added to the Unesco World Heritage list. These three were nominated for their natural, rather than cultural, value.

1. Getbol, Korean Tidal Flats

This site comprises four distinct and slightly different wetlands on the southern and southwestern coasts of South Korea at Seocheon, Gochang, Shinan and Boseong-Suncheong. Unesco describes the site as a whole as having been shaped by "a complex combination of geological, oceanographic and climatologic conditions that have led to the development of diverse sedimentary systems".

By some counts, the getbol (Korean for "tidal flats") host 2,150 species of flora and fauna, including 22 globally threatened or near-threatened species.

They are an important habitat for 47 endemic and five endangered marine invertebrate species and 118 migratory bird species, some of which fly on to Hong Kong's Mai Po marshes.

The Seocheon Getbol consists of sand and/or muddy sand flats, which are very important for migratory birds and as a spawning and nursery ground for fish, according to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.

The sand flat supports threatened bird species such as the Saunders' gull, the spoon-billed sandpiper and the spotted greenshank.

The 125 species of fish found here include the river puffer and Korean rockfish, which share their habitat with the Japanese eel and many other sea creatures.

The Gochang Tidal Flat Wetland Protected Area provides roosting sites for globally threatened species such as the Oriental white stork and the Saunders' gull, reports Ramsar, and it supports populations of shore birds.

Taken as a whole, the tidal flats "demonstrate the link between geodiversity and biodiversity, and the dependence of cultural diversity and human activity on the natural environment", concluded Unesco.

2. The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex, Thailand

July's meeting witnessed Thailand's fourth attempt to have listed the country's largest area of national parks, which encompasses 4,640 square kilometres (1,790 square miles) of Ratchaburi, Phetchaburi and Prachuap Khiri Khan provinces, and hugs the Tenasserim range, part of a north-south mountain ridge running down the Malay Peninsula.

Previous attempts had been rejected by Unesco because of human rights abuses in Kaeng Krachan National Park, one of three that comprises the Unesco site, along with a wildlife sanctuary.

According to the Bangkok Post, "This national park has been marred [by] notorious reports of conflicts between state park officials who resorted to heavy-handed measures to evict indigenous Kayin villagers from the forest where they had settled for more than a century."

Ahead of the vote, the Bangkok Post predicted success because, "this year [ …] Thailand is one of the member countries on the judging committee, and the Thai government is reportedly hopeful of securing endorsement from China, the host country".

Unesco describes the forest complex as being "at the crossroads between the Himalayan, Indochina, and Sumatran faunal and floral realms". It is a mix of forest types in which a variety of endemic and globally endangered plant species thrive.

Eight globally threatened bird species have been registered here, as have eight cat species, including the endangered tiger and fishing cat. Other species that call this region home include the critically endangered Siamese crocodile, the endangered Asiatic wild dog, the Asian elephant and the endangered Asian giant tortoise.

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3. Amami Oshima Island, Tokunoshima Island, northern part of Okinawa Island, and Iriomote Island, Japan

Japan's fifth natural World Heritage Site encompasses 42,698 hectares (165 square miles) of subtropical rainforest on four islands between which churns the East China Sea - Amami Oshima is 400km (25o miles) south of the Japanese mainland while Iriomote is 240km east of Taipei, Taiwan.

According to The Asahi newspaper, Tokyo first nominated the islands for listing in 2017. In 2018, however, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a Unesco advisory body, proposed postponing the registration until a vast forest inhabited by many endangered species - including the non-flying Okinawa rail - which had been returned to Japan after being used for training by the United States military, could be incorporated in the site.

The property includes only parts of the named islands which are uninhabited by humans, and which have a very high percentage of endemic species (those found nowhere else), many of them globally threatened.

Five mammal species, three bird species and three amphibian species found across the property have been identified as evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered. The Amami rabbit and Ryukyu long-haired rat are unique, having no living relatives anywhere else in the world.

Not everyone is thrilled by the Unesco recognition. According to a 2017 report by online travel guide Culture Trip, "the potential certification sparks feelings of imminent doom" among the 2,000 or so people who live on Iriomote.

"Its natural beauty and collection of unique and exotic species of flora and fauna make Iriomote an undeniable tourist magnet, but the locals believe that what makes the island so special is ultimately going to be its downfall," Culture Trip said.

With more than 300,000 visitors already descending on the island in a normal year, many on ferries from Ishigaki, 34km to the east, local officials plan to restrict the number of tourists to preserve the ecology.

Whether inscription on the World Heritage list turns out to be a blessing or a curse for the new inductees remains to be seen.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.