July 13, 2012 -- Earlier this month, UNESCO added six natural areas to its World Heritage List. For the desk-bound would be globetrotter, Google has teamed up to provide a virtual experience of the protected sites through its World Wonders Project. In the following slideshow you can check out the newest additions to this list.
Sadly, one of the older world heritage sites in Timbuktu is currently under demolition from radicals that have taken control of the city.
The history of World Heritage protection dates back to 1972, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) established criteria for designating places that have special value to humanity because of either their natural beauty or historical importance. Protection of these sites however is dependent on the local government. When protection measures are failing some areas are listed as "in danger," a label that is meant to spur the government to take better care of its internationally recognized landmark and national treasure. The first site to make the list was the Abu Simbel temple complex in Egypt. The massive stone depictions of Ramesses II and is wife Nefertari were made in the 13th century BC. Without UNESCO's intervention, the ancient structure would have been drowned by the formation of Lake Nasser after the building of the Aswan Dam.
Sangha Trinational Area
The Sanha Tri-National Area drapes like a verdant jungle vine over Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than 11 million acres of nearly pristine forest provide homes for forest elephants, western lowland gorillas, gray parrots and a myriad of other species.
The Ba'Aka, an indigenous group, have stewarded the land for centuries and continue to do so with the help of the World Wildlife Fund and other groups. The Ba'Aka now guide tourists to meet a group of gorillas that has grown accustomed to the interlopers.
Not all who visit the forest are friends. Poachers and illegal loggers are a threat to the park, but haven't been as serious a threat as at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve on the other side of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Seven people were recently murdered at the Okapi Reserve and others kidnapped by a band of poachers who wanted access to the Reserve's elephant herds.
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Lakes of Ounianga
The Sahara Desert was once a lush landscape teeming with wildlife fed by plants drinking up abundant water from heavy monsoon rains. Ancient rock art shows giraffe and other beasts frolicking where now only camels roam. Approximately 5,500 years ago the rainfall pattern shifted and the Sahara began to desiccate.
In the middle of the arid landscape in northeastern Chad, blue-gray streaks splash across the pale orange sand. The Lakes of Ounianga are the remnants of a single large lake that splintered into 10 as it dried. The lakes survive because of a massive underground aquifer that continues to feed them.
Along the western coast of India a chain of mountains and hills form one of the world's most biodiverse areas. Although the Western Ghats, as the region is called, covers only five percent of India's land area, it is believed to contain more than a quarter of the country's species. Approximately four thousand species roam the dripping rainforests and rugged deciduous forest-clad highlands of the Western Ghats. Nearly half of those species are endemic, or found no where else.
Asian elephants, black panthers and Bengal tigers are royalty of the regions forests. Endangered lion-tailed macaques (Macaca silenus) scamper through the trees above the bison-like gaur (Bos gaurus).
The animals once had the Western Ghats largely to themselves. Only small numbers of humans called the area home, until the English invasion of India. The English cleared the forest for its valuable teak and other trees and planted tea, which still survives on the hillsides.
Rock Islands Southern Lagoon
Another biodiversity treasure added to the World Heritage List lies far out in the Pacific. The 445 uninhabited islands of Palau's Rock Islands Southern Lagoon are surrounded by hundreds of species of coral patrolled by more than a dozen shark species.
The islands are surrounded by the vast Pacific, but at that center of many of the islands are tiny ocean lakes, cut off from the rest of the ocean. Within these lakes, endemic species of jellyfish decided to make love not man-o-war and have dropped their stingers. Visitors can swim amongst the harmless blobs without fear of the painful, even deadly, lash of a jellyfish sting.
After floating among the pacifist jellyfish a tuckered-out tourist can lounge on the beaches and admire the mushroom-shaped islands that make up the chain.
Chengjiang fossil site
Not all of the biodiversity hot spots in the World Heritage List are still alive. The Chengjiang fossil beds in China have been in the making for 525 million years. The beds preserve the early soft bodied species that made up the explosion of new lifeforms that arose in the Cambrian Period.
Most soft-bodied creatures rot away within a few days, but at Chengjiang more than 185 species of ancient life were preserved. Only about three percent have hard-bodies and even in those, the soft parts usually lost to time are still visible.
A few of those fossilized creatures might even be our many-times-great grandparents. Eight of the Chenjiang species may be early members of the phylum Chordata, the same as humans.
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Lena Pillars Nature Park
The rocks that make up the Lena pillars in Siberia formed at roughly the same time as the Chenjiang fossil beds during the Cambrian. But instead of preserving ancient life, the rugged isolated terrain could easily take the life of an ill-equipped explorer. The region is freezing cold, scorching hot and a day's boat ride from the nearest city.
The pillars stand as stone sentinels along the banks of the Lena River north of Yakutsk. Yakutsk is the coldest large city in the world with more than 200,000 people braving the −38.6 degree C (−37.5 degree F) January temperatures. Summer temperatures can beat 32 degrees C (90 degrees F).
Those wide temperature extremes helped carve out the pillars, which stand up to 300 meters (985 feet) high, by alternately shrinking and expanding the stone.
Despite the remote location and manic-depressive temperatures, cruise ships regularly sail past the pillars on excursions from Yakutsk.
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