World Heritage Species

17 08 2014

horseshoe crabHaving just attended the Baker & Stebbins Legacy Symposium on Invasion Genetics in Pacific Grove, California, I have had a rare bit of leisure time between my book-writing commitments and operating in conference mode. It’s summer here in California, so I’ve taken the opportunity to read a bit of The New Yorker in my accommodation. It is indeed a pleasure to have these micro-moments of ‘leisure’ reading. As it turns out though, work subjects are never far from my mind as I do this.

So it interested me greatly when I read another fantastic article in the ‘Yorker about horseshoe crabs, and their precarious state despite having survived half a billion years on this planet. While I was generally interested in the science, biomedical applications, conservation and systematics of the species, what really caught my eye was the proposal to list them as a ‘World Heritage Species’.

A what? Never heard of that classification, you say? Neither had I. Not to worry though – it doesn’t exist yet.

It turns out that people have been proposing just such a system for individual species as we now have for special sites around the world – the United Nations’ World Heritage system. As many of you know, these sites have rather a lot of prestige, political power and international oversight. A point in question is that our current train-wreck government in Australia has recently tried to remove the World Heritage status of Tasmanian forests, only to fail after the Committee took all of 10 minutes to quash the proposal. As far as I know, even the Environmental Abbott-oir hasn’t yet tried to appeal that decision. In another Australian example of how the system can influence national policy, the World Heritage Committee has also threatened to remove the special status from the Great Barrier Reef if Australia doesn’t start getting its environmental shit together. As long as the Abbott-oir is in power, however, I won’t be holding my breath.

The system therefore seems to be able to influence national conservation policies in a way that internal legislation cannot, which is good considering how fast biodiversity is going down the toilet. It is therefore logical that a ‘World Heritage Species’ status could also be a good idea.

How might such as system work? It turns out that environmental lawyers have been thinking about these for about a decade, and have even drafted some preliminary terms of reference. So far as I’ve been able to tell, in addition to the proposal to list horseshoe crabs on such a list, there have been others to list great apes and lions.

Personally, I think such a system should go well beyond what we already have in terms of international and national ‘protected’ species legislation. The IUCN Red List is without doubt the gold standard in this arena for threatened species, and there are many international treaties that value and protect areas like wetlands and other ecosystems. As such, listing a threatened species already recognised elsewhere as a ‘World Heritage’ species might be a bit redundant, and potentially counter-productive.

Instead, I would recommend listing species that were phylogenetically (or evolutionarily) unique. Species like horseshoe crabs, by virtue of their longevity and uniqueness amongst arthropods, would certainly be a candidate. Others that come to mind might be stromatolites, Peripatus, long-beaked echnidas and lungfish. I think you could probably think of a few off the top of your head.

This might sound a little familiar to the Zoological Society of London‘s ‘EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) of Existence’ species, but I think it would go beyond the mere recognition of their uniqueness and instate globally enforceable conservation measures, irrespective of the species’ particular threatened status. It would also be a good idea to have very clear inclusion criteria and not swamp the system with everyone’s favourite species – species would have to be pretty special to get on the list.

Clearly our existing systems aren’t working, and just listing a species as threatened, or highlighting their uniqueness in nature documentaries, isn’t going to cut it. This could be just another public-relations tool in the conservation toolbox that might save a few of our most special species.

CJA Bradshaw



6 responses

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[…] our environment-restoration resources toward the species/systems with the best chance of surviving (uniqueness […]


5 04 2017
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[…] “Clearly our existing systems aren’t working, and just listing a species as threatened, or highlighting their uniqueness in nature documentaries, isn’t going to cut it. This could be just another public-relations tool in the conservation toolbox that might save a few of our most special species.” Corey Bradshaw on the idea of declaring ‘World Heritage Species’ (See Conservation Bytes) […]


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[…] on species that are evolutionarily distinct – i.e., have few close living relatives. In a blog post on the concept, he pointed to such wonderfully bizarre and evolutionarily deep species as the […]


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[…] I’ve been out of the social-media loop for a few weeks, hence the abnormally long interval since my last post. As you might recall, I’ve been travelling overseas and most recently blogged from Monterey, California where I was attending a symposium on invasion genetics. […]


18 08 2014
Jaco Barendse

I think it can work but the species will have to be exceptionally iconic, and should not be confounded by biodiversity richness and uniqueness – so while Madagascar probably has a strong case to have all its fauna listed, that in itself would not make sense. However, listing the coelacanth would make sense.


17 08 2014
Adam Benton

The comparable thing would obviously be world heritage sites; which obviously have huge potential to sway government opinion. I was reading the other day about the damage done to Dubrovnik – a UNESCO heritage site – and the international outrage it sparked that arguably influenced the outcome of the Croatian war of independence.

Creation a heritage species thus clearly could have a huge benefit for said species; but I wonder if it actually would. Would people get as excited over saving a crab as a historic town? In doubt it, as with a species there always seems to be “just one more” so it doesn’t matter if one dies. Yet there’s only one Dubrovnik so clearly that needs saving.


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