World Heritage: The ‘Best of the Best’ on planet Earth

by Dr. Lisa Marie King 

What do Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak, Kinabalu Park in ;)Sabah, Melaka and George Town in Peninsular Malaysia, and now the Archaeological Heritage of the Lenggong Valley in Perak all have in common? All four of these locations are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) encourages the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage of outstanding importance to humanity through the World Heritage programme. As UNESCO notes, “Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.” World Heritage Sites represent the very best of their kind in the world.

Potential sites are chosen based on their merits as the finest possible examples of cultural and natural heritage according to the World Heritage Committee’s strict criteria.

Internationally famous World Heritage Sites include the Taj Mahal in India; the Great Barrier Reef in Australia; Serengeti National Park in Tanzania; the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador; Borobudur Temple in Indonesia; and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in the United States.

Lesser known but no less important World Heritage Sites include the Wooden Churches of Maramures in northern Transylvania, Romania; Pueblo de Taos in New Mexico, United States; the Golden Temple of Dambulla in Matale district, Sri Lanka; and the Messel Pit Fossil Site in Messel, Germany.

Importantly, without World Heritage recognition, many of these irreplaceable sites would otherwise have been damaged, permanently degraded or destroyed, and lost to the world forever – a terrible loss to all of humanity.

All World Heritage properties are placed on the World Heritage List. This list reflects the diversity of Earth’s natural and cultural heritage.

To be considered for World Heritage listing, a property must first be placed on a tentative list while global experts assess the site’s World Heritage application. Experts make site visits during the determination period. Being placed on the tentative list only means that the property has been officially nominated and is undergoing the review process. Often, these experts make suggestions that must be implemented prior to the property progressing to the next step in the nomination process. Being nominated by no means guarantees the site will become World Heritage certified.

The decision process can take many years in some cases. While many nominated properties fail to become World Heritage for various reasons, a few successfully navigate the process and are added to the list every year. Currently, the World Heritage List contains 962 properties worldwide. World Heritage Sites are allowed to display the World Heritage emblem.

In 2000, both Sarawak’s Gunung Mulu National Park and Sabah’s Kinabalu Park were placed on to the World Heritage List. The 52,864 hectare Gunung Mulu National park was chosen for World Heritage listing not only for its outstanding cave features and geomorphological processes, but also for its high biodiversity and spectacular scenic values.

One of the park’s most famous cave chambers, Sarawak Chamber, is 600m by 415m and 80m high. It is perhaps the largest known cave chamber anywhere in the world. The park also protects more than 3,500 species of vascular plants, many rare invertebrate and mammal species and is home to millions of cave swiftlets and bats. Gunung Mulu provides such important habitat to a wide range of plant and animal species both above and below ground that it is the most studied tropical karst area in the world.

Sabah’s Kinabalu Park has a wide range of habitats from tropical jungle to alpine conditions largely due to the great altitudinal and climatic gradient from the base of the 4,095 meter Mount Kinabalu to its top. As a result, it has a high degree of biodiversity and endemism (flora and fauna found only there and nowhere else). According to UNESCO, over half of Borneo’s mammals, birds and amphibians, many of which are threatened, are known to exist in the park. Two-thirds of all of Borneo’s reptiles and at least half of its plant species are found in the park, including over 1,000 species of orchids. So rich is the park’s flora that it has been designated as a Centre of Plant Diversity for Southeast Asia.

In 2008, the Historic Cities of the Straits of Malacca, which consists of Melaka and George Town, were placed on the World Heritage List. Both cities have Asian and European influences which bestowed the two towns with a specific multicultural heritage.

Melaka is known for its fortifications, churches, squares and government buildings. The city displays architecture from the Malay sultanate period of the 15th century, and the Portuguese and Dutch periods of the early 16th Century. Meanwhile, George Town illustrates the British period towards the end of the 18th Century. According to the World Heritage Committee, the two towns comprise a unique architectural and cultural townscape unlike any other in East or Southeast Asia.

Malaysia’s newest World Heritage Site known as the Archaeological Heritage of the Lenggong Valley was added to the World Heritage List just this year. According to UNESCO, the property includes four archaeological sites in two clusters which span close to two million years, one of the longest records of early man in a single locality, and the oldest outside the African continent.

The Lenggong Valley property features open-air and cave sites with Palaeolithic tool workshops which are evidence of early technology. The number of sites found in the relatively contained area suggests the presence of a relatively large, semi-sedentary population with cultural remains from the Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Metal ages.

Malaysia actively supports the World Heritage Convention and is privileged to have these exceptional places placed on the List. The Malaysian government has accepted special responsibility to protect these unique places from damage, deterioration or destruction.

In addition, Malaysia also has two natural sites on the tentative World Heritage list working their way through the nomination process. Both Taman Negara National Park in Peninsular Malaysia and Lanjak Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary (LEWS) with Batang Ai National Park (BANP) in Sarawak were placed on the tentative list in 2004.

Interestingly, of the 190 different State Parties to the World Heritage Convention, 157 State Parties have been awarded at least one World Heritage Site. However, the average number of World Heritage Sites per State Party is five. Right now, Malaysia has only four World Heritage Sites. However, Malaysia is full of amazing natural and cultural sites. It would be a lasting legacy to future generations of Malaysians if the government could identify and nominate additional natural and cultural sites for placement on UNESCO’s tentative list to determine if they too might meet the World Heritage ‘best of the best’ standard.

Dr. Lisa Marie King is a senior research fellow and senior lecturer at Curtin Sarawak Research Institute (CSRI). Prior to joining CSRI, Dr. King held various academic and administrative positions in Australia and the United States. Dr. King’s diverse interests cover sustainable tourism, capacity building, environmental education, and the branding and marketing of tourist attractions such as national parks and World Heritage Sites as well as development of new tourism-related products and services. She can be contacted at +60 85 443939 ext. 5002 or by e-mail