What makes nature worth preserving?

I used to think fish were disgusting and ugly. The truth is, I had only seen dead fish. Swimming with anything from Garibaldi (Hypsypops rubicundus), a bright orange fish that likes to attack the shiny hook that attaches my camera to my body, to barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda), silvery shine and terrifying teeth, has changed my perception.

Perception is based on experience and social doctrines. When people see fish as what’s on their plate, or the slimy dying organisms that fishers pull out of lakes, they don’t see the beauty. Sure, they might watch some Blue Planet or binge on National Geographic while shoving cheap fish sticks into their mouths, but there is a disconnect. The pretty images of a giant school of fish seem distinct from what they eat—and that despite the fact that we actually call fish fish when we eat it. It would be even worse if we had a distancing synonym like venison instead of baby cow.

But it’s not just organisms that are easy to misjudge. The Wadden Sea might look like nothing but boring mud from a distance, but a closer look shows that UNESCO protected something precious when they added the largest tidal flats system to their lists in 2009. The Wadden Sea spans Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, covering a total of nearly 11,500 kilometers (roughly 7,000 miles)

The Wadden Sea is not only home to thousands of species, but also a resting and feeding ground for many more migratory bird species, among them multiple endangered ones.

But what makes something valuable enough to be added to the World Heritage list?

Creating an international movement for the protection of this planet’s most valuable sites was the main topic of the 1972 Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Originally, there were two movements concerned with the preservation of cultural sites and natural sites independently. I’m not quite sure combining them was the right choice, but we’ll get to that.

To rescue the Aswan High Dam in Egypt from flooding, an endeavor that cost about 80 million US dollars, about 50 countries worked together. After the successful completion of the project, UNESCO initiated protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, including recommendations for the protection of such sites.

With the foundation for the protection of sites like the Aswan High Dam came the World Heritage List which lists the protected sites, as well as the World Heritage Fund, an annual fund of about 4 million US dollars to help preserve these sites. Today, decades later, the mere addition to the list inscribes sites with a value that leads to international cooperation and financial assistance from all over the world.

While there are some downsides to the tourism attraction of these sites, growing public awareness brings funds to where they are needed.

With many other sedimentary coasts resembling the Wadden Sea, it might not be immediately clear what makes the Wadden Sea special enough to deserve this attention. First-time visitors might not see how integral the area is to global biodiversity, dismissing it as nothing but mud. I mean, I used to. In the official documents of the UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the reason for adding the Wadden Sea is listed as “outstanding universal value,” so one might wonder why exactly the Wadden Sea was chosen.

Six cultural and four natural criteria are used to determine if something should be added to the UNESCO list. The criteria range from “representing a masterpiece of creative genius” to “contain the most important and significant natural habitat for in-situ conservation of biological diversity.”

The reliance of millions of migratory birds alone would likely qualify the Wadden Sea as World Heritage using the latter criterion. However, there were other contributing factors, such as the mere size of the Wadden Sea. Covering 60% of the Northern Atlantic coast, a length of some 550 kilometers, the influence of the Wadden Sea is undeniable. Three criterions were cited when the Wadden Sea was inscribed. The list lays out the Wadden Sea as “the last remaining natural large-scale intertidal ecosystem where natural processes continue to function largely undisturbed,” lists it as the home of thousands of species and migratory stop for millions of individual birds, and the distinctive features of the Wadden Sea coastline. All this distinguishes the Wadden Sea from other mudflats and tidal flats.

The UNESCO list currently features 1,154 properties, with 52 of them currently in danger. Getting on the list alongside other important sites, such as the Grand Canyon in the US or the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia, underlines the universal importance of the Wadden Sea for the planet’s future—even though it looks like nothing bud mud.

When I looked into the types of locations that make it onto the list, I found that there are a shitton of cultural sites, but I was surprised by how few natural sites make it onto the list. To stay with the Wadden Sea, I had a look at Germany.

In Germany, the Wadden Sea is one of three natural World Heritage sites alongside the European beech forests and the Messel Pit Fossil Site. It is noteworthy that two of the three natural sites in Germany are transnational properties and belong to not just Germany but other European countries. In the case of the Wadden Sea, the Trilateral Wadden Sea Cooperation, Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands take joint responsibility for the Wadden Sea.

I will be the first to tell you that I don’t like Germany much, but even I see the beauty in some of Germany’s landscapes. And while I agree that protecting our cultural heritage is important, we need to emphasize the importance of our natural world. After all, we are animals, not some higher power, so why is preserving our individual culture of such higher priority than preserving this beautiful planet.

Why does a site need to be home to millions of birds to be seen as indispensable enough to protect? What about our smaller or less pristine pockets of nature, especially those that humans destroyed?

If only the most significant sites can be protected with the resources currently reserved for this kind of conservation work, it is up to the rest of us to take care of the rest of this planet. It is our responsibility as humans to work to preserve not just the bare minimum but as much of this planet as possible. And maybe, just maybe, we need to get our heads out of our asses, and stop pretending like our cultural heritage is worth more than the very existence of our home.

“What makes nature worth preserving?” might be the wrong question to ask. Instead of asking if someone is worth preserving, maybe we should ask if something is worth the risk of exploiting it. Let’s turn the question around. Let’s set a deep respect for nature, each other, humanity, and the rest of the animal, and plant kingdom of this planet as the default, instead of the last consideration. We are animals, so we should stop acting like Matrix-style alien species taking over the planet.

Ask yourself this: if there was a species more adapt at taking over our planet than us, would you want to be treated this way?



  1. https://www.waddensea-worldheritage.org/
  2. https://whc.unesco.org/en/convention/