African heritage sites in danger as the planet warms

  • Dozens of African monuments threatened by climate impacts
  • The ruins of Carthage, Sabratha and Mount Kilimanjaro are in danger
  • Lack of Funding, Research Hinders Conservation Efforts

NAIROBI, Nov 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – From the snow-capped summit of Mount Kilimanjaro to the ruins of the ancient Tunisian city of Carthage and Senegal’s slave island of Goree, Africa has a wealth of famous cultural and natural heritage sites.

But the effects of climate change, from rising temperatures to worsening floods, now threaten to condemn these and dozens of other African landmarks in the history books.

Environmentalists and researchers said that as rich nations scramble to protect their cultural monuments from harsh weather and rising seas, African nations face additional hurdles such as a lack of funding and a dearth of archaeological expertise.

said Nick Simpson, Research Associate in the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town.

“Africa has already suffered from the widespread loss and damage attributed to human-caused climate change: biodiversity loss, water shortage, food loss, loss of life, and declining economic growth. We cannot afford to lose our heritage either.”

I have already surrendered some historical monuments.

For visitors to the historic colonial slave forts scattered along the West African coast, an important ritual is to pass through the “Gate of No Return” – a centuries-old entrance that leads directly from the castle to the beach.

The custom pays tribute to the millions of Africans who were forcibly removed from their homeland during the transatlantic slave trade, tracing their final steps as they were herded from dungeons through the door to slave ships – and never to return.

But on the site of the Danish fortress Prinzenstein holding slaves in Ghana in the 18th century, the original metal entrance and adjacent lane are now lost.

“The main door of no return was swept away by the tidal waves a long time ago,” said James Oklo Accorly, the acting UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Africa has about a fifth of the world’s population, but produces less than 4% of global carbon dioxide emissions, the main driver of climate change.

Despite this, the continent is disproportionately affected by climate impacts such as droughts and floods, underscoring the need for countries to invest in projects that protect infrastructure and improve resilience.

At the UN Climate Summit COP27 in Egypt, which began on Sunday, world leaders will discuss how much financial assistance rich countries should provide to developing countries to help them deal with the effects of global warming.

Stamps, floods and erosion

There is no comprehensive data on the total number of African Heritage sites at risk, but Simpson-led research on coastal sites found that 56 sites are already facing flooding and erosion, exacerbated by rising sea levels.

And by 2050, if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current path, that number could triple to 198 sites, according to the study, published in the scientific journal Nature Climate Change in February.

The study found that places at risk include the majestic ruins of the Roman Numidian port of Sabratha in Libya, the ancient Punic-Roman trade center in Tipasa and archaeological sites in North Sinai in Egypt.

She added that the island of Kunta Kinte in the Gambia and the village of Aniho Glidje in Togo – both linked to the history of the slave trade in Africa – are also at risk.

A wide range of sites of exceptional natural value are also extremely vulnerable as rising temperatures are causing glaciers to melt, leading to sea level rise and increased coastal erosion.

These biodiversity-rich hubs include the Curral Velho wetlands in Cape Verde with its unique flora and migratory birds and Aldabra in the Seychelles, one of the world’s largest upland atolls, and home to the Aldabra giant tortoise.

“African sites are really in danger due to climatic disturbances,” said Lazar Eloundo Asomo, Director of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

“We see hurricanes, we see floods, we see erosion, we watch fires. I would say climate change is one of the major challenges that World Heritage faces now – and in the future.”

Osumu said he is particularly concerned about sites such as Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania, which is expected to lose its glaciers by 2040 and is experiencing an increasing prevalence of wildfires.

Heritage and tourism at stake

As climate change threatens the future of Africa’s natural and cultural riches, jobs and tourism associated with heritage sites are also at risk.

This could spell disaster for tourist attractions such as slave forts in Ghana, indigenous rock art in Namibia, and the wildebeest migration of Kenya’s Masai Mara, which together attract large numbers of visitors and millions of dollars in annual tourism revenue.

In Ghana, for example, castles have not only shaped the country’s history but have also become pilgrimage sites for African diasporas looking to reconnect with their roots and honor their ancestors.

Events such as Ghana’s “Year of Return” in 2019, marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first recorded African slaves to the Americas, saw record numbers of African Americans and Afro-Europeans visiting the country for heritage tours.

In Namibia, tens of thousands of visitors arrive each year to see some of Africa’s largest collections of rock art, generating much-needed income for local communities in the sparsely populated South African nation.

Ancient rock paintings and engravings, including the UNESCO World Heritage site, Twyfelfontein, were created by Saint-hunters long before the arrival of Damara herders and European colonists.

But archaeologists fear climate-related flash floods, dust, and the growth of plants, fungi, and desert animals searching for water near these sites, which pose a threat to the art’s survival.

From Indonesia to Australia, archaeologists have discovered the effects of climate change such as rising temperatures, floods, and wildfires causing blistering, peeling, and even rock eruptions at important sites of ancient art.

Independent Namibian archaeologist Alma Mikongo Nankila fears the same lies in her country’s heritage of rock art.

“We can already see that the artwork is deteriorating and is actually deteriorating very quickly,” she said, adding that most of the factors that led to the deterioration “are likely related to climate change.”

She added that there was an urgent need for funding and resources to increase understanding and tracking of long-term climate changes over the years.

In Kenya, wildlife conservationists say one of the world’s most famous natural heritage attractions – the exodus of wild animals – is also at risk.

The migration, one of the greatest scenes of animal movement on earth, sees hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle make their annual journey from Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park across the border to Kenya’s Masai Mara.

The scenery attracts legions of safari-goers every year, eager to witness the iconic sightings of wild animals jumping from hungry Nile crocodiles as they cross the Mara River.

Tourism—mostly concentrated in the Masai Mara safari—is a major economic pillar of Kenya, providing jobs for more than two million people and representing about 10% of the East African nation’s GDP.

But conservation experts say the mass migration is threatened by increased droughts and floods in the delicate Mara ecosystem, depriving wild animals of grazing lands.

This affected the number of animals migrating to Kenya, and the period of their survival.

“Wildlife migration occurs later and stays for a very short time,” said Yusuf Watto, director of the wildlife program at the non-profit WWF Kenya.

“And then, because the rain is late to the Mara, or because it rains in the Serengeti for so long, they don’t come to the Mara because they have enough pasture on the other side.”

More research and resources needed

But despite the potential far-reaching consequences of climate-related loss and damage to African heritage sites, the threats have received far less attention than the risks to other cultural and natural attractions in wealthier nations.

One study estimates that only 1% of research on the impacts of climate change on heritage is associated with Africa, despite the fact that the continent has been on the front lines of global warming for decades.

“We need more national archaeologists,” said David Blurdo, assistant professor at the French National Museum of Natural History in the Department of Human and Environment, who leads an archaeological team in Namibia’s Irungo region.

“We need more training for Namibian students, funding, and the Namibian Heritage Council to hire more archaeologists,” said Bloordo, who works with Namibian archaeologist Nankela.

Some countries such as Ghana and Egypt have made huge investments in building sea defense walls to protect their coastal sites.

But Simpson said such “strong protection” strategies often do not take into account future sea levels and could distort the site’s natural ecological balance.

Mixed protections that include natural infrastructure such as rock walls combined with salt marshes, seagrass or restored mangroves to slow the movement of waves, can be more effective.

He added that it is also necessary to improve management around threatened sites and ensure the participation of local communities in conservation and protection efforts.

Back at Fort Prinzenstein, caretaker Accorley points out some words engraved on the rickety back wall of one of the few remaining slave dungeons: “Until the lion has a historian, the hunter will always be a hero,” he reads.

“A lot of times history can be distorted,” Accorley said. “Sites like this tell us the painful truth. That’s why we need to take care of it – we need to know what happened in the past, so we can learn in the future.”

Originally posted at:

Nita Bhallanitabhalla reports; Additional reporting by Kim Harrisburg in Namibia and Kent Mensah in Accra. Editing by Helen Popper. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Go to

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