The Belize Barrier Reef System, a 190-mile coral sample that includes famous sites such as the Great Blue Hole, has been removed from UNESCO's list of endangered sites after a general campaign to protect the structure , said the UN agency Tuesday.
The landmark, designated a World Heritage Site in 1996, is home to nearly 1400 species and has been hailed as one of the most biodiverse marine sites on the planet. But the reef spent most of the last decade on UNESCO's "danger" list due to threats from oil exploration, loss of mangroves and illegal land sales.
About 200,000 people, or half of Belize's population, depend on the reef for their livelihoods and environmental groups have long warned that lack of protection could endanger both the multimillion-dollar tourism sector and animals endangered species living in the region, including manatees and hawksbill turtles.
The government heard and in December, after years of campaigning, officials issued an indefinite moratorium on all oil exploration and exploration in the country's waters, a measure that UNESCO said justified its removal from its endangered list.
"The reserve system of the Belize coral reef … It is an outstanding natural system consisting of the largest coral reef in the northern hemisphere, atolls on the high seas, several hundred sand cays, forests of mangroves, lagoons and estuaries, "the agency said in its description of the region. "The seven sites of the system illustrate the evolutionary history of reef development and constitute an important habitat for threatened species, including the sea turtle, the manatee and the American marine crocodile."
Environmental groups praise the news, but call for continued action to protect marine sites that face a lot of threats, from overfishing to warming the sea.
"The Belizean government deserves great credit for partnering with the NGO sector and taking concrete steps to safeguard this truly special marine landscape, and that work will continue," said Nicole Auil Gómez, Belize's director for the Society of Conservation of Wildlife of Belize, in a statement. "We remain optimistic that smart and effective conservation measures, with a focus on long-term commitments that lead to results, can help save endangered World Heritage sites before they disappear."
Marco Lambertini, director of the World Wildlife Fund, credited a campaign of public activism among Belizeans to help secure the safeguards, which he said showed that "it is possible to reverse the loss of nature and create a sustainable future."
"We have seen an incredible change since the threat of the reef through seismic tests for oil just 18 months ago," Lambertini told Agence France-Presse. "The Belizeans stood up to protect their reefs, with hundreds of thousands more around the world joining the campaign to save our shared heritage."
Despite the encouraging signs, many of the world's corals still face an increasing threat in the form of climate change, including the world's largest structure, Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Earlier this year, scientists said that mbadive coral bleaching events have become so frequent that many reefs do not have enough time to recover between episodes.