Linguistic diversity and conservation opportunities at UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Africa

L. J. Gorenflo, Suzanne Romaine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Africa contains much of Earth's biological and cultural–linguistic diversity, but conserving this diversity is enormously challenging amid widespread poverty, expanding development, social unrest, and rapidly growing human population. We examined UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Natural World Heritage Sites (WHSs) on continental Africa and nearby islands—48 protected areas containing globally important natural or combined natural and cultural resources—to gauge the potential for enlisting Indigenous peoples in their conservation. We used geographic information system technology to identify instances where Natural WHSs co-occur with Indigenous languages, a key indicator of cultural diversity. And, we compared the geographic ranges for 4 taxa and selected freshwater species with occurrence of all Indigenous languages within Natural WHSs and subsections of WHSs covered by the geographic extent of Indigenous languages to measure the correlation between linguistic and biological diversity. Results indicated that 147 languages shared at least part of their geographic extent with Natural WHSs. Instances of co-occurrence where a WHS, a language, or both were endangered marked localities particularly deserving conservation attention. We examined co-occurrence of all languages and all species, all languages and endangered species, and endangered languages and endangered species and found a correlation between linguistic and biological diversity that may indicate fundamental links between these very different measures of diversity. Considering only endangered species or endangered languages and species reduced that correlation, although considerable co-occurrence persisted. Shared governance of government-designated reserves is applicable for natural WHSs because it capitalizes on the apparent connection between culture and nature. Natural WHSs in Africa containing speakers of Indigenous languages present opportunities to conserve both nature and culture in highly visible settings where maintaining natural systems may rely on functioning Indigenous cultural systems and vice versa.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1426-1436
Number of pages11
JournalConservation Biology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


Dive into the research topics of 'Linguistic diversity and conservation opportunities at UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Africa'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this