The Assessment Report

Aims and expected outcomes

The objective of the work is to identify new marine sites with potential Outstanding Universal Value in the Indian Ocean and, in particular, in areas under the jurisdiction of: Comoros, France (Mayotte & LaReunion), Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, South Africa and Tanzania. This identification is based on a thorough analysis of exceptional ecological and biological marine features in the Indian Ocean.

Furthermore, the project is serving as a pilot initiative toward applying a more science-based approach for the identification of new potential marine World Heritage sites globally. Over the mid-long term, it is envisioned that the science-based framework developed for this region, will be replicated to other marine ecoregions which are equally non- or underrepresented on the World Heritage list.

The project is expected to provide an overview of marine areas with potential Outstanding Universal Value in the Western Indian Ocean, and particularly in areas under the jurisdiction of Kenya, Tanzania, France, South-Africa, Madagascar, Comores, Mozambique, Seychelles and Mauritius. While the World Heritage Convention does not apply to areas beyond national jurisdiction, the project will not necessarily exclude those areas.

Composition of the scientific team

The overall project is coordinated by UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre (Marine Programme) in cooperation with IOC-IODE, Flanders Marine Institute and IUCN.

A scientific team was established in September 2011, and is led by Dr. David Obura, head of the Kenya-based organization CORDIO.
Dr. David Obura, an expert in marine ecology within the Indian Ocean, and two other key experts in marine biology/ecology are applying a science-based approach for the project, and are tasked with the development of a regional comparative assessment which is being developed on the basis of thorough analysis of existing references on exceptional marine features in the Indian Ocean. The baselines assessment designed by the science team will be fine-tuned through a regional marine experts meeting, planned for 14-16 February 2012.

The final report is available at:


The overall aim of this assessment is the identification of marine areas in the Western Indian Ocean (WIO) that could potentially be of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV). The challenge is to identify features and sites that exemplify the exceptional value and integrity of sites required to meet the criteria of OUV necessary for consideration for the World Heritage List.

The assessment did not involve any new research, but is based on analysis and synthesis of existing data and information following a three-step approach. The first step focused on identifying the key physical and biological features of the WIO that contribute to its uniqueness on a global scale. The second step considered and reviewed historical expert-led biogeographic and biodiversity prioritizations of sites in the region, as well as additional data and information from the literature or supplied by experts. The third step built up a list of those sites in the region that exemplify the features identified in step 1, that also are of sufficient integrity and scale, and with existing or potential management structures to maintain these features into the future against real and potential threats.

1) Unique regional features: The WIO has been recognized as a distinct region within the broader Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific biome by a variety of historical studies (Briggs 1974, Kelleher et al. 1995), most recently embodied in the Marine Ecoregions of the World (MEOW) classification developed by Spalding et al. (2007). The latter document explains the hierarchical classification that defines the Realms, Provinces and Ecoregions, with the distinctive features relevant to the WIO described in the companion document by Spalding (2012). Within the WIO, Spalding et al. (2007) identified 9 Ecoregions, with additional support for these in Obura (in review) based on a detailed study of scleractinian corals. Obura (in review) extends the biogeographic analysis of Spalding et al. (2007) to include geological and oceanographic features that drive the region’s uniqueness on a global scale. Together, these provide a framework for describing those features of the WIO that make individual sites and zones globally unique.

We identified features in the WIO relevant to criteria 7, 8, 9 and 10 of the World Heritage List that make it unique, and on the basis of which OUV can be assessed. The main features were grouped into:

  • Geology – the plate tectonics and hotspot activity of the Indian Ocean;
  • Oceanography – major currents and productivity processes that define biological linkages of the Ocean, and its sub-regional structure;
  • Biogeography – the overall distribution of species across the WIO and how this reflects the historical and present-day processes that have led to the suite of species and habitats present today;
  • Habitats – the major and unique habitats and ecosystems in the WIO;
  • Species – species of special concern, and that are unique, or show unique patterns and behaviours on a global scale; and
  • Representation – sites that are representative of some of the above features, as well as showing the mosaic of features typical of the region that is distinct from other parts of the world.

The first part of the results describes each of these in detail, with a focus on how they are manifest in the WIO.

2) Information sources: The primary sources of data include the two ecoregional prioritization exercises conducted for the mainland East African coast (WWF 2004) and the Indian Ocean Islands (RAMP-COI, unpublished). These studies considered a range of data, focusing on environmental factors driving biological patterns and ecoregional boundaries, habitat distributions and representation, and species diversity patterns. They were based on compilations of data where possible (see Appendix for list of variables), examples of these being temperature, currents, bathymetry and cholorophyll, for physical environmental variables, and maps of mangrove, coral and seagrass as examples of habitat distributions.

Species diversity was considered on the basis of reported species presence and species richness at individual sites, where such data is available, such as in Marine Protected Areas where surveys have been conducted in the past. It is important to note, however, that rigorous geographic databases for species and habitat distributions are not available for the WIO. Richmond (2001), Griffiths et al. (2005) and Wafar et al. (2010) all note the exceptionally large gaps in species distribution records across the WIO and the Indian Ocean. The same is true for habitat distributions, which are largely derived from localized studies or unverified interpretations from satellite images. These render quantitative assessments of habitat and species distributions inaccurate, requiring an approach based on expert knowledge to extrapolate beyond existing datasets. Both the WWF (2004) and RAMP-COI (unpublished) studies followed this approach, and this study builds on these interpretations with new data and additional insights.

An expert workshop will be held in La Reunion, from 14-16 February 2012, at which initial findings of this analysis will be presented to regional experts for comment and review, and consideration of additional features and sites if necessary.

3) Potential sites of Outstanding Universal Value: The final step is to identify a shortlist of sites that illustrate how the unique features of the WIO are expressed to the highest level at these locations. This approach emphasizes the fact that while many of the features are spread across the region, only a few sites express them to a sufficient level to meet the OUV criteria of the World Heritage Convention. At the same time, it is not only the sites mentioned here that might meet the criteria, and State Parties may consider other sites with sufficient value as alternatives. Following step 2, a priority list of sites was identified from which the sites presented here were selected. The selection criteria included representation of the features outlined in step 1, sites with the best expression of these at the regional and global?) level, and in some cases multiple features, values and criteria to maximize the values included in any once site.

The sites listed here are presented as examples of how the outstanding features of the WIO may be found and expressed at a particular site, in the context of criteria 7, 8, 9 and 10 of the World Heritage Convention. In the description of each site, the following aspects are presented:

  • Site name;
  • Geographic coordinates and boundaries of the represented features;
  • Description of the site – based on criteria 7 – 10 of the Convention, how one or more of the features listed above are outstanding for the WIO and globally;
  • Geographic scale – designation of a site may vary from small to large depending on many factors, and options for this with respect to exclusion/inclusion of multiple other features including human populations and threat sources will be discussed. A key issue of concern is the integrity of the site necessary to maintain its OUV, and how geographic scale may influence this;
  • Site type – whether a single, cluster or transboundary designation might be appropriate, and the pros and cons of each in the context of the features for which the site is selected;
  • Threats – a shortlist of known and potential future threats to the site, to give guidance in further stages should State Parties be interested in future nomination;
  • Management – a basic summary of existing or potential management approaches necessary to maintain the OUV of the site. Threats and management will be presented as brief sketches, and a full understanding of threats and management challenges would require in-depth socio-economic and contextual studies on a site by site basis.