Africa’s heritage sites at risk as the planet warms

  • Numerous African landmarks are threatened by climate impacts
  • Ruins of Carthage and Sabratha, Kilimanjaro in danger
  • Lack of funding, research hampering conservation efforts

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

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

As rich nations scramble to protect their cultural landmarks from extreme weather conditions and rising sea levels, African countries face additional hurdles such as funding constraints and a lack of archaeological expertise, conservationists and researchers said.

“These places are places we learned in school – they are our identity and history. You are irreplaceable. If we lose them, we will never get them back,” said Nick Simpson, Research Fellow at the African Climate and Development Initiative at the University of Cape Town.

“Africa has already experienced widespread losses and damage resulting from human-caused climate change: biodiversity loss, water scarcity, food loss, loss of life and reduced economic growth. We cannot afford to lose our heritage too.”

Some historic landmarks have already died.

An important ritual for visitors to the historic colonial slave forts dotted along the West African coast is passing through the “Door of No Return” – a centuries-old door that leads directly from the citadel to the shore.

The custom pays homage to the millions of Africans forcibly displaced from their homes during the transatlantic slave trade, and mimics their final steps as they were led out of the dungeons through the door onto slave ships – never to return.

But Ghana’s 18th-century Danish slave holding post, Fort Prinzenstein, now lacks the original metal door and an adjacent passageway.

“The main gate of ‘No Return’ was swept away by the tidal waves long ago,” said James Ocloo Akorli, Caretaker of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Africa has about a fifth of the world’s population but produces less than 4% of global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause 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 COP27 UN climate summit in Egypt, which begins on Sunday, world leaders will debate how much financial support rich countries should give to developing countries to help them deal with the effects of global warming.


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

By 2050, if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trajectory, that number could more than triple to 198 locations, according to the study, published in February in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Sites at risk include the imposing ruins of the Numidian-Roman port of Sabratha in Libya, Algeria’s ancient Punic-Roman trading post at Tipasa and Egypt’s archaeological sites in North Sinai, the study found.

The island of Kunta Kinteh in Gambia and the Togolese village of Aneho-Glidji – both linked to the history of the African slave trade – are also in danger, it said.

A number of Sites of Outstanding Natural Value are also at extreme risk as higher temperatures are melting glaciers, raising sea levels and causing more coastal erosion.

These include centers of rich biodiversity such as the Curral Velho wetland in Cape Verde, with its unique vegetation and migratory birds, and Aldabra in Seychelles, one of the largest coral atolls in the world and home of the Aldabra giant tortoise.

“African sites are really, really at risk because of climate change,” said Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center.

“We see typhoons, we see floods, we see erosion, we see fires. I would say climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing World Heritage now – and in the future.”

Assomo said he was particularly concerned about sites like Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, which is expected to lose its glaciers by 2040 and increase wildfire outbreaks.


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 attractions like Ghana’s slave forts, Namibia’s native rock art and the wildebeest migration in Kenya‘s Maasai Mara, which together draw hordes of visitors and millions of dollars in annual tourism revenue.

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

At events like the “Year of Return” in Ghana in 2019, which marked the 400th

Tens of thousands of visitors come to Namibia 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.

The ancient rock paintings and engravings, including the UNESCO World Heritage site of Twyfelfontein, were created by San hunter-gatherers long before Damara herdsmen and European colonists arrived.

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

From Indonesia to Australia, archaeologists have identified effects of climate change such as B. more variable temperatures, flooding and wildfires causing blistering, flaking and even rock explosions at important sites of ancient art.

Independent Namibian archaeologist Alma Mekondjo Nankela fears the same lies will be applied to her country’s rock art heritage.

“We can really see that the artwork is deteriorating, and very rapidly,” she said, adding that most of the factors causing the deterioration “are likely related to climate change.”

She added that funds and resources are urgently needed to better understand and track long-term climate changes over the years.

In Kenya, one of the world’s most famous natural heritage attractions — the wildebeest migration — is also at risk, conservationists say.

The migration, one of the greatest spectacles of animal movement on Earth, sees hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebra and gazelle on their annual migration from Serengeti National Park in Tanzania across the border into the Masai Mara in Kenya.

The sight draws hordes of safari-goers each year eager to witness the iconic scenes of the wildebeest running the gauntlet to hungry Nile crocodiles as they cross the Mara River.

Tourism – much of it centered on safaris in the Masai Mara – is a major economic pillar of Kenya, employing more than 2 million people and accounting for about 10% of the East African nation’s gross domestic product (GDP).

However, conservation experts say the great migration is under threat due to increasing droughts and floods in the Mara’s delicate ecosystem, which are depriving the wildebeest of grazing land.

This has affected the number of animals migrating to Kenya and the length of their stay.

“The wildebeest migration happens later and they only stay for a very short time,” said Yussuf Wato, wildlife program manager at WWF Kenya, a conservation nonprofit.

“And then because the rains are delayed in the Mara or the rains in the Serengeti continue, they don’t come into the Mara because they have enough pasture on the other side.”


But despite the potentially far-reaching consequences of climate-related loss and damage to Africa’s cultural heritage sites, the threats have received far less attention than the risks to other cultural and natural landmarks in wealthier countries.

One study estimates that only 1% of research on the impact of climate change on cultural heritage is linked to Africa, despite the continent having been at the forefront of global warming for decades.

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

“We need more education for Namibian students, more money and for the Namibian Heritage Council to hire more archaeologists,” said Pleurdeau, who works with Namibian archaeologist Nankela.

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

But Simpson said such “hard protection” strategies often fail to take into account future sea levels and can upset the site’s natural ecological balance.

Hybrid protection that includes natural infrastructure such as rock faces combined with salt marshes, seagrass or restored mangroves to slow wave action may be more effective.

It is also important to improve stewardship around threatened sites and ensure local communities are involved in conservation and protection efforts, he added.

Back at Fort Prince’s Stone, Caretaker Akorli points to a few words engraved on the ramshackle back wall of one of the few remaining slave dungeons: “Until the lion has a historian, the hunter will always be a hero,” it reads.

“Often the story can be skewed,” Akorli said. “Sites like this tell us the painful truth. So we have to take care of them – we have to know what happened in the past so we can learn in the future.”

Originally) released on:

Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla; Additional reporting by Kim Harrisberg in Namibia and Kent Mensah in Accra. Editing by Helen Popper. The Thomson Reuters Foundation is the non-profit arm of Thomson Reuters. visit

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