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French cave paintings vie for Unesco status

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French cave paintings vie for Unesco status
A famed French cave filled with prehistoric paintings is poised for Unesco world heritage status. Photo: Jeff Pachoud/AFP
13:24 CEST+02:00
The site of ancient cave paintings in France, which are some of the world's oldest, is expected to be granted Unesco World Heritage protection this week. The cave is nearly twice as old as France's famous Lascaux grotto.

A decision is due from Unesco committee members meeting in Doha on Thursday or Friday for the stunning drawings at Chauvet Cave, which are some of the world's oldest man-made paintings.

At some 36,000 years old the paintings at Chauvet are twice the age of those at the so-called Sistine Chapel of Prehistory in Lascaux, France, which have had Unesco protection since 1979. The drawings at Lascaux were only discovered in 1994 after having lay hidden beneath a rock slide for 20,000 years.

Altogether, at least 30 natural and cultural sites, including the Erbil Citadel in Iraq's Kurdistan, are vying to get the United Nations cultural body's prestigious distinction and add their names to an already 981-strong list.

Inclusion on the list has significant economic implications as a World Heritage site is eligible for financial assistance towards preservation and the coveted status is also a powerful draw for tourists.

The June 15-25 World Heritage Committee gathering will also mull whether to put London's Westminster Palace on its list of endangered sites.

And in a first for a developed country, Australia is asking that large swathes of its Tasmanian Wilderness -- one of the last expanses of temperate rainforest in the world -- be delisted to make way for loggers.

Age-old cave paintings

Submitted by France, the Chauvet Cave, located in a limestone plateau of the meandering Ardeche River in southern France, contains more than 1,000 pictures -- many of which feature animals such as bison, mammoths and rhinos.

Because the cave was only discovered 20 years ago by spelunkers, more drawings are expected to be found in remote parts of the grotto. 

The cave is completely closed to the public and a replica is due to open in 2015. In contrast Lascaux was open to the public for nearly 15 years from 1948. The carbon dioxide from visitors in those early years and a fungus possibly spurred by an air conditioning system in recent years have damaged the paintings. 

In May experts from gave a favourable recommendation to granted world heritage status to Chauvet, however committee members have the final say. 

Westminster Palace warning

The committee, which consists of representatives from 21 countries elected for six years, will also use the Doha meeting to issue warnings.

It has, for instance, raised concern that there are too few restrictions governing the development of skyscrapers in London, which it says could affect Westminster Palace, a World Heritage site.    

The committee warned that "there do not seem to be defined settings or overall agreed constraints in place to ensure that new tall buildings do not impact on important views and other attributes of the property".

Australia delisting

Australia will also be under scrutiny, with two of its most high-profile protected areas facing threats to their status as World Heritage sites.

The Great Barrier Reef, one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, is considered in poor health and UNESCO is mulling whether to downgrade its status to "World Heritage in Danger" at the Doha meeting.

It is under growing pressure not just from climate change and the destructive coral-eating crown-of-thorns starfish, but agricultural runoff and rampant coastal development linked to mining.

Another of Australia's natural wonders under threat is the Tasmanian Wilderness, which covers nearly 20 percent, or 1.4 million hectares, of the southern island state.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who favours more access for loggers, has requested UNESCO remove its World Heritage status from 74,000 hectares (183,000 acres) of the area, claiming it was not pristine -- but this could be rejected at the meeting.

The nominated sites have already been examined by two consultative bodies that transmit their positive or negative recommendations to the committee, although these are not always followed.

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