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Do you know your Ramsars from your elbow?

10 July 2012

The Ramsar conference happening right now in Bucharest, Romania, is a celebration of the only global convention that protects the world’s vital wetlands. Ramsar is a big name in the conservation world - but how much do you know about it? Were you aware, for example, that there are more ‘Ramsar sites’ in the UK than in any other country?

The most important site for wintering birds in Algeria, Ramsar zone, El Kala National Park

Named after the place where the convention was originally signed in 1971 (Ramsar on the shores of the Caspian Sea in northern Iran), the number of locations designated ‘Ramsar sites’ has increased dramatically in the past four decades as more and more countries have realised the importance of their wetlands.

WWF is one of the five partner organisations behind the Ramsar convention, along with BirdLife International, IUCN, International Water Management Institute and Wetlands International.

This week’s meeting of the members of the ‘Convention on Wetlands of International Importance’ is a chance to assess progress, share knowledge and experience on technical issues, and plan work for the next three years.

The Ramsar mission is “the conservation and ‘wise use’ of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution toward achieving sustainable development throughout the world”.

Ramsar uses a broad definition of ‘wetlands’ to include lakes and rivers, swamps and marshes, wet grasslands and peatlands, tidal flats, mangroves and coral reefs, as well as human-made sites like reservoirs, rice paddies and fish ponds.

‘Wise use’ of wetlands is defined as “maintaining their ecological character”. Not all Ramsar sites are in protected areas or nature reserves. They’re often ‘working wetlands’, where people live, fish, grow food and transport goods - so there’s a high risk of over-exploitation. A Ramsar designation is meant to guard against this.

Worldwide Ramsar sites range from pristine reefs in the Coral Triangle, or the world's largest wetland, South America's Pantanal, to high altitude wetlands in the Himalayas or lakes in Africa’s oldest national park, the unique wilderness of Virunga, which is both a UNESCO World Heritage site and a Ramsar site - and is currently under threat from planned oil explorations.

Altogether Ramsar sites cover more than 193 million hectares - that’s nearly 2 million km2, or about three times the size of France.

It’s a little-known fact that the UK has more Ramsar sites than any other country - about 170 out of the world total of over 2,000. Admittedly 24 of those 170 sites are in overseas UK territories, like Bermuda, or the splendidly named Inaccessible Island in the mid-Atlantic.

As well as the more obvious accumulations of birds and fish, wetlands can also be home to rare reptiles, invertebrates and plants. Not to mention providing services that are essential to human well-being - from fresh water supplies to natural beauty and recreation.

Our latest Living Planet Report made it clear that people are exceeding the planet’s ecological limits on all fronts, but freshwater ecosystems are particularly vulnerable and have been the habitats impacted most severely over the past 40 years.

It’s also the availability of fresh water that will have the biggest impact on future food, water and energy security.

Fresh water is the lifeblood of our economies and societies - that’s why we’re consistently calling on governments and businesses to protect and restore freshwater ecosystems.

You can…

Check out the Ramsar website for a full list of locations, plus maps and even a Google Earth view of the wetland sites

Find out more about how we're helping protect rivers and lakes in the UK

Leave a comment below to say what wetlands mean to you - or tell us your favourite...

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A water’s eye view of the River Kennet, England

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