World Commission on Protected Areas

Caves and Karst Protected Areas

The Caves and Karst Specialist Group consists of karst specialists from around the world. The group operates to provide support, advice and liaison regarding cave and karst protection and management around the world. The science of speleology is broad and comprehensive and there are many different specialties and interests within the field of cave and karst protection. As such, membership of the Caves and Karst Specialist Group is diverse.
Thien Duong Cave in Phong Nha Ke Bang National Park

Specialist Group Leader

Mrs Jay Anderson



Terms of Reference

The specific terms of reference are:

  1. Fostering the proper protection of important caves and karst areas;
  2. Advising land managers and others on problems in the management of karst areas;
  3. Providing advice on the assessment of sites for World Heritage listing on behalf of IUCN and in keeping with its advisory role to the World Heritage Convention; and
  4. Fostering international co-operation and liaison on issues in cave and karst protection or management.

Significant Achievements

The Group prepared and published guidelines for management of caves and karst (IUCN Guidelines for Cave and Karst Protection (Watson et al Eds, 1997). This involved input from many hundreds of land managers, researchers, cave explorers and others throughout the world. One of the special characteristics of karst studies is that speleologists make an immense contribution through not only exploring, mapping and documenting caves, but working with researchers and developing a high level of expertise in the very special science of speleology. More recently, members were involved in other IUCN Publications, which include:

The continuing action of the group involves:

  • Advice and consultation regarding assessment and management of karst systems;
  • Undertaking study and research in various aspects of karst and speleology;
  • Organising and Participating in Workshops, Conferences and Publications involving cave and karst protection and management; and
  • Regular liaison and collaboration with International colleagues on issues in cave and karst protection or management.

History of the Group

The World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) Caves and Karst Specialist Group was created primarily to establish an informal network of people with interests in the specific issues of protecting cave and karst environments. The CKSG has been in existence under different names, for over 20 years now. Originally established by John Watson at the 1992 World Parks Congress in Venezuela, it was then referred to as the “Network on Cave Protection and Management” and structured within the IUCN Commission on National Parks and Protected Areas (CNPPA). The CNPPA later changed its name to the World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA – around 1996) and the Network became known as the IUCN Working Group on Cave and Karst Protection (later being referred to as the Caves and Karst Task Force).

Those involved in co-ordinating and facilitating the group are:

  • John Watson 1992- 1997
  • Elery Hamilton-Smith 1997-2009
  • Mrs Jay Anderson 2009 to current

More recently, after an internal review by IUCN, a new category was formed within WCPA and a number of “Taskforce’s” became a “Specialist Group”. Thus this group is now called the Caves and Karst Specialist Group (CKSG).  The continuing action of the CKSG involves promoting best practice cave and karst management to countries and regions that contain caves and karst systems.

The significance of Karst Systems

It is known that karst landscapes are extremely important places for a range of reasons, with considerable values, but they are also extremely vulnerable and sensitive environments. It is very important that governments, land managers and others who visit karst areas understand the dynamic processes of the karst environment and the best practice principles for managing these environments. Speleology as a discipline is broad and encompasses many disciplines that are involved in the study and documentation of the karst environment. This includes geology, biology, hydrology, palaeontology, archaeology and many other sciences.

Karst results from the solution of rock, most commonly from being dissolved in carbon dioxide rich waters. Karst landscapes are characterised by such features as caves, dolines, poljes, blind valleys and other depressions; karst pinnacles or towers; gorges and pavements, and the fact that drainage is normally totally subterranean. This underground drainage may percolate relatively slowly over immense distances, but it may well also utilise giant conduits which allow very rapid flow. This may allow pollution to be transported over great distances.

Thus it is important to understand the great complexity of a karst system and recognise the way in which all of its elements are interactive. Moreover, it is often significantly shaped by neighbouring natural systems and is impacted, often negatively, by human actions both on the karst and in that neighbouring region. This concept challenges us to recognise and manage the total system because perturbation of any one element is likely to change other elements.

Internationally, the karst landscape has great significance on a number of levels – most important is its role as a water resource, however, the hydrology of karst areas is important for a number of other relationships, including biodiversity.

Daoxian (1998) outlined that karst is a system comprised of:
A) karst features
B) mineral resources
C) soluble rock & residual soil
D) karst hydrological system (water & air)
E) atmosphere system (surface & subsurface atmosphere) and
F) karst biotic community (fauna and flora)

As a complex, inter-connected system, karst is predominantly reliant upon particular rock types –thus geology is at the foundation of karst. However, karst is both a landscape and a special environment with a number of significant processes. As well as containing mineral resources, it is also a sensitive habitat with unique and specialized fauna. Additionally, it is an aquifer and has special values to humans, both from a practical as well as a cultural and spiritual perspective. As a sensitive environment, it involves many complex interactions. From an organizational perspective, karst is not just about geology, as it relates to biology as well as a number of other different sciences. 


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