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5 Places to Go Before They're Gone
For centuries, travelers have summited the glacier-covered peak of Mt. Kilimanjaro, trekked through the Amazon rainforest and marveled at the more than 50 species of lemurs on Madagascar. But increasingly, these and other ecological wonderlands are being threatened by environmental degradation — everything from global warming to deforestation to simple human neglect.
Eco-conscious travelers who want to see these places before they disappear often face a dilemma: Will their desire to leave a physical footprint result in a carbon footprint that will speed up the demise of these incredible and fragile destinations?
Not if those travelers embrace eco tourism, says Matt Kareus, director of marketing for Boulder, Colo.-based eco-travel company Natural Habitat Adventures. “The main benefit of eco tourism is that it offers a sustainable source of income to the people who live and work in endangered places,” says Kareus.
Locals ranging from tour guides to hotel maids benefit from eco travel, Kareus points out, because eco travel creates jobs that help keep locals from having to work for companies or industries that contribute to the degradation of their ecologically sensitive homeland.
Here’s a look at five global destinations in peril, plus links to sites where you can help ensure their preservation — whether through eco tourism or simply a donation to programs that protect and restore them.
1. South American rainforests
South America is home to the Amazon and Atlantic rainforests, both victims of deforestation.
The Atlantic Forest once spanned about 330 million acres in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, according to the Nature Conservancy. The rainforest, which includes the popular tourist destination Iguazu Falls, the largest waterfalls in the world, is home to 20,000 plant species and almost 950 types of birds.
Only 7 percent of the Atlantic Forest remains today in the wake of deforestation resulting from the growth of commercial sugarcane, coffee and soybean plantations.
But Conservation International reports that the Atlantic Forest region has been “the cradle of the Brazilian environmental movement,” with about 9.6 million acres under government protection. Another 2.8 million acres are under private protection in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay.
The Atlantic Forest Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund also makes grants to assist landowners in sustainable management, and supports small projects dealing with biodiversity conservation.
The 2.3-million-square-mile Amazon rainforest, which covers 40 percent of the continent and is home to more than 300,000 plant species, faces an ecological crisis but isn’t as imperiled as the Atlantic Forest.
According to Greenpeace, 15 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed, mainly by logging, mining and industrial agriculture. Another 1,700 square miles of the Ecuadorian portion of the rainforest is the subject of a $6 billion lawsuit against Chevron for allegedly dumping more than 18 billion gallons of toxic waste into it.
Greenpeace reports that about 1 percent of the Amazon rainforest is under Brazilian government protection through Extravist Reserves, but one of the most effective ways to help protect the Amazon is by buying only timber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as having been harvested sustainably.
2. Everglades National Park
This 1.5-million-acre area in Florida boasts coral reefs, cypress swamps, panthers and manatees, and is the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles co-exist.
According to the National Parks Conservation Association, since 1934, the Everglades has lost half its size and 90 percent of its wading bird populations, mainly because of development and pollution. Global warming is a serious factor in future Everglades erosion — the EPA predicts that the sea around Florida will rise 5 inches in the next 25 years, threatening the wide ring of mangroves that protects the freshwater Everglades from the seawater-filled Florida Bay and endangering thousands of species that can survive only in fresh water.
A massive federal, national and local relief effort is underway. NPCA reports that the Everglades Restoration Plan is expected to pour at least $8 billion into Everglades ecosystem restoration during the next 30 years.
3. Antarctica and the Arctic
Scientists are scrambling to predict how climate change will affect the polar ice caps that make up the Antarctic and Arctic, and how global warming might affect the polar bears, caribou, snowy owls and other species that call this frozen habitat home.
A new study by the British Antarctic Survey notes that the Antarctic Peninsula has undergone some of the fastest warming on Earth — nearly 37 degrees over the last 50 years.
The United Nations reports that the 20,000 polar bears that range across the Arctic are having to change their hunting patterns as the ice retreats, leaving fewer areas where they can hunt, and the bears are becoming smaller. The World Conservation Union predicts that the Earth’s polar bear population could drop 30 percent in the next 30 to 50 years.
There are a few efforts underway to limit global warming’s impact on the Arctic and save the native species. The U.N. Development Programme is one of them, working with local communities to better manage their ecosystems and protect the areas where polar bears live.
The fourth-largest island on Earth is astonishingly biodiverse. This tropical island off the southeast coast of Africa is home to eight plant families, four bird families and five primate families found nowhere else on Earth.
Madagascar is also home to two-thirds of the world’s chameleons, 50 species of lemur and the world’s most endangered tortoise, according to the World Wildlife Foundation. But inappropriate agricultural methods have almost completely deforested the central plateau of Madagascar, and Conservation International estimates only about 17 percent of the island’s original vegetation remains. In addition, according to WWF, rising sea levels caused by global warming are affecting the coral reef ecosystem around the island, along with the migration routes of turtles and whales.
Until recently, Madagascar’s rapidly growing population had little incentive to preserve its natural resources. But the government has launched a five-year environmental action plan, establishing national parks and nature reserves, and is asking for worldwide funding assistance. In addition, Conservation International has launched a $1 million program to support eco tourism in Madagascar.
5. Mt. Kilimanjaro
The glaciers on this 19,340-foot peak in Tanzania could be completely gone in 10 years, according to a variety of scientists who have studied Mt. Kilimanjaro. New research shows that climate change is the likely culprit for the melting ice caps, which have eroded from 12.5 square miles in 1889 to 1.5 square miles in 2003.
A 2004 University of Massachusetts study found that deforestation created less moisture in the atmosphere around Mt. Kilimanjaro, contributing to reduced cloud cover and precipitation and increased solar radiation — which likely contribute to glacial evaporation, notes another study by European and American researchers.
Though many researchers assert that little can be done to reverse the process, a Jane Goodall Institute program called Roots & Shoots is working to prove them wrong. The group’s new reforestation effort in Tanzania, called ReBirth the Earth, focuses on tree planting in the Mt. Kilimanjaro region and provides field training for 100,000 area students. The youngsters learn about alternatives to tree-cutting practices, managing water retention, and establishing nurseries of native-species trees.
Other ways to help save endangered places
While giving directly to organizations that support conservation in these ecologically sensitive areas is an excellent way to ensure that their wonders remain for future generations, there are also other things you can do to travel sustainably. Brian Mullis, president of Sustainable Travel International, a nonprofit education group based in Boulder, Colo., offers the following suggestions:
- Stay at eco lodges or hotels that use renewable energy, serve locally sourced food or make a point of employing locals. Check out greenhotels.com, greenstop.net, responsibletravel.com or ecotourism.org to find eco-friendly lodging.
- Offset the emissions from your plane, train, bus or car by either choosing a carbon-neutral travel guide company or buying carbon credits. You can calculate how much your air miles are costing the planet at the Natural Habitat website.
- Rent a hybrid car; many agencies now offer them.
- Consider a volunteer vacation that allows you to work on conservation projects. Charityguide.org’s Volunteer Vacations page is a helpful resource.