Join us on a photo tour of some of the world's most endangered natural gems.
10 Natural Wonders to See Before They Disappear
Going once, going twice…some of the world's most enchanting places might not make it through this century. Here are 10 places you may not have realized are threatened—and how to experience them responsibly.
You've heard the grim timelines: if warming continues, the Great Barrier Reef will be bleached by 2030; glaciers in the Swiss Alps, on Mt. Kilimanjaro, and in Glacier National Park will disappear in under 40 years; and Arctic ice melt will leave the North Pole bare and polar bears extinct. The immediacy of these timelines prompts flocks of curious eco-tourists to travel to environmentally fragile areas. Tourism is both bane and boon: it can add strain to already distressed areas, but it can also provide income, which in turn can help preserve these wonders. In time for Earth Day, we spotlight 10 areas under threat—some lesser known than others—that can still be visited responsibly. Should you decide to plan a journey, we've recommended our favorite tour operator for each destination. In some cases the price tag may be higher than your average vacation, but consider it an investment in Mother Earth.
BELIZE BARRIER REEF
One of the most diverse reef ecosystems in the world is home to whale sharks, rays, and manatees, as well as sturgeon, conch and spiny lobsters.
The Threat: Like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Belize Barrier Reef leads a tenuous existence. A section of the nearly 700-mile-long Mesoamerican Reef that reaches from Mexico to Honduras, the Belize reef suffered a severe bleaching in 1998, with a loss of 50 percent of its coral in many areas, including much of its distinctive staghorn coral. Since the bleaching, its decline has continued, due to global warming of the world's seas, agricultural pollution, development, and increasing tourism, which has given rise to more coastal development and an invasion of cruise ships.
Get There: Go with Journeys International, founded by former conservation workers, on an 8-day "Cayo and the Caye" journeyinto Belize's rainforest that includes kayaking into river caves, a side trip Guatemala, a visit to the Mayan ruins at Tikal, and, finally, a three-day-stay on an island in the reef (from $2,825 per person, excluding airfare).
THE CONGO BASIN
Tropical rainforests like the Congo Basin produce 40 percent of the world's oxygen and serve as a vital source of food, medicine and minerals.
The Threat: At more than 1.3 million square miles, the Congo Basin has the world's second-largest rainforest, after the Amazon's. According to the UN up to two-thirds of the forest and its unique plants and wildlife could be lost by 2040 unless more effective measures are taken to protect it. Extending across six nations, ten million acres of forest is degraded each year due to mining, illegal logging, farming, ranching, and guerilla warfare. Roads cut by loggers and miners have also enabled poachers and bushmeat hunters to prey on endangered animals like mountain gorillas, forest elephants, bonobos, and okapis. As the forest shrinks, less carbon dioxide is absorbed, and rain decreases, adding to climate change.
Get There: Gabon, to the west of the Congo, is considered safe for travel, and tour operator Responsible Travel will pair you with local guides who work with the Wildlife Conservation Fund on an 8-day journey to view elephants, chimpanzees, and gorillas in the wilds of Loango National Park (from $3,430 per person, excluding airfare).
THE DEAD SEA
It's the lowest spot on earth (1,312 feet below sea level), has 10 times more saline than seawater (so humans float like corks), and is believed to contain therapeutic minerals.
The Threat: In the last four decades, the Dead Sea has shrunk by a third and sunk 80 feet—13 inches per year!—stranding formerly seaside resorts and restaurants nearly a mile from shore. The Jordan River is the lake's sole source, and as surrounding countries increasingly tap its waters, little reaches the Dead Sea, which could disappear within 50 years. Further pressure is put on the sea by the cosmetic companies and potash producers who drain it for minerals. One proposed solution is the controversial Red-Dead Canal, channeling water 112 miles from the Red Sea, but its environmental impact could be negative (some worry that it would increase seismic activity in the region).
Get There: The Rift Valley on Jordan's side of the Dead Sea is a contrast of sand, red rocks and canyons, with reserves protecting endangered Nubian ibexes, oryxes, and gazelles. Gap Adventures offers an 8-day journey combining a Dead Sea visit with a stop at Wadi Rum, the 6th-century Nabatean ruins at Petra, and an overnight in a Bedouin tent (from $1,099 per person, excluding airfare).