EARTH DAY

10 Most Precious Places on Earth—And How to Save Them

In 2007 the Galapagos were considered endangered—today they're not. If only all of our planet's treasures could be so lucky. In honor of Earth Day, we present 10 places our world depends on most—and how you can help preserve them.


The Amazon

At current deforestation rates, 55 percent of the Amazon's 1.4 billon acres of rain forests could be gone by 2030. (Overexpansion of agriculture, illegal logging, and climate change are all to blame.) The rain forests, which are home to 30 million indigenous people and one-tenth of the world's known species, also contain up to 140 billion metric tons of carbon, which helps stabilize the global climate.

Donate: Founded by a pair of tropical ecologists in 1999, the Amazon Conservation Association works to protect the region's biodiversity. amazonconservation.org

Go green: Ecuador-based Tropic introduces visitors to the Huaorani, an indigenous Amazonian tribe whose members lend tips on tree climbing, kayaking nearby rivers, and face painting with achiote paste. Travelers bunk at an eco-lodge run by the Huaorani, and meals are crafted from local produce. 202/657-5072, tropiceco.com. Five-day trips from $860 per person. 


The Alps

Increased carbon dioxide emissions are causing glaciers in the Alps to melt rapidly; according to scientists, most of them could be gone by as early as 2030. In some areas of the 600-mile mountain range, glaciers are shrinking by 3 percent every year. This obviously has dire implications, both in terms of physical catastrophes (massive flooding, which would impact the Alps' 13 million residents) and economic disasters (the Alps thrive on ski tourism, with more than 120 million annual visitors). In 2006, a Swiss ski-resort owner devised a creative solution to keep glaciers cold: He wrapped one in a 43,000-square-foot fleece blanket. Other resort owners soon followed suit and scientists have since experimented with wool, hemp, and plastic coverings. Also at stake: the region's 30,000 animal species and 13,000 plant species.

Donate: The World Wildlife Foundation's European Alpine Program is dedicated to preserving the region's biodiversity. wwf.panda.org

Go green: If you're traveling with Utah-based Alpenwild, expect to use public transportation, sleep in local inns—and see incredible scenery. The company's Best of the Alps tour leads hikers through lush forests and picturesque villages before hitting Zermatt, at the base of the Matterhorn, and the Jungfrao Mountains, home to the Aletschgletcher, Europe's longest glacier. 800/532-9488, alpenwild.com. From $3,495 per person.


By the year 2020, we could lose...


Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Founded in 1925, Africa's oldest national park covers nearly two million acres and includes savannas, swamps, and ice fields. It also contains the highest biological diversity of any national park in Africa, with 2,000 plant species, 706 bird species, and 218 mammal species, including hippos and one-third of the world's mountain-gorilla population. Virunga has been in trouble for nearly 20 years—poaching and habitat destruction are to blame—but a huge problem is its location: it sits near a war zone. The park lies within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but borders Rwanda. Rebel soldiers from the Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (believed to have been involved with the Rwandan genocide in 1994) operate within the park, and more than 140 rangers have been killed in the line of duty since 1996. Virunga's hardwood forests are also being destroyed to support an illegal charcoal trade—if that keeps up, most of the trees in southern Virguna will disappear in 10 years.

Donate: Give directly to Virunga National Park; your money goes towards guarding mountain gorillas (you can pick an individual animal or an entire gorilla family to protect) and other conservation efforts. gorillacd.org

Go green: Safely visit the park with Congo-based Kivu Travel, which offers a five-day Gorilla and Volcano tour that includes a climb up the Nyiragongo volcano and a visit to Virunga's gorillas. kivutravel.net. From $1,650 per person.


Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Stretching 1,429 miles, Australia's Great Barrier Reef is the world's largest and most diverse reef system—and it could be gone in 100 years. Coral cover alone has been reduced by half in the last 50 years, and the GBR as a whole only has a 50 percent chance of survival if global CO2 emissions aren't cut by at least 25 percent by 2020. It's no surprise, then, that climate change is partly to blame. (Another culprit: agricultural run-off from farms, which affects water quality and creates algae blooms.) When the ocean warms up, the higher temperatures harm the more than 2,900 coral reefs, along with its 1,500 species of fish, 134 species of sharks and rays, 30 species of marine mammals like whales and dolphins, and 23 species of marine reptiles, including sea snakes and turtles. According to the World Wildlife Fund, more than 1,000 starving turtles washed up on Australian shores in 2011. Their main food source, sea grass, had been wiped out by erratic weather like floods and cyclones. Australia's economy also depends on the reef: Industries like tourism and fishing rake in an annual $5.4 billion and employ 63,000 people.

SEE THE PLACES

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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