Must-See Global Eco Hotspots

Written by  Verge June 19, 2009

Attention eco-conscious travellers! This special destination section scans the map for the planet's top biological hotspots. From historical landmarks to reefs and forests, here are 13 eco hotspots you need to see—and ways you can make your travels contribute to their conservation.

ANTARCTICA

Location: Bottom of the world.

What's so special? Home to eight species of whale, six sorts of penguin, four kinds of lichen and 32 million cubic kilometres of ice, the white continent is a seemingly endless sculpture of snow and abundant life. It is impossible for visitors not to be moved—Antarctica hints at what this planet may have been like before we etched our mark on it. It may be the last refuge on earth where wildlife can look humans in the eye unafraid. Even today, there are no permanent human residents; in this sense, the continent's harsh climate is its greatest asset.

Pressures: Climate change poses the greatest and most imminent threat to the polar regions. Both Antarctica and the Arctic are warming about two to three times faster than the rest of the world. Scientists estimate that over 13,000 square kilometres of Antarctic sea ice has melted in the last fifty years. The implications are far from certain, but melting ice caps will likely contribute to the rise of global sea levels and affect the entire planet.

 

Get involved: Canadian-based Students on Ice offers learning expeditions to Antarctica. The programs are all educational, beginning with preparatory study and research, and the expeditions include seminars and lectures by polar experts.The programs are all educational, beginning with preparatory study and research, and the expeditions include seminars and lectures by polar experts. Many other ship-based tours to Antarctica also host a range of scientific experts on board—check out GAP Adventures, Peregrine Adventures or Quark Expeditions.Many other ship-based tours to Antarctica also host a range of scientific experts on board—check out GAP Adventures, Peregrine Adventures or Quark Expeditions. The trip of a lifetime, a visit to Antarctica is no doubt an education—and hopefully one that is motivating more and more visitors to take action on climate change.

While you're there: Be careful not to walk on or otherwise damage the mosses and lichens. Harsh conditions mean that growth and regeneration of plants is extremely slow, and damage from human activity can last for decades. Most tour operators have very strict guidelines for visitor behaviour onshore, to help minimize the impact of tourism to this unique part of the world.

 

WESTERN AUSTRALIA, SOUTHWEST TIP

Location: A roughly triangular area in the state of Western Australia, about half the size of Alberta. It stretches along 1,000 kilometres of coastline on each side of Perth (to Denham in the north, and Esperance to the southeast) and inland to Merredin.

What's so special? In a country already cut off from the rest of the world, the southwestern tip of Western Australia is particularly isolated. Separated from much of the country by desert, many plant species can be found nowhere else in the world. The region's karri trees—a type of eucalyptus endemic to the region—are among the tallest trees on earth, with individual trees growing up to 80 metres in height.

Pressures: A number of species are endangered in the area, but the western swamp turtle is the most at-risk reptile in Australia and among the most threatened freshwater turtle species in the world. There are less than 100 of them found in the wild, though conservation efforts have increased their numbers. Logging, agricultural practices and introduced species like foxes and cats are threatening the natural habitat of many endemic plants and animals.

Get involved: Local conservation groups have organized a number of ambitious projects, and extra hands are welcome. Help with planting, collecting seeds, organizing events, or assisting researchers. Gondwana Link connects to many local groups looking for volunteers.

While you're there: Don't miss Albany, five hours southeast of Perth where, if you're lucky, you'll be able to spot humpback and southern right whales. Divers can head to the HMAS Swan, a prepared wreck offshore. Albany is also a good place to get up close to nature: the 1,000 kilometre long Bibbulman Track begins here, and offers hikers up to eight weeks of trekking through breathtaking forests and coastal scenery.

 

MADAGASCAR AND THE INDIAN OCEAN ISLANDS

Location: Western Indian Ocean, off the southeast coast of Africa.

What's so special? The island of Madagascar is only about 1.9 percent the size of continental Africa, but it holds a remarkable 5 percent of the world's plant and animal species. Around 160 million years ago, Madagascar broke off the super-continent, Gondwanaland. Plants and animals evolved in their own peculiar ways, in complete isolation from mainland Africa. As a result, Madagascar is home to an astonishing array of wildlife not to be found anywhere else in the world, including lemurs (an endangered primate that looks suspiciously like the result of a romantic encounter between a cat and a raccoon), more than 200 species of birds and nearly half the world's chameleon species. Of the country's 222 amphibians, only one can be found elsewhere in the world.

Pressures: Today, only about 10 percent of Madagascar's original forest cover remains—mostly due to agriculture practices like slash and burn, rice cultivation and cattle grazing. Hunting, mining activity and timber extraction are all real threats.

Get involved: Azafady works to promote forest conservation in Madagascar through environmental and poverty reduction initiatives, aimed to reduce pressure on resources. Reef Doctor takes on research assistants for 6 or 12 weeks, and trains volunteers to identify marine species along the coast of Madagascar. YouLead offers volunteer community service and teaching placements. For nearby islands, check out Global Vision International's Seychelles Marine Conservation volunteer programme, which combines scuba diving with collecting data on coral and fish, working on shark migration surveys and research on turtle nesting.

While you're there: Réserve Naturelle Intégrale des Tsingy de Bemaraha, in the west of Madagascar is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Forests of spectacular limestone pinnacles and a stunning display of wildlife make this reserve worth a visit. Renowned marine biologist Jacques Cousteau and his team once spent 6 months exploring Lac Vert, deep in the reserve.

 

EASTERN ARC FOREST, TANZANIA & KENYA

Location: Tanzania and Kenya

What's so special? This rugged series of mountain blocks towers above the coastal plains close to the Indian Ocean. Dubbed a continental Galapagos because of its enormous diversity of plants and animals, this habitat is home to the greatest concentration of endemic animals in all of Africa. Its proximity to the ocean means that rainfall is plentiful, even in the driest periods—enough to support wildlife not found elsewhere. One species of toad, the Kihansi spray toad, can only be found in the tiny two-hectare mist zone of Kihansi Falls in Tanzania. The forested mountains of the Eastern Arc are a critical a source of fresh water; almost 2.5 million people in Tanzania's capital, Dar es Salaam, are completely dependent on it.

Pressures: Most land in Kenya and Tanzania is dry, so the moist, fertile soil of the Eastern Arc Mountains is in high demand for agriculture. Forests in the area are being fragmented by small farms and plantations. And while large areas of forest are now protected by the Tanzanian government within national parks and forest reserves, there is still a significant amount of commercial logging as well as gathering for firewood and building material outside the protected areas.

Get involved:Frontier accepts five highly skilled volunteers every year to accompany scientists on a 10-week expedition to do hands-on investigations of undocumented tropical forests in Tanzania.

While you're there: Get yourself out to Pemba, an archipelago north of Zanzibar. The stunning white sand beaches and tropical forests see relatively few travellers. You can feel good about your visit: the Misali Island Marine Conservation Area uses tourism proceeds to protect the marine ecosystem, and support local communities that depend on the ocean's resources for their livelihoods.

 

KILIMANJARO

Location: North-central Tanzania near the Kenyan border.

What's so special? In 1868, a German missionary reported seeing a colossal mountain with snow on the summit, three degrees south of the equator. The response of the Royal Geographical Society in London was predictable. Rubbish—no such thing as snow at the equator.

One of the world's seven summits—the highest points of land on the seven continents—Kilimanjaro is one of the largest volcanoes in the world. It towers nearly five kilometres above the semi-arid plains of Northern Tanzania. Designated a UN World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve, the mountain and the national park which it occupies are visited by tens of thousands of travellers who attempt to reach the summit each year. This makes it an important source of revenue for the country. The area's abundant rainfall and rich volcanic soil support an incredible variety of flora, making the base of it a highly sought after area for agriculture, especially coffee plantations. In an arid country, the region is extremely important as a source of fresh water for the surrounding population.

Pressures: Unfortunately, too much of both tourism and agriculture have been practiced in an unsustainable way over the years, leading to deforestation, soil erosion, and pollution by agricultural fertilizers and pesticides. The national park is protected, but resources are stretched. Local tree planting and clean-up initiatives are helping.

Get involved:Volunteers For Peace can connect you to a variety of work camps run by the Tanzania-based organization UVIKIUTA. Work could involve reforestation, community service and education initiatives. Cross-Cultural Solutions offers projects for volunteers in Moshi, Tanzania, which is the starting point for many treks up Kilimanjaro. And Ventureco Worldwide offers a 12-week Kilimanjaro venture that combines travel and volunteer work in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania—including a Kilimanjaro climb.

While you're there: The celebrated journalist and author Alan Moorehead is reported to have said, "Anyone who can go to the Serengeti and does not, is mad." Every year around October, more than a million animals migrate from the hills in the north, toward the rains in the south, then make their way back again in April. And from May to early June, you can watch the annual migration of zebras and wildebeest as they search for water and food.

 

MANGROVES, SOUTHERN THAILAND

Location: Southern Thailand

What's so special? Even if you haven't been to Thailand, you're sure to recognize its plush turquoise waters from the blockbuster film based on Alex Garland's novel, ‘The Beach'—and the country really is as rich and diverse as the movie portrays. Key to the biodiversity are the mangroves—trees and shrubs that grow in saltwater habitats. They serve as nurseries for fish and support a wealth of wildlife on the water's surface like butterflies, birds, snakes, crocodiles and crabs.

Pressures: Mangrove forests in Thailand, as in other parts of the world, are disappearing quickly. In the area near Tha Po, it is estimated that more than half the mangroves have been destroyed to make way for commercial shrimp farms. And because shrimp farming has the potential to be so lucrative, this is not uncommon. In developing economies, where most mangroves are located, there are significant incentives to develop these high-yield operations.

Get involved:Projects Abroad offers volunteers the chance to do hands-on conservation work in Thailand, including beach cleanups and replanting mangrove swamps. The Mangrove Action Project is dedicated to conserving and restoring mangrove forests around the world; they offer research positions, work and eco-study tours in Thailand and other countries.

While you're there: The Ao Phang-Nga National Marine Park, on the Andaman Sea contains spectacular caves, rock formations and limestone cliffs. The best way to see its wonders is by canoe or kayak.

 

CORAL TRIANGLE, INDONESIA

Location: The Coral Triangle spans an underwater area of 5.7 million square kilometres, stretching from Eastern Indonesia through Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, parts of Malaysia, and the Solomon Islands.

What's so special? If you've travelled the world in search of the perfect diving site, this is it: scientists have called the Coral Triangle home to the richest marine life on the planet. This one underwater region supports 75 percent of all coral species known to science, and more than 3000 fish species.

Pressures: Scientists are adamant that the area needs environmental protection; it not only faces threats from over-fishing, but also from destructive fishing techniques, like fishing with explosives and cyanide. The human population in the area is immense and over two million fishermen are dependant on this marine life for their livelihood.

Get involved: The Nature Conservancy's Coral Triangle Center is dedicated to preserving the area's marine life. They take on volunteers in various locations in Indonesia for conservation projects.

While you're there: When in Indonesia, most visitors will head to Bali—possibly Indonesia's best known, picturesque beaches on the Indian Ocean. But if you feel like venturing off the beaten track, try Lombok instead. It's less developed than Bali, and its beaches are said to be even more striking.

 

SUNDALAND

Location: Borneo, Sumatra and about 17,000 surrounding smaller islands in the Indo-Malayan archipelago of Southeast Asia.

What's so special? The orangutans on the Sundaland islands have a certain celebrity appeal: even Julia Roberts dropped by a few years back to shoot a film and play surrogate mother for a day to a three-month old orangutan named Hughie. The region is best known for its large mammals: Sumatra and Borneo are the last remaining habitat to the highly endangered orangutan, and Java and Sumatra are home to the last of two Southeast Asian rhino species.

Pressures: Destruction of the forest is threatening the natural habitat of these mammals—and their populations are in rapid decline. Vast areas of forest have been cleared for commercial uses like rubber, and palm oil production. The Indonesian government's transmigration programme, which moves urban populations to rural islands, has increased pressure on the biodiversity of these smaller islands. Fires have become a significant threat since logging can create flammable conditions.

Get involved: Orangutan Foundation International (www.orangutan.org) offers volunteer opportunities and well as study/tours to the frontlines of the orangutan conservation effort in Indonesian Borneo. Volunteers help orangutan conservation by assisting in the improvement of the infrastructure of Tanjung Puting National Park and surrounding reserve areas.

While you're there: About 13 kilometres north of the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur are a remarkable series of caves and temples, known as Batu Caves. Local tribes are said to have known about the caves for a while, but they only became world-renowned when they were discovered in 1878 by an American naturalist. Also on your agenda, should be the Taman Negara National Park, a dense rainforest that is home to elephants, tigers, leopards, rhinos, monkeys and extensive birdlife.

 

MESO-AMERICAN REEF

Location: Caribbean coast of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras

What's so special? Aptly referred to as the jewel of the Caribbean, the Meso-American Reef is the largest coral reef system in the Western Hemisphere and the second largest in the world. These inviting turquoise waters teem with life: the reef is home to the largest population of manatees in the world, as well as several dolphin species and the mammoth whale shark—the world's biggest fish. Over 65 species of stony coral and 500 species of fish also thrive along its 700-kilometre length. Even Jacques Cousteau was impressed; the renowned explorer and pioneer for marine conservation filmed here, documenting some of the area's underwater wonders. Over two million people in the area depend on the reef for their livelihood.

Pressures: Some experts predict that within fifty years, many reefs like this one will be lost. Coral bleaching—an effect that scientists link to warming water temperature from climate change—is a particular issue. Visit the reef now, and contribute to efforts to document—and better understand—the ecosystem.

Get involved:Global Vision International supports and assists the work of local NGOs and government groups, international NGOs and universities on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef Survey. Volunteer divers assist with data collection, marine monitoring, awareness initiatives, education and a number of other conservation projects.

While you're there: Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula has some of the world's most remarkable archaeological sites. Chichen Itza, the most famous of the Mayan ruins in the region, is located in the northern centre of the Yucatan. The Tulum ruins, located on the east coast overlooking the ocean, are a Mayan walled city that used to serve as a port.

 

NEW ZEALAND

Location: Down under.

What's so special? Some of the most varied and spectacular landscapes on the planet are crammed into the series of islands that make up New Zealand. Snow-capped mountains surround glacial valleys, rainforests contrast with volcanic plateaus. Isolated from other continents longer than any landmass outside the polar regions, New Zealand's ecosystem is distinct. None of its indigenous mammals, amphibians, or reptiles can be found elsewhere in the world. Kiwis' appreciation of their natural assets have served them well—one third of the country is protected by parks and reserves, and many visitors are drawn to this part of the world because of its natural beauty.

Pressures: Conservation-mindedness here stems not just from Kiwis' appreciation of their natural surroundings—but also their incredible vulnerability. Introduced species—both animals or plants—can wreak havoc with the ecological balance here. Problem species, like the Australian possum, have caused widespread damage to the natural environment. Today, the New Zealand Department of Biosecurity greets every arriving visitor to inspect the state of their boots and the contents of their luggage, in an attempt to safeguard against future eco-invasions.

Get involved:Global Volunteer Network offers hands-on programmes ranging from two to 12 weeks in the Wellington region; projects include working in wildlife reserves, forests, coastlines, and offshore islands. Pacific Discovery offers four-week programmes that combine conservation work with educational travel.

While you're there: Fiordland, a region on the southwest corner of South Island, is a must see. Hike or kayak amidst jaw-dropping scenery in this dramatic national park. Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain in the Southern Alps, is an idyllic place for hikers or climbers.

 

TAHUAMANU RAINFOREST, THE AMAZON

Location: Tahuamanú province of Peru, near the jungle border with Brazil and Bolivia.

What's so special? Some of Latin America's last remaining stands of old growth mahogany rainforest are found in the Tahuamanú Rainforest. The region borders on Peru's vast Manu National Park—more than 1.8 million hectares of biosphere reserve. This is home to nearly 15 percent of the world's known species of birds, 13 kinds of monkeys and the elusive giant otter, or "river wolf" as it is called by the local people. The giant armadillo also finds refuge here and jaguars are often sighted in the park. Four indigenous groups inhabit the park, and many of these people have had little or no contact with the outside world.

Pressures: While Manu National Park is strictly protected, the mahogany rainforest outside its boundaries is not. Highly valuable old-growth mahogany and cedar trees have been the target of large-scale illegal logging.

Get involved:Projects Abroad offers a number of conservation oriented volunteer placements in the Peruvian Amazon near Puerto Muldonado. They even manage their own reserve, where they conduct projects to monitor wildlife, contribute to wildlife conservation and develop sustainable livelihoods. A Mahogany plantation project, aiming to provide local people with sustainable sources of income, is particularly exciting and promising.

While you're there: Few visitors to Peru pass up an opportunity to see Machu Picchu. This Lost City of the Incas is perched high in the mountains near Cusco, at an altitude of 2,430 metres. Take the train from Cusco—or if you fancy a challenge, take a two to four day hike up the Inca trail.

 

CLOUD FORESTS, ALTO CHOCO RESERVE, ECUADOR

Location: Northern Ecuador, not far from Quito.

What's so special? Cloud forests are nature's water towers, producing billions of litres of fresh clean water for the earth. Located in tropical and subtropical mountainous areas, where cloud and mist shroud the cool mountain slopes, they capture water that would otherwise never fall as rain. The Choco reserve in Ecuador is just one of a string of cloud forests that extend from Panama to Northern Argentina. It is home to some amazing and rare species, including South America's only bear (the Andean or spectacled bear), the dwarf deer and a significant variety of orchids.

Pressures: Large areas of South America's cloud forests have been cleared; habitat fragmentation has contributed to the vulnerability of several species, including the Andean bear. While local groups are trying to create corridors connecting reserves, conservation must compete with industry. The recent discovery of copper and gold in the area near Alto Choco has sparked interest in the region on the part of the local government and big businesses.

Get involved:Fundación Zoobreviven is a South American charity dedicated to protecting Ecuador's natural environment, including its cloud forests. They are responsible for the management of Alto Choco, and they welcome volunteers who want to help. Alternatively, i-to-i also arranges placements in Alto Choco, where volunteers assist with reforestation and environmental education.

While you're there: Perhaps the country's biggest attraction is the Galápagos Islands—an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, off the Ecuadorian coast. Sometimes dubbed "the Enchanted Islands," the Galápagos is made up of 13 large islands, 6 smaller ones and 107 rocks and islets. An island not to be missed in the area is Isla Bartolomé, where you can climb a volcanic cone with a view of the area. And don't miss out on the underwater life here: where else could you come beak-to-snorkel with a penguin?

 

ATLANTIC FOREST REGION OF BRAZIL

Location: Southern Brazil, Northeastern Argentina, and Eastern Paraguay.

What's so special? The Atlantic Forest has long been isolated from other tracts of rainforest on this continent, and has developed distinct vegetation in three different altitude zones. A key biological centre, it houses some unique residents like the golden lion tamarind and the woolly spider monkey. A staggering one in 20 of the planet's vertebrates can be found here.

Pressures: The coverage of the Atlantic Forest used to be far more extensive—more than 90 percent has been cleared. What's left of the forest is in fragmented patches, leaving valuable plant and animal species in isolation from one another. Sugarcane and coffee plantations are responsible for a large part of its destruction, but one imminent concern is urban growth.

Get Involved:Iracambi is a Brazilian non-profit organization focused specifically on the conservation of the Atlantic forest. Volunteers tackle tasks like land-use management, forest restoration, GIS mapping and community education. Biosphere Expeditions offers educational expeditions to study jaguars and pumas in Brazil's Atlantic forest and assist with conservation efforts.

While you're there: Along the border of Brazil and Argentina are a cluster of about 270 waterfalls of up to 80 metres high—the Iguaçu Falls. Most of the falls are actually on the Argentinean side, but arguably the best views are from the Brazilian side of the border. You decide—for the full experience, why not visit both sides?

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