The Earth is an amazingly diverse place, home to a vast number of plants, animals and ecosystems. But thanks to global warming, pollution, and plain old human interaction, a number of places around the world are now threatened, fragile and rapidly disappearing.
If you hope to catch these places in person, you should book your tickets now; not only are they disappearing, but in some places, governments and conservation agencies are reducing tourism opportunities to protect these delicate destinations before they’re gone for good. Interested? Then check out our list of eight incredible “last chance” vacation sights and destinations.
Mt. Kilimanjaro Ice Fields, Tanzania
The highest peak in Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano and popular climbing destination, unusual in that it has an ice cap despite its equitorial location. But its snowy peak is rapidly disappearing. Scientists aren’t sure why, but global warming is one possible cause. Other glaciologists suggest that the melt has more to do with decreasing moisture levels than warmer temperatures, while still other experts claim that deforestation is a factor in the melt.
Whatever the cause(s), it’s clear that some environmental factor is causing the glacier to shrink at a rapid rate. The ice began its disappearance in 1912, with a small percentage melting each year. From 2000-2007, 26% of the remaining ice fields disappeared, for a total loss of 85% since 1912. If the melt continues at its current pace, experts anticipate that Kilimanjaro will become ice-free between 2022 and 2033.
Photo credit: Gary Craig
The Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
First made famous by Charles Darwin because of their amazing biodiversity, the Galápagos Islands have been recognized throughout the past 30 years as a marine reserve, a whale sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a biosphere reserve. The islands are home to a number of unique species, including iguanas, sea lions, sea cucumbers, and the famous Galápagos tortoise. Additionally, there are many native bird species, such as the Galápagos penguin, the flightless cormorant, the blue-footed booby, albatrosses, hawks, mockingbirds and “vampire” finches.
Unfortunately, many of these animals have been threatened by the invasive, non-native species that have been introduced to the island (many by pirates!), which include cats, dogs, goats, rats, pigs, chicken and insects. Not only do the invasive species prey on the native ones, they also compete for food and resources. In addition, human interaction and tourism have further complicated problems on the island, and in 2007, UNESCO included the islands on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Fortunately, Ecuador has worked hard to protect the Galápagos, and the efforts have paid off. In 2010, UNESCO removed the islands from the danger list, which means they might just be around a little longer. However, one of the measures in place restricts tourists to the islands, so if you’re planning a visit, make sure to take that into account.
Photo credit: Nicolas de Camaret
Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica
This jungle in the northern part of Costa Rica is rich with wildlife, including “30 kinds of hummingbirds and 420 types of orchids,” not to mention a variety of jungle frogs. Fortunately, the government of Costa Rica has taken action to protect this valuable resource. In 1972, the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve was established; it protects more than 35,000 acres and “encompasses eight life zones atop the Continental Divide. There are over 100 species of mammals, 400 species of birds, and 1,200 species of amphibians and reptiles living within its bounds. It’s one of the few remaining habitats that support all six species of the cat family – jaguars, ocelots, pumas, oncillas, margays, and jaguarundis – as well as the endangered three-wattled bellbird and resplendent quetzal.”
Nevertheless, this delicate ecosystem is being threatened by climate change and deforestation, and not only has the Monteverde harlequin frog already disappeared, but the clouds themselves, which provide much-needed precipitation to the forest, are gradually evaporating, too. Here’s hoping more government measures will be enacted to protect this natural treasure.
Photo credit: Squirmelia
The Wildlife of Borneo
Loggers and palm plantations are threatening the environment of Borneo, the world’s third largest island, which is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. As a habitat, Borneo is incredibly diverse; it’s home to orangutans, Asian elephants, Sumatran rhinos, the Hose’s Civet, the Dayak Fruit Bat, and the Bornean Clouded Leopard, and more than 350 new species have been discovered on the island since 1996. But their populations are in danger as their habitat is systematically destroyed. The rainforest was damaged by fires in the late 1990s, which were started to clear land, and the aforementioned logging and palm farming have cut large swaths from land that used to be rainforest.
Despite these obvious threats to wildlife, protection measures are difficult to put in place, because the Indonesian government says that creating jobs is more important than protecting the environment. Furthermore, according to Wikipedia, “In February 2008, the Malaysian government announced the Sarawak Corridor of Renewable Energy plan to harvest the virgin hinterlands of Northern Borneo. Further deforestation and destruction of the biodiversity are anticipated in the wake of logging commissions, hydroelectric dams and other mining of minerals and resources.” With plans like this in place, it’s safe to say that things aren’t looking good for all that wildlife.
Photo credit: Cede Prudente
Everglades National Park, Florida
Everglades National Park is one of the most interesting habitats in the United States; it’s home to a number of bird and animal species, as well as varied plant life. The subtropical wetland stretches more than 100 miles through Florida and contains multiple interlinked ecosystems, including, “sawgrass marshes, cypress swamps, estuarine mangrove forests, tropical hardwoods hammocks, pine rockland and a marine bay.” According to Wikipedia, 26% of animals native to the Everglades are exotic — more than anywhere else in the country — and the region is home to one of the highest percentages of exotic plant life in the world.
Unfortunately, it’s fading before our eyes, and is already half the size it once was, thanks to irrigation and development projects. Compounding the problem are invasive species, including plants such as the climbing fern, as well as fish, pythons and cats, who prey on the bird population. In 2000, the government undertook a massive conservation effort to protect the park, and in 2009 the Everglades received $146 million in recovery funds, but its future is still fragile. Visit while you still can.
Photo credit: National Parks Service
The Arctic Polar Bears
The beautiful, snow-colored polar bear is in serious trouble. These cold weather creatures live on ice caps, but global warming is melting the glaciers of the arctic, destroying both the bears’ habitat and food supply. During the Bush administration, 30 million acres of polar bear habitat was leased for oil exploration purposes, and now the National Wildlife Federation says that the bear is facing serious extinction threats.
According to the NWF, “As available sea ice decreases, polar bears have to swim farther to find suitable habitat and it takes much longer to find a meal. Compounding the problem, sea ice loss also impacts polar bears’ main food source — seals.” And MSNBC says that if the global warming trend continues at its current pace, we can say goodbye to these arctic bears — permanently — by 2050. To join the fight for polar bears, sign the NWF’s petition to the EPA or adopt a polar bear through the World Wildlife Fund.
Photo credit: Amanda Graham
Forest Bridge of the Americas
This land bridge, which connects Mexico to Panama, is home to more than 100 million people, as well as historical sites such as the Tikal National Park in Guatemala, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the largest kingdoms of the ancient Maya. The bridge is also one of the most biodiverse places in the world. According to Forbes, “the area contains more than 7% of Earth’s diversity in just .5% of its land mass. But nearly 80% of the forest has disappeared along with entire habitats, according to the Nature Conservancy.”
The Nature Conservancy isn’t letting it go without a fight, though. In 2008, the organization announced that they were preserving this strip of land by working to “implement forestry certification programs, improve fire management, establish payment for ecosystem services and empower local growers to develop sustainable land-use practices…These strategies will enable us to strengthen the management of 2.5 million acres of protected forests and certify an additional 100,000 acres under sustainable management.” Let’s hope it’s working.
Photo credit: Sjoerd van Oosten
African Grasslands and Savannas
The savannas and grasslands of Africa are some of the oldest habitats on the planet; many species of large mammals have lived there for thousands of years. Forbes reports that the grasslands are home to “millions of elephants, wildebeest, gazelles and zebra, as well as rare species like the Grevy’s zebra and black rhino.” Unfortunately, these precious lands are under threat from climate change, overgrazing and poaching. The Grevy’s zebra population had dropped from 15,000 to 2,500 by last year, mostly due to poaching, and the savanna elephant’s numbers have declined from millions in the 1990s to a few hundred thousand, because of habitat loss. Plus, it’s not only large mammals who are threatened. Smaller animals, such as the African wild dog, are decreasing in number, and by 2011, only a few thousand remained on the savannas. Plants such as the baobab and ebony tree are also endangered.
Fortunately, places like the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya are working to protect these endangered species; however, even sanctuaries like the reserve aren’t a guarantee that the wildlife will persevere. A study by the World Wildlife Fund, which tracked populations in the reserve, found that “losses were as high as 95 percent for giraffes, 80 percent for warthogs, 76 percent for hartebeest, and 67 percent for impala,” and blamed the animal decline on “increased human settlement in and around the reserve,” claiming, “The study provides the most detailed evidence to date on the declines in the ungulate (hoofed animals) populations in the Mara and how this phenomenon is linked to the rapid expansion of human populations near the boundaries of the reserve.”
Photo credit: Gossipguy
Although these eight destinations are all unique and beautiful, they are by no means the only threatened ecosystems and species on the planet. In fact, there are so many that the concept of “last chance” travel is actually booming. It presents a unique paradox: people want to experience these places before they disappear, but in many cases, tourism is part of the problem. The best solution seems to be traveling is as conscious a way as possible, by enjoying what nature has to offer, without damaging it in the process. And it seems clear that the greener we all live our lives, the greater the chance these unique plants, animals and environments have for surviving.
Featured image: Shutterstock.com