Having been snatched from the very jaws of environmental disaster lends a certain added drama to these wilderness regions.
The intense battle to save Tasmania’s Franklin and Gordon Rivers from a hydroelectric dam, fought all the way to Australia’s High Court, was one of the greatest conservation victories of all time. These pristine rivers twist their way through deep rainforest gorges and vary from white water to mirrorlike tannin brown. When dam works began in 1982, thousands of outraged Aussies took part in the ‘Franklin River Blockade’, blocking access with flotillas of blow-up dinghies. The Tasmanian government passed special laws allowing peaceful protesters to be fined and jailed, and also tried to have the area’s World Heritage listing removed. But ultimately people power won out.
2. Northern Kenya
While other countries have been fighting a losing battle trying to separate animals and humans, communities in parts of northern Kenya, such as the Maasai of Il Ngwesi, Laikipiak Maasai of Lekurruki and the Samburu within the Matthews Range, are actually increasing animal populations (and their own standard of living) by embracing peaceful cohabitation. These lands were previously used for subsistence pastoralism and suffered from overgrazing, while the big game lodges left the local people disenfranchised. With support from many sources, including income from magical ecolodges, these communities have created a prime conservation area and set an exciting environmental-management precedent.
Stay in an open-fronted thatched cottage at the award-winning community ecolodge, Il Ngwesi Group Ranch (www.ilngwesi.com).
Until the 1980s it was generally assumed that Antarctica was there for the plundering – it was just a matter of how to divvy up the spoils. But Greenpeace and other NGOs undertook a massive campaign to alert the world to the threat. Petitions were circulated and secret governmental documents were leaked to the public. Then disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 brought home their point: accidents would happen and the results would be devastating. Consequently, the landmark Antarctic Environmental (Madrid) Protocol was signed. Including a ban on mining and requirements for waste cleanup and expedition impact assessments, it protects this pristine wilderness – for now.
The Protocol is legally binding on all visitors who are nationals of signatory countries and you can be fined up to US$10,000 for damage.
Sitting just off the world’s second-biggest coral reef, Belize is a diver’s dream. But overfishing – both commercial and from the booming tourist industry – was threatening destruction. A group of local fishermen got together in the early ’90s, united in their concern for a beautiful island called Laughing Bird Caye and its surrounding waters. That grassroots committee is now the Southern Environmental Association (SEA Belize), which works in partnership with government departments to protect several national parks and marine reserves. One of these, Gladden Spit, is an important spawning site for snapper and grouper, and is celebrated for its ecologically managed diving with whale sharks.
The SEA Belize website (www.seabelize.org) provides information on the diving with whale sharks program.
Amazon deforestation grabs all the headlines, but Brazil’s Pantanal is also under threat. This region is the largest inland wetland on earth, but suffers from overgrazing for the beef industry, poaching of ‘croc-skin’ caimans, and, more recently, biofuel agriculture, which is robbing it of water. But one project has become an exemplar of environmental best practice: the Caiman Ecological Refuge. This working cattle ranch of 520 sq km hosts scientific research teams and three ecolodges for tourists. Protected wildlife includes jaguars, giant otters, anacondas, hyacinth macaws and, of course, caimans. The project has inspired more than 30 other private nature refuges.
Caiman Ecological Refuge tariffs include meals and numerous activities, such as canoeing and horseback riding; at least three nights are recommended to make the most of what’s on offer.
6. Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park, Canada
A magnificent watershed on the Canadian–Alaskan border, Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park almost became the world’s biggest copper mine. But the people who loved its glacial vistas, amazing white-water rafting and precious wildlife wouldn’t stand for it. They managed to convince the powers that be that acid rock drainage would devastate the river systems – as well as the fisheries downstream. The region was declared a 1-million-hectare protected area in 1993. Only a year later it was named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its extraordinary scenery, archaeological remains of indigenous peoples, and habitat for grizzlies, wolves and mountain goats.
Guided rafting trips from one day to two-week expeditions are fantastically exciting; try local outfit Tatshenshini Expediting.
7. Mabira Forest Reserve, Uganda
In 2007 about a third of this supposedly protected wildlife haven was to be cleared for sugar cane crops for the production of ethanol. But environmentalists were so passionate about protecting it that three people lost their lives in the protest. The struggle was not in vain. The beautiful reserve remains one of the best places to see some of Uganda’s myriad birds, rare monkeys and the occasional leopard. Biofuels have their place but the dollar value of ecotourism and the intrinsic value of the vital ecosystem were fortunately recognised as being worth much more.
The reserve lies about 20km west of Jinja. There is a community campsite where staff can prepare food and mountain bikes are available for hire.
Some of the world’s biggest deposits of uranium lie within one of Australia’s most stunning national parks, tropical Kakadu. While there have been several controversial mines in the park, it was the Jabiluka mine and its David-and-Goliath battle that caught international attention. Although an agreement had been negotiated with the local Aboriginal owners, the Mirrar, there were fears that they had been coerced. Sit-in demonstrations in 1998 resulted in large-scale arrests, and mining finally ceased in 2003. In 2005 the Mirrar were legally given the deciding vote on any resumption of mining, but it’s unlikely their position, based on cultural and environmental concerns, will change.
Kakadu National Park (admission free) is open year-round. During the wet season (November to March) access to some attractions is closed or only by 4WD.
When naturalist Jim Corbett first raised the alarm in the 1930s no one believed that tigers would ever be threatened. But poaching for skins saw numbers drop to only 1800 by 1972, and international outcry prompted Indira Gandhi to make the tiger the national symbol of India and establish the India-wide Project Tiger program. There are now 27 reserves throughout the country, including the original Corbett Tiger Reserve in Uttarakhand, where there’s a decent chance of spotting of these magnificent animals in the wild. Despite the success of this conservation project, poaching unfortunately continues and tigers remain on the endangered list.
Corbett Tiger Reserve is open November to June – the most likely time to spot a tiger is late in the season (April to mid-June).
10. Chesapeake Bay, USA
Huge Chesapeake Bay has thousands of miles of shoreline shared by Maryland, Virginia and Delaware. It’s famous for blue crabs and popular with yachties and wildlife lovers. In the 1970s people began to notice how much damage was being done to all that area by pollution. Contamination was affecting the crab and fish populations and hence the region’s economy. But since that peak there have been many concerted efforts and tens of millions of dollars spent on conservation and restoration, headed by the Chesapeake Bay Program. The bay has a long way to go yet before it’s certifiably saved, but it has plenty of friends working towards that end.
The comprehensive website www.baydreaming.com has info (including conservation and history) and links for activities and accommodation all over the huge bay area.