Endangered Destinations

Places, like species, can vanish forever. A look at some unique, imperiled treasures.

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And anyone who finds Nemo (or any clown fish, for that matter) amid the sea anemones of the Great Barrier Reef should give thanks to forward-thinking conservation efforts set in motion decades ago. To minimize the impacts of millions of visitors, an eco-certification program has been set up for local tourism operators, who cooperate with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to make sure visitors know that the reef is as fragile as it is dazzling. In 2004, no-fishing zones were expanded to include over a third of the marine park. Studies have shown that these result in larger fish and more of them—one found coral trout numbers increased more than sixfold in "no-take" areas. Even fishermen now support the idea, counting on the spillover of fish to parts of the reef where fishing is permitted. The Queensland state government also put a Reef Water Quality Protection Plan into action to decrease silt and runoff of agricultural chemicals and fertilizer from nearby fields.

The effort in Australia has been hailed as a model for marine conservation. The goals of the plan are "as high as anywhere in the world," says Steve Palumbi, a marine ecologist at Stanford University, and "everything looks quite hopeful" after the most recent steps. With so many stakeholders united, the reef is a great example of conservation through collaboration, says Kelly Bricker of the International Ecotourism Society.

Responsible tourism can be a troubled place's salvation. Bricker's message to conscientious visitors: Educate yourself and tread lightly. Pick travel companies that make conservation a priority, support local conservation programs, and get to know the specific problems that affect your destination and how you can minimizeor eliminate your own contribution. "Without tourism," says Jonathan Tourtellot, director of the National Geographic Society's Center for Sustainable Destinations, "habitats such as Costa Rican rain forests would be grazing land by now and the only elephants left would be in zoos."

That helps explain why a mountain gorilla is worth more per hour than a Manhattan psychiatrist. Poaching, forest clearing, and armed conflict threaten these animals, which share 98 percent of our genes. Fewer than 700 survive on the lush slopes of the Virunga volcanoes in East Africa where Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo meet. Recently, both Rwanda and Uganda more than doubled their gorilla visitation fees to $500 per person, and paying tourists still come from afar for carefully controlled one-hour encounters. Some of the money is directed back into local communities, giving residents an incentive to protect these gentle giants.

But some problems are so large in scope that only a massive, government-sponsored conservation effort has any hope of success. Over the past century, the swamps, marshes, and pinelands of Florida's Everglades have been crisscrossed by canals, poisoned by pesticides, and squeezed by agriculture and urban development. The Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, passed by Congress in 2000, includes new levees, canals, and water-control structures to provide flood control and protect endangered native fish and wildlife in the largest wilderness in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. It's the biggest restoration project in history, with a price tag that has already passed $10 billion. Yet despite these efforts, some predictions hold that a combination of more severe storms and rising sea levels could inundate most of the "River of Grass" with salt water by the end of the century.

Such a long list of challenges can seem overwhelming; witness the recent rise of "last-chance tourism," with a see-it-before-it's-gone mindset that brings visitors to Europe's melting glaciers and polar bear habitat in northern Canada. But an equally long list of solutions, both tried and planned, offers a balance of hope. Even after finishing her book, Lisagor says, she still has faith that these places can be saved, though "it's going to take a major effort." Unless local and global issues are tackled, she says, "we can expect to see a sad, steady procession of the world's great places as they march out of the guidebooks and into the history books."