Biodiversity – the variety of life in a particular ecosystem – is a precious thing, inherently. In species-rich environments, the awe-inspiring intricacies of our planet’s long bio-evolutionary history can be found in full flower, growl, flutter, slither and bubble. It is truly an amazing thing to behold.
How is biodiversity measured? Conservation International, an organisation that “empowers societies to responsibly and sustainably care for nature, our global biodiversity, for the well-being of humanity” has established a way to identify the world’s biodiversity hotspots, or areas that have especially high numbers of endemic (native) species, based largely on two factors: the number of plant species endemic to the area (must be greater than 1,500 species) and the acute need to protect the area from habitat loss beyond an already measured 70 percent of the original.
In these fragile areas, the acute priority placed on conservation means that visitors and travellers must handle with care. Unchecked tourism is part of the rampant human encroachment on nature that threatens the planets’ bio-diverse ecosystems and its health. When practiced responsibly, however, tourism can be a driving force behind conservation efforts.
We encourage travellers to explore these biological treasure troves, but to do so responsibly. Some of the best ways to do this are on guided tours with local tourism professionals committed to conservation principles and making as little impact as possible. These guided tours also deliver high levels of learning, adventure and fun!
We are pleased to offer our five favourite ways to experience biodiversity hotspots around the globe.
Scuba Diving the Solomon Islands
The Solomon Islands enjoy healthy reefs that represent a small part of the Coral Triangle biodiversity hotspot in the southwest Pacific. Divers visiting the town of Gizo on Ghizo Island, which is famous for its submarine seascapes, discover a variety of healthy, warm-water reefs teeming with fish that have not been loved to death. At Njari Island, off Gizo, as many as 279 fish species have been counted on a single dive. With Dive Gizo, the whl.travel local connection in the Solomon Islands, daily dive tours are limited to eight passengers at each site to ensure there is no great impact on the marine life. The dives, including some wrecks, suit both novices and masters, and promise great photo ops.
As part of a biodiversity conservation initiative in the area, a partnership between WWF-SI (World Wildlife Fund for Nature Solomon Islands) and Dive Gizo was launched in 2003 to protect eight reef sites around Gizo from careless anchorage; the easy solution was to deploy marine buoys. Dive Gizo is also a member of the Gizo Marine Conservation Area (GMCA) Management Committee, which has established nine marine protected areas covering an area of approximately 43 square kilometres. As well, the Dive Gizo diving staff belongs to the marine biological team that collects baseline and ongoing coral monitoring data for the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network.
Amazon Tree Climbing in Manaus, Brazil
As the largest tropical rainforest system in the world, the Amazon is a place of unparalleled biodiversity. In fact, more than one third of all species in the world live in the Amazon Rainforest. Where is one of the best places to get a sense of this almost preternatural environment? The city of Manaus, in the north region of Brazil serves a magical gateway into a unique world.
Given the surroundings, Manaus is headquarters to a number of rainforest tour activities, from kayaking and river cruises to canopy tours. Now, even Amazon tree-climbing is an option! Outfitted with climbing gear, visitors can hoist themselves up through the branches and up to the jungle canopy the way researchers do to collect data. Even better, with Selenetur Travel, the whl.travel local connection in Manaus, concern for the rainforest is top priority. Tours groups can be no larger than six so no harm befalls the trees, and bilingual instructors inform about the ecosystem and the surrounding wildlife. This blissful encounter with nature leaves climbers with a renewed impulse to conserve it!
Carlos Augusto, one of the trip coordinators, says, “Our trees are previously inspected and the climb sites are carefully chosen. We opt for primary forest areas, which gives us a better chance of observing the wildlife in its natural habitat. Our wish is to share the magic and beauty of the Amazon forest with our guests, so that they may understand and respect this fragile ecosystem.”
Waterfall Trekking in Luang Namtha, Laos
Luang Namtha Province lies in the northwest of Laos, sharing borders with both China and Myanmar. Around 85 percent of its 9,325 square kilometres is mountainous and approximately 50 percent is covered by forests, making for landscape with high levels of biodiversity. Home to more than 20 ethnic minority groups, 37 large animal species, 297 bird species and 60 fish species, Luang Namtha has been recognised as having enormous potential for ecotourism.
The 2,230-square-kilometre Nam Ha National Protected Area (NPA) is a primary tourism attraction in Luang Namtha. Lying at the intersection of the Indochina and Himalayan bioregions, the bio-diverse area is a protected area of international significance. The importance of the Nam Ha NPA is in relation to tourism in Luang Namtha – primarily as a result of a major ecotourism project undertaken by UNESCO and the Lao National Tourism Authority called the UNESCO-NTA Lao Nam Ha Ecotourism Project.
Designed to create an economically viable national model for locally managed community-based culture and nature tourism, the project has demonstrated that properly planned ecotourism can be used as a tool for heritage conservation and rural development, involve local communities in tourism management and operations, and raise substantial public sector revenue. In 2001, the UNESCO-NTA Lao Nam Ha Ecotourism Project won a United Nations Development Programme Award in 2001 in addition to a British Airways’ Tourism for Tomorrow commendation.
Canoeing the Fifth Season Floods in Estonia
Soomaa National Park, which surrounds the Estonian ‘summer capital’ of Pärnu is a naturally quirky place, principally because it protects some of the world’s rarest ecosystems – peat bogs and wetlands (the word soomaa means ‘land of bogs’). Estonia is a wet country with almost 25 percent of the territory consisting of different kinds of wetlands, arguably the most important of which are the ancient and disappearing peat bogs. Their ecological importance has been distinguished as, among other accolades, a CORINE biotope area and one of Europe’s most valuable wilderness areas certified by PAN Parks, and turned it into an European ecotourism hotspot.
Another quirk about the Soomaa region is its ‘fifth-season’ spring floods. Each year, usually in April, spring melt-off raises water levels by about five metres, submerging everything – forest floors, meadows, fields, roads and even village houses – for two to three weeks during which a boat is just about the only way to get around. This is not a catastrophe but a much-anticipated season and a popular time for canoe trips into the national park. Some tours navigate the swamped forests – even right up to the doors of houses – using haabjas, or traditional hand-carved dugout canoes made from huge aspen logs.
From the relaxing rhythm of a canoe, Fifth Season observers can take a good look at some of the wetlands flora and fauna. Although not officially designated as a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ by Conservation International, the Kuresoo bog is ranked particularly high in species diversity. Soomaa is also a natural home for eagles, black storks and other rare birds, as well for carnivores such as wolf, lynx and brown bear.
Hiking Through Primary Rainforests in Sri Lanka
The gorgeous rainforests of Sri Lanka are on the list of the planet’s top 10 biodiversity hotspots most at risk of destruction. Sadly, at the top of the list of Sri Lankan rainforests most at risk is Sinharaja (meaning ‘lion king’) Forest Reserve, the largest Gondwanan rainforest in South Asia. It is relatively small – barely more than 110 square kilometres – but if taken with contiguous forest reserves, it represents the largest single block (about 475 square kilometres) of wet-zone primary forest in the country. Naturally, it is the green heart of Sri Lanka’s unique and enormously important biodiversity, boasting the highest concentration of endemic species in a country fabled for its endemism.
Preserved from loggers by virtue of its difficult terrain and finally put beyond their axes in only 1977, Sinharaja is now also one of Sri Lanka’s eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Today, the greatest threat to Sinharaja is the unchecked devastation of the ecosystem it shares with surrounding woodlands, some officially counted in a semi-protected forest buffer zone. Bewilderingly, in the 15 years from 1990 to 2005, despite legal protections, 900 square kilometres, or approximately 35%, of the 1990 total forest coverage within 20 kilometres of the park was destroyed. Along with them went who-knows-what in the way of biodiversity.
The best way to appreciate what’s left and continue to call attention to its irreplaceable bounty is simply to visit. Paths within the protected area can only be covered on foot and in the company of a guide. While tours can be arranged in advance, qualified and knowledgeable guides are available for hire (for an affordable fixed price) at the Kudawa and Deniyaya entry points.
Sri Lanka is peppered liberally with other brilliant ecotourism indulgences across a wide variety of ecosystems. For example, why not try a boat ride on the mangrove-fringed Madu River, home to at least 60 species of bird?