4 incredible places in urgent need of conservation
From Everest expedition leader Phil Henderson to wildlife filmmaker Bertie Gregory, today’s explorers have conservation at the heart of their expeditions. These adventurers are determined to share the world places that have extraordinary wildlife or cultural and historic value, but they also want to avoid irreversible damage.
Humans’ effect on nature extends far beyond climate change, encompassing poaching and wildlife trafficking, deforestation, and water pollution. Modern consequences are just the latest manifestation of our impact. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Homo Deus, “When our Stone Age ancestors spread from East Africa to the four corners of the earth, they changed the flora and fauna of every continent and island on which they settled … before they planted the first wheat field, shaped the first metal tool, wrote the first text or struck the first coin.”
Here are four places some of the world’s top explorers want you to know about before the landscape changes forever.
Boosting fruit bats in Zambia
At only 29, wildlife filmmaker and National Geographic Explorer Bertie Gregory has already had an incredible career, producing and hosting a number of award-winning documentaries with Nat Geo around the world. But one place in need of conservation stands out in his memory: Kasanka National Park in Zambia.
While shooting an episode of Epic Adventures for Nat Geo, his team witnessed Kasanka National Park’s bat migration, the largest mammal migration in Africa. The straw-colored fruit bats are out to feed under the darkness and are in a race for time. The longer they stay out feeding, the more food they can eat. Their predators, including the crowned and martial fish eagles, have enough light to hunt them once the day ends.
(Watch now: Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory is streaming only on Disney . )
“Seeing 10 million animals filling the sky is totally mind blowing and it’s actually quite hard for your brain to process what is going on,” he says. It was like being transported back to prehistoric Earth, listening to their calls and wing flaps. We were there for one month and every morning was awe-inspiring.”
Bats–and all other wildlife in the park–are under threat from industrial farming. Gregory claims that large swathes of forest were already being illegally cut near the national park border when he visited.
“Scientists put tracking tags on some of the bats and found they could fly out more than 30 miles from the roost each night to feed. This is far beyond the protected area so while it is important to preserve the roost, if the area surrounding the national park is being cleared, this epic migration will disappear.” he said. “Losing these bats will cause more than just the loss of a spectacular wildlife spectacle. Straw-colored fruit bats are known as the gardeners of Africa.”
That’s because when the bats eat fruit, they swallow seeds and “plant” them through droppings. This natural cycle could be broken if there is too much deforestation. Less fruit means fewer bats and fewer trees.
Since making the episode for Epic Adventures, there’s been some positive news. A judge in Zambia has issued an injunction to stop two companies from cutting forest at the border of the national park. This is a small but crucial step in the long fight to save Kasanka’s wildlife.
“It’s a real uphill battle. It’s not enough to maintain the existing forest. Gregory states that we must increase the forest cover, as in many other places around the globe. “This is vital for the bats, for the ecosystem, for the climate, and crucially for us humans.”
Protecting a way of life in Peru’s Sacred Valley
Carmen Chavez is a tropical biologist and National Geographic Explorer who began her professional career participating in research projects at Cocha Cashu Biological Station in Peru‘s Manu National Park. When she was young, her family often packed up their Volkswagen Beetle to camp in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
One of her earliest memories is her father dedicating the catch of the day to her on her fifth birthday–it was a trout, an invasive species that had been intentionally introduced from North America to help the economy decades earlier. Her family later purchased farmland in the Sacred Valley and dedicated their lives and livelihood to traditional potato and corn farming.
“As a kid, I ran free in the fields and swam in small rivers and creeks full of fish and clean waters,” Chavez says. “The same tributary of Vilcanota River where I swam in my youth is now the blackwater collector of Lamay.” With dark, polluted waters and a heavy putrid smell, [it’s] a place I do not let my son close to.”
Minimal water treatment and rudimentary or non-existent sewage systems dump wastewater directly into creeks that end up in the sacred Vilcanota River, she says. This river is still the main source of irrigation for all the farming in the valley. She adds that illegal mining of sand or stone can also disrupt the river’s natural flow, and cause flooding in local towns and farms.
The area is a sacred place for the Inca culture largely because its fertile lands supported the thriving civilization prior to the arrival of Spanish colonizers. The Sacred Valley continues to support communities with quinoa, kiwicha (a cereal that can be used in place of flour), varieties of potatoes, and the giant white corn, which only grows in here.
“Farmers, just like my father and brother, live now in uncertainty about the unprecedented changes in weather patterns and undeniable consequences of a warming climate,” Chavez says. She also stated that the young generation is less interested in traditional farming and has a greater dependence on synthetic fertilizers.
“The solution comes in many ways, as there are many problems. She says that the river’s water quality, natural flow and cultural value all need our attention. “It’s imperative to learn the biological diversity that supports and maintains this valley, helping form a new generation of local naturalists, empowered by access to the tools and equipment to complement their traditional knowledge.”
Confronting climate change on Kilimanjaro
In May 2022, Phil Henderson led the first all-Black expedition to summit Everest. Seven Black climbers reached the summit, more than double the previous record. Henderson says that he thinks of another mountain when he is asked about a place he loves.
Henderson first climbed Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain in Africa at 19,340 feet, in 2000.
“The people, the culture, and the land are all connected. He says that the mountain is unique because it rises from the plains of Africa. “It’s a place people can really learn about climate change and the relationship between people. The reason we go to a place like this is not for this wilderness experience, but for a cultural experience.”
The Chagga people, the third largest ethnic group in Tanzania, are inextricably linked with the mountain. They live on the eastern and southern slopes of Kilimanjaro and produce banana, coffee and millet in fertile soil.
Their communities are a witness to the shrinking of the mountain’s ice caps and glaciers, which could be gone in the next 25 years, experts say, largely as a result of climate change.
“I went back in 2018 and there’s a drastic change in the amount of permanent ice on the mountain,” Henderson says. “They’re having severe rainstorms and really high temperatures followed by severe drought.”
Henderson says the solution must lie in a global effort to curb climate change. He hopes that those who climb Kilimanjaro will spread the message.
Listening to lions in South Luangwa National Park
Thandiwe Mweetwa, a Zambian wildlife biologist and National Geographic Explorer, manages the Zambian Carnivore Program‘s conservation education. This initiative is intended to increase local support for large carnivores, their habitat, and to encourage interest in conservation-based careers among local youth.
One of Mweeta’s favorite places is the Nsefu Sector in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, which she visits for work and on holidays.
“I first visited this place back in 2009 on my very first day of work as a volunteer with the Zambian Carnivore Program, and I was instantly blown away by the beauty of this area,” she says. It is a wildlife sanctuary with a lot of game on the eastern bank the Luangwa River. It is home to many charismatic wildlife species such as wild dogs and lions, large herds or buffalo, and large flocks of iconic birds like the crowned crane. There are also some cool historical and cultural sites in the area, like an “old rainmaking site”, a place where people used to pray for rain during droughts.
Mweeta describes her first visit to the sector as life changing. Researchers used sounds of dying buffalo to lure big cats while they set up a radio collar to track the lions. Three young males quickly moved in and stopped very close to their vehicle.
“I got to experience the full power of lions roaring within close range,” she says. “Everything felt vibrating. The car was shaking. It was almost as if my internal organs were vibrating with the roars from these powerful young males. It was such an intense, spiritual experience.”
But the lions and other wildlife across Africa are under threat, Mweeta says. Mweeta says that Nsefu is still vulnerable to illegal activities like wire snare poaching and illegal bushmeat trading. She explains that the most targeted species are ungulates (large hooved mammals), like impala and puku. However, larger animals such as buffalos and hippos are also included.
Humans’ uneasy coexistence with wildlife is also a problem. Lions and other carnivores can also prey on livestock of local people.
Climate change is a looming threat, with weather patterns becoming more unpredictable, Mweeta says. These challenges could lead to “the loss of the ecosystem and extraordinary diversity of wildlife that is currently existing and makes this place unique,” she warns.
Local communities, government agencies, and conservationists are collaborating to address these concerns. Mweeta states that conservation science, action and leadership development are all key components to securing the area. “The strength of the collaboration gives me hope for the future of this magnificent part of South Luangwa National Park.”
Epic Adventures with Bertie Gregory is now streaming only on Disney .
The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonders of our world, works with and helps fund the research of explorers like Gregory, Chavez, and Mweeta. Learn more here.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.