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10 natural wonders to see before they disappear

Some of the world's most enchanting places might not make it through this century. Here are 10 places you may not have realized are threatened — and how to experience them responsibly.
A lemur hangs out in a tree in Madagascar's Mantadia National Park. The island nation is the only place in the world with native wild lemurs, which have suffered from decades of rampant logging and other practices that destroyed 90 percent of its rainforest.JEROME DELAY / AP

You've heard the grim timelines: if warming continues, the Great Barrier Reef will be bleached by 2030; glaciers in the Swiss Alps, on Mt. Kilimanjaro, and in Glacier National Park will disappear in under 40 years; and Arctic ice melt will send polar bears into extinction. The immediacy of these timelines prompts flocks of curious eco-tourists to travel to environmentally fragile areas. Tourism is both bane and boon: it can add strain to already distressed areas, but it can also provide income, which in turn can help preserve these wonders. We spotlight 10 areas under threat — some lesser known than others — that can still be visited responsibly. Should you decide to plan a journey, we've recommended our favorite tour operator for each destination. In some cases the price tag may be higher than your average vacation, but consider it an investment in Mother Earth.

Belize barrier reef
One of the most diverse reef ecosystems in the world is home to whale sharks, rays, and manatees, as well as sturgeon, conch and spiny lobsters.

The Threat: Like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Belize Barrier Reef leads a tenuous existence. A section of the nearly 700-mile-long Mesoamerican Reef that reaches from Mexico to Honduras, the Belize reef suffered a severe bleaching in 1998, with a loss of 50 percent of its coral in many areas, including much of its distinctive staghorn coral. Since the bleaching, its decline has continued, due to global warming of the world's seas, agricultural pollution, development, and increasing tourism, which has given rise to more coastal development and an invasion of cruise ships.

Get There: Go with Journeys International, founded by former conservation workers, on an 8-day "Cayo and the Caye" journey into Belize's rainforest that includes kayaking into river caves, a side trip Guatemala, a visit to the Mayan ruins at Tikal, and, finally, a three-day-stay on an island in the reef (from $2,825 per person, excluding airfare).

The Congo Basin
Tropical rainforests like the Congo Basin produce 40 percent of the world's oxygen and serve as a vital source of food, medicine and minerals.

The Threat: At more than 1.3 million square miles, the Congo Basin has the world's second-largest rainforest, after the Amazon's. According to the UN, up to two-thirds of the forest and its unique plants and wildlife could be lost by 2040 unless more effective measures are taken to protect it. Extending across six nations, 10 million acres of forest is degraded each year due to mining, illegal logging, farming, ranching and guerilla warfare. Roads cut by loggers and miners have also enabled poachers and bushmeat hunters to prey on endangered animals like mountain gorillas, forest elephants, bonobos and okapis. As the forest shrinks, less carbon dioxide is absorbed, and rain decreases, adding to climate change.

Get There: Gabon, to the west of the Congo, is considered safe for travel, and tour operator Responsible Travel will pair you with local guides who work with the Wildlife Conservation Fund on an 8-day journey to view elephants, chimpanzees, and gorillas in the wilds of Loango National Park (from $3,430 per person, excluding airfare).

The Dead Sea
It's the lowest spot on earth (1,312 feet below sea level), has 10 times more saline than seawater (so humans float like corks), and is believed to contain therapeutic minerals.

The Threat: In the last four decades, the Dead Sea has shrunk by a third and sunk 80 feet — 13 inches per year! — stranding formerly seaside resorts and restaurants nearly a mile from shore. The Jordan River is the lake's sole source, and as surrounding countries increasingly tap its waters, little reaches the Dead Sea, which could disappear within 50 years. Further pressure is put on the sea by the cosmetic companies and potash producers who drain it for minerals. One proposed solution is the controversial Red-Dead Canal, channeling water 112 miles from the Red Sea, but its environmental impact could be negative (some worry that it would increase seismic activity in the region).

Get There: The Rift Valley on Jordan's side of the Dead Sea is a contrast of sand, red rocks and canyons, with reserves protecting endangered Nubian ibexes, oryxes, and gazelles. Gap Adventures offers an 8-day journey combining a Dead Sea visit with a stop at Wadi Rum, the 6th-century Nabatean ruins at Petra, and an overnight in a Bedouin tent (from $1,099 per person, excluding airfare).

The Everglades
This 2.5 million–acre wetland encompasses cypress swamps, mangroves, sawgrass and pine savannahs. It's the only place in the world where crocodiles and alligators share territory.

The Threat: A host of dangers are putting this fragile wetland at risk: pollution from farms, invasive species, and encroaching development, not to mention the fact that 60 percent of the region's water is being diverted to nearby cities and farms. As a result, The Everglades is now half the size it was in 1900. Worse, this is the sole habitat of the Florida panther, and there are less than 100 of the creatures left in the wild. These big cats may be completely lost within the next 40 years as their habitat disappears (they're not alone, either — at least 20 species in the Everglades are endangered, including turtles, manatees, and wading birds).

Get There: Founded by a former government biologist, Environmental Adventure Company offers intensive 5-day ecotours of The Everglades, starting with two days in the Florida Keys, entering The Everglades by Zodiac inflatable boat, then hiking and touring the waterways by boat (from $1,995 per person, excluding airfare).

TO GO WITH AFP STORY: MADAGASCAR-ENVIRONMENT-BAOBAB By Gregoire Pourtier A picture made 23, July 2007 shows shows a ancient Baobab trees silhouetted at dusk against the Madagascan susnset near Morondava, 700 kilometres southwest of the Madagascaran capital Antananarivo. The Malagasy government recently declared the the 320 hectare-baobab area a protected zone in a bid to conserve the natural resource. AFP PHOTO / GREGOIRE POURTIER (Photo credit should read GREGOIRE POURTIER/AFP/Getty Images)AFP / AFP

More than 80 percent of Madagascar's flora and fauna are found nowhere else on Earth, thanks to millions of years of isolation in the Indian Ocean off of Africa.

The Threat: If nothing is done to save the world's fourth-largest island, its forests will be gone in 35 years (once 120,000 square miles, they're now down to 20,000), and their unique inhabitants along with them. Forest ecosystems are being destroyed by logging, burning for subsistence farms, and poaching. The 20 species of lemurs for which Madagascar is renowned are in danger of disappearing. Though there are game reserves, they're not large (occupying only 5 percent of the island), nor are they contiguous, thus failing to provide corridors for the animals to travel through. Some of Madagascar's endemic species have never even been recorded, and will likely be lost before they can be studied.

Get There: Winner of the Responsible Tourism Award from Conservation International and USAID in 2008, Eastern Tours offers day-tours of the forested east coast ($100 and under). Or go over the top on a once-in-a-lifetime trip with the World Wildlife Fund's official travel provider, Natural Habitat Adventures, on a 14-day in-depth tour of Madagascar (from $10,895 per person, excluding airfare).

The Maldives
The nation is rich in coral reefs and endangered fish — such as the giant Napoleon wrasse, leopard shark and some 250 manta rays (most with wingspans of 10 feet).

The Threat: Few scientists hold out much hope for the Maldives — the world's lowest nation — if global warming continues to melt the ice caps and raise sea levels. Its 1,190 small islands and atolls (200 of which are inhabited) scattered across the Indian Ocean rise a mere 8 feet above sea level. In 2008, the President of the Maldives announced the government would start buying land in other countries, including India, for future homes for citizens displaced by rising waters. In 2009, he held a cabinet meeting underwater to stress the islands' vulnerability.

Get There: Visit the beaches, towns, and fishing villages of the Maldives on a 7-day cruise with Gap Adventures (from $1,349 per person).

The Poles
The natural phenomena here are unique and inspiring: towering icebergs, Aurora Borealis, and majestic animals (penguins, polar bears, whales).

The Threat: The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, the world's largest non-profit ocean research group, has predicted that 80 percent of the emperor penguin population of Antarctica will be lost, and the rest in danger of extinction, if global warming continues. In the Arctic, the polar bear is also endangered by the steady loss of sea ice (which has decreased 3 percent per decade since the 1970s). As sea ice disappears at the poles, so do entire ecosystems: the phytoplankton that grows under ice sheets feeds zooplankton and small crustaceans like krill, which are on the food chain for fish, seals, whales, polar bears and penguins. Studies predict that with continued warming, within 20-40 years, no ice will form in Antarctica.

Get There: Tour the arctic with Trans Arctic Circle Treks, or cruise the Antarctic with Adventure Life. Arctic Trek offers a 4-day Arctic Circle tour including Prudhoe Bay, then over the Atigun Pass into open Arctic tundra ($1,638, excluding airfare). Adventure Life has a 10-day cruise through the Drake Passage and along the Antarctic Peninsula on a former oceanographic research vessel. The trip includes viewing many species of penguins, whales and icebergs by Zodiac, and a visit to a scientific station (from $5,290 per person for shared cabins, excluding airfare).

Rajasthan, Ranthambore
One of the best places in the world to see tigers.

The Threat: The world's population of wild tigers has fallen to as few as 3,200, more than half of which live in India. If extreme efforts are not undertaken, the big cat may be extinct within our lifetime — possibly in as soon as a dozen years. (Compare this number to the 100,000 tigers that lived in India in 1900 and you can see just how drastically things have changed in the past two centuries.) Their habitats have been reduced 93 percent, and though there are reserves across Asia, most are small and have no corridors between them for the normally far-roaming felines. It's estimated that a tiger a day is killed for use in Chinese traditional medicine.

Get There: Visit Ranthambore with Indian tour operator Travel Wisely, which also organizes visits to see tigers in Bandhavgarh National Park and Kanha Tiger Reserve. You can take a full 14-day tour including the parks, Agra (and the Taj Mahal), and New Delhi, or select portions (from $85/day per person).

The Tahuamanú rainforest
Parrots and macaws feed off of the world's largest salt lick. They share this pristine wonderland with endangered creatures such as giant armadillos, ocelots, jaguars and giant otters.

The Threat: This magnificent rain forest in Peru's Madre de Dios region holds some of the last old-growth stands of mahogany in South America. But illegal logging is depleting the rainforest — and the U.S. is responsible for buying 80 percent of the mahogany. A single tree can create as much as $1 million worth of furniture. Loggers build roads, allowing farmers and hunters to enter, further crowding the indigenous people and destroying the delicate ecosystem. In nearby areas, gold mining has released mercury into the air and water.

Get There: Visit Tahuamanú with Treks and Hiking Peru, a small Peruvian eco-hiking company headquartered in Cusco that leads five- to six-day visits including the macaw clay lick and journeys upriver to view spider monkeys, deer and birds (from $500 per person, excluding airfare, minimum of four people; all trips are 20 percent off in July 2011).

The Yangtze River basin
Exotic creatures such as giant pandas, dwarf blue sheep, Yangtze finless porpoises, and Siberian cranes call this region home — along with some 400 million people.

The Threat: It's too early to know the exact impact of the creation of China's massive, $24 billion Three Gorges Dam, but many, including the Chinese government, have acknowledged that the Yangtze Basin region is in danger of losing its most distinctive marine and animal life. Deforestation has occurred from clearing land for displaced farmers, and the reservoir has flooded villages, farms, factories, and mines, adding to the Yangtze River's existing pollution from shipping, industry, agriculture and raw sewage. Landslides have also happened, and seismologists wonder if the water pressure above two fault lines might result in a disastrous earthquake.

Get There: The Chinese government maintains 50 reserves in an effort to save the giant pandas from extinction, aided by the World Wildlife Foundation. Go in search of them in the wild on Terra Incognita Ecotours' 12-day journey tracking wild panda in Foping National Nature Preserve, along with a Xi'An city tour, and a visit to the terra cotta warriors (from $5,999 per person, excluding airfare).

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