The world's largest wetlands were rapidly becoming grazing ground for the beef industry until Caiman Ecological Refuge, a working cattle station on 132,000 acres (53,419 hectares) of forest, fields, and meandering waterways, took a novel tack: protecting the Pantanal region with a sustainable approach to ranching. The 21-year-old refuge's four ecolodges are setting international standards in a place where ramshackle hunting camps were once the norm. Other ranches caught on, and now more than 30 private nature refuges form a mosaic of wildlife corridors. Caiman continues to house scientific teams, and guests can participate in jaguar and hyacinth macaw research projects.
Do: Canoe on the caiman-packed rivers, horseback ride with Pantaneiros, and nature walk in search of over 60 mammal and 380 bird species, including tapirs and wood ibis.
Sleep: Spend a night or two in each of the four lodges, located throughout the refuge ($176 a night; caiman.com.br)
Eco-Dubai? The Middle East tourist haven, where downhill skiing is an indoor sport and streets are literally paved with gold, now boasts one of the world's best ecotourism models: Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa ($1,510; al-maha.com). Its Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve—home to the Arabian oryx, one of the rarest animals on the planet—has put almost 5 percent of the emirate under official eco-protection and created the first national park. The 40-room ultra-luxe resort draws heavily on Bedouin heritage, recycles 100 percent of its water, and grows a seed bank of 6,000 indigenous trees, shrubs, and grasses.
Do: Explore the country via falconry, camel treks, archery, or guided desert safaris.
When the largest copper mine in history was given a green light to develop the Tatshenshini-Alsek River watershed back in 1987, rafters reached for their paddles and fought back. "Our goal was to bring people down the river to be touched by its magic," says adventurer Richard Bangs, who made the first rafting descent of the Tatshenshini and helped lead the campaign to protect it. The Canadian government rescinded the mine permit and created a 2.5-million-acre (1-million-hectare) protected area connected to Alaska's Glacier Bay. It now forms one of the largest transborder national parks in the world.
Do: Raft 132 miles (212 kilometers) among icebergs, grizzlies, moose, and osprey ($3,350 for nine days; mtsobek.com).
The Mesoamerican Reef, the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, bends an aquamarine elbow at Gladden Spit, 26 miles (42 kilometers) off Placencia, Belize, creating an underwater Serengeti. "I used to anchor in one spot with my father, and in less than half a day we could fill the boat with 500 pounds (227 kilograms) of fish," says Lindsay Garbutt, 47, of Monkey River village. But as commercial fishing depleted the seas nearby, Garbutt and local fishermen formed Friends of Nature to protect the reef and support sustainable fishing (friendsofnaturebelize.org). Gladden is now a marine reserve where critically endangered Nassau grouper and massive schools of snapper continue to spawn. This is also one of the few places on Earth where divers and snorkelers can predictably swim with whale sharks; the elusive giants arrive like clockwork during full moons from April to June.
Do: Cay-hop by kayak among deserted coral islands ($1,380; toadaladventure.com); dive with whale sharks ($150; belizescuba.com).
Sleep: Sea Spray Hotel ($50; seasprayhotel.com); Turtle Inn ($335; www.blancaneaux.com)
Hope in the Heartland
When third generation Kenyan Ian Craig took over his family's ranch, located where Mount Kenya's fertile escarpment falls into the dust of the northern frontier, nearby Samburu and Maasai pastoralists were eking out a living on drought-ravaged and overgrazed land. After turning his ranch into a wildlife conservancy, Craig encouraged tribal elders to create their own community reserves as a way of restoring the land and supplementing their income with ecotourism. A decade on, more than a million acres (more than 40,469 hectares) of Samburu communal territory have been transformed into a biodiversity conservation zone—a haven for 20 percent of the world's endangered Grevy's zebras, along with other rare animals, all protected by tribal warriors who guide visitors on their land.
Do: Trek, track wildlife, learn traditional bush lore.
Sleep: Sarara Tented Camp, Il'Ngwesi Ecolodge, and Tassia Lodge ($3,935 for nine nights; www.wildernessjourneys.com)
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