4 incredible places in urgent need of conservation
From Peru to Zambia, explorers put the spotlight on wonderfully wild and treasured places under threat.
From Everest expedition leader Phil Henderson to wildlife filmmaker Bertie Gregory, today’s explorers have conservation at the heart of their expeditions. These adventurers aim to show the world places with extraordinary wildlife or cultural and historical value—but that are on the cusp of irreversible damage.
Humans’ effect on nature extends far beyond climate change, encompassing poaching and wildlife trafficking, deforestation, and water pollution. Modern consequences are only the latest iteration 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 come out to feed under the cover of darkness and are in a race against time: The longer they spend out feeding, the more they can eat. But the moment day breaks, their predators (including martial, crowned, and fish eagles) have enough light to hunt them.
(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 felt like stepping back in time to a prehistoric planet Earth as the sounds of their wing flaps and calls filled the air. 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 says when he visited, huge swaths of forest had already been cut down illegally near the national park boundary.
(Here’s why Bertie Gregory sings Adele to beluga whales.)
“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 well outside the protected area, so while preserving the roost is important, if the area around the national park is being deforested, this epic migration is going to disappear,” he says. “Losing these bats is a tragedy far beyond just losing a mind-blowing 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. Deforestation would risk breaking this natural cycle—fewer fruit would mean fewer bats, and fewer bats would mean fewer new trees, and so on.
Since making the episode for Epic Adventures, there’s been some positive news. A judge in Zambia has granted an injunction stopping two companies from cutting down forest on the edge of the national park—a small but vital step in the long battle to save Kasanka’s wildlife.
“It's a real uphill battle. What’s critical is not just maintaining the existing forest. Like many places around the world, we need to increase forest cover,” Gregory says. “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 Chávez 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 Manú 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 went on to buy farmland in the heart of the Sacred Valley and dedicated their lives to the traditional farming of corn and potatoes.
“As a kid, I ran free in the fields and swam in small rivers and creeks full of fish and clean waters,” Chávez says. “The very same tributary of the Vilcanota River of my childhood where I swam is now the blackwater collector for the growing town 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 primary irrigation source for all the farming in the valley. Illegal mining for sand and stone also disrupts the river’s natural flow and contributes to the flooding of local farms and towns, she adds.
(Follow this trail to explore Inca life beyond Machu Picchu.)
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,” Chávez says. She adds that there’s little interest among the young generation in continuing traditional farming and that there‘s an increasing dependence on harmful synthetic fertilizers.
“The solution comes in many ways, as there are many problems. The recovery of the river, its water quality, natural flow, and cultural value need our attention,” she says. “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 members successfully summited, doubling the number of Black climbers to achieve the feat. But for Henderson, another mountain is the first that comes to mind when asked about a place close to his heart.
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. If you look at the mountain itself, it’s unique because it rises out of the plains of Africa,” not amid a mountain range, he says. “It’s a place where people can really be educated about climate change and the connection between people. The reason we go to a place like this is not for this wilderness experience, but for a cultural experience.”
(This is how Henderson and his team made history on Everest.)
The Chagga people, the third largest ethnic group in Tanzania, are inextricably linked with the mountain. They live on the southern and eastern slopes of Kilimanjaro, producing banana, coffee, and millet in the 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 those who climb Kilimanjaro will help spread that 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. The initiative is designed to gain local support for the protection of large carnivores and their habitat and to promote 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 game-rich wildlife sanctuary on the eastern bank of the Luangwa River. It is home to a diversity of charismatic wildlife species, such as wild dogs, lions, large herds of buffalo, and big flocks of iconic birds, like the crowned crane. The area also has really cool cultural and historical sites, such as an old rainmaking site,” a place where past communities prayed for rain in times of drought.
Mweeta describes her first visit to the sector as life changing. While helping researchers deploy a radio collar to track lions in the area, they played sounds of dying buffalo to attract the big cats. Three young males moved in quickly and stopped close to their vehicle.
“I got to experience the full power of lions roaring within close range,” she says. “Everything felt like it was vibrating. The car was literally shaking. I felt like my internal organs were also vibrating in tune with the roars of these powerful young males. It was such an intense, spiritual experience.”
But the lions and other wildlife across Africa are under threat, Mweeta says. Nsefu has not escaped the impact of illegal activities, such as wire snare poaching driven by the illegal bushmeat trade. The targeted species are mostly ungulates (large hooved mammals), such as impala and puku, she explains, but also larger animals such as buffalo and hippos.
Humans’ uneasy coexistence with wildlife is also a problem. And lions and other carnivores sometimes prey on local people’s livestock.
Climate change is a looming threat, with weather patterns becoming more unpredictable, Mweeta says. With these challenges, “we risk losing the ecosystem and amazing diversity of wildlife that currently exists and makes this place exceptional,” she says.
Local communities, government agencies, and conservationists are collaborating to address these concerns. “Through conservation science, action, leadership development, and promoting coexistence between people and wildlife, we are working to secure the area now and into the future,” Mweeta says. “The strength of the collaboration gives me hope for the future of this magnificent part of South Luangwa National Park.”
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, Chávez, and Mweeta. Learn more here.