Ways to Celebrate Earth’s Wild Places—at Home and Abroad

The natural landscapes we love to visit need our support. In celebration of Earth Day, here are ways to show our gratitude, whether we’re planning our next trip or helping from home.

Ways to Celebrate Earth’s Wild Places—at Home and Abroad

A group of three species of macaws flying from the clay lick in Tambopata National Reserve in Peru

Photo by Jan Korba/Shutterstock

Consider all that travel money you’ve saved in the past two years, thanks to COVID. Why not put some of it toward worthy causes in conservation that will make travel even better in the future? Countless wildlife rescue organizations, plus other environmentally friendly efforts like tree planting, could use our help.

Volunteering is a fine way to support ecocentric organizations, and travelers can get involved in everything from trail restoration to pitching in at a wildlife sanctuary. When travel remains restricted in some places, a charitable contribution may be more feasible. There are different ways to donate: one-time only, as a sustaining member, or in honor of someone else. For example, the next time you need a gift for newlyweds, consider having a tree planted in their name. What if just 10 percent of anniversary, graduation, and wedding gifts went toward improving ecosystems in need, rather than to dubious tchotchkes?

For every continent, here are a few globally minded ways to celebrate Earth Day.

Donate to these organizations in North America

There are no shortages of environmental issues in the United States. And no shortages of organizations to address them, such as the Save the Manatee Club, Raven Trust, and the Wild Bird Fund. Once you decide which group to support, how do you know if your donations are being spent wisely on issues you care about rather than going mostly to fundraising or administration? Charity Navigator and GuideStar are among the charity rating systems that can help you see how efficient your charity candidates are.

You can also look for organizations with a long track record of success. Well before ecology became a common term, the Washington, D.C.–based Nature Conservancy was established in 1951. Whether you call New York, Nebraska, or New Mexico home, TNC’s website provides a state-by-state report on current projects in the area where you live. And while it has myriad specific conservation efforts, like protecting turtles on Weaver Dunes in Minnesota and restoring a stream in eastern Kentucky, TNC has a holistic approach that focuses on protecting entire ecosystems. In recent decades, it has expanded its conservation efforts around the globe.

Or maybe you’d rather think really small, perhaps aiding a generally overlooked group, like insects. For starters, they often aren’t photogenic and are bypassed in favor of more charismatic species (and in wildlife rescue, both the “Aww” and awe factors count). But consider bees, which pollinate the vast majority of our food crops. Along with climate change and other factors, pesticides are decimating their numbers. One way you can help is through the “Save Our Bees” campaign run by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Support biodiversity in South America

This continent’s diverse landscapes—extensive rain forests, high deserts, mountain ranges—are home to more than 3,400 species of birds, the most of any continent. From jungles to seacoasts, notable birds found primarily in South America include Andean condors, toucans, motmots, rheas, macaws, tanagers, blue-footed boobies, potoos, barbets, Inca terns, curassows, trogans, and chachalacas.

The American Bird Conservancy protects birds in both South and North America. Threats to birds include habitat loss, plastics, pesticides, and climate change. In South America, ABC partners with such groups as Aquasis in Brazil and Fundación ProAves in Colombia, to establish dozens of bird reserves spanning more than 1 million acres in over a dozen countries. In addition, it works with Indigenous people and rural communities to promote conservation through tourism, the development of sustainable economic opportunities, and habitat restoration. (An ABC-supported project has planted more than 2 million trees in Peru.) Its efforts also include heading the Alliance for Zero Extinction, a global group of over 120 NGO biodiversity conservation organizations. Ways to support ABC include buying a membership for yourself or as a gift, as well as donating a used car or transferring stocks.

The remote Rapa river valley from the top of Skierfe in Sarek national park in Swedish Lapland

The remote Rapa river valley from the top of Skierfe in Sarek national park in Swedish Lapland

Photo by Petr Kahanek/Shutterstock

Visit Europe’s healing ecosystems

Think Europe and museums, cathedrals, historic cities, and castles may spring to mind—but probably not wildlife. Yet pockets of the continent have not yet been paved over; resorts don’t crowd every coastline. Since 2011, Rewilding Europe has worked to ensure that wildlife does not disappear there by restoring damaged ecosystems. A key tenet of rewilding is enabling sustainable self-regulating landscapes—letting nature for the most part take care of itself, as it did before humans interfered. In short, conservation is not enough, given the impact of industrialization in only two centuries.

Currently, Rewilding Europe is focusing on nine areas. They include the Velebit Mountains in Croatia, Swedish Lapland, the Oder delta of Germany and Poland, and the Greater Côa Valley in Portugal. Work in Croatia includes protecting brown bears and an old-growth beech forest and allowing open plains grazing. Some of Europe’s rarest animals, including Balkan chamois and lynx, live in these mountains. Most of these habitats are well off the tourist trail. But you can visit all nine of Rewilding Europe’s select projects and support its efforts through trips with the European Safari Company.

Help in the war against poaching in Africa

The pandemic curtailed travel worldwide, but few places felt the impact as much as Africa. One side effect of fewer tourists: an increase in poaching wildlife, primarily in central and southern Africa, with Zimbabwe and Kenya having the dubious distinction of being poaching hot spots. Animal poaching isn’t limited to Africa (Brazil and India have significant poaching problems), but its impact on such iconic wildlife as elephants, tigers, gorillas, rhinoceroses, and other endangered species is particularly disheartening.

A couple of examples: There are fewer than 7,000 cheetahs left in the wild, but cubs are still captured and sold as pets in the Arabian Peninsula. Farther east, China is a major player in the wildlife black market. The most in-demand wild mammal today is the pangolin; its scales are turned into a supposedly medicinal powder with no scientific backing. Fewer tourists means fewer dollars available to equip game wardens to stop poachers.

Groups to donate to include the wide-ranging, long-established Fauna & Flora International (Sir David Attenborough is a vice president) and the African Wildlife Foundation; animal-specific groups, such as Panthera, which focuses on wild cats; and place-specific efforts, such as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust’s program dedicated to Madagascar’s unique ecosystem.

Protect imperiled mangrove ecosystems in Asia

Mangrove trees grow in shallow ocean water in tropical climates. They are among the best carbon-capturing ecosystems on the planet. Yet while mangroves supply a natural solution to a key problem of climate change, more than one third of all mangrove forests have vanished in the past 70 years because of urban encroachments, logging, and shrimp and other aquaculture farms. This deforestation is especially serious because mangroves store up to 5 to 10 times more carbon than terrestrial forests. Southern Asia has nearly half of the world’s mangrove ecosystems as well as the highest rate of their depletion.

Focusing on the western Indian Ocean, the Global Mangrove Alliance works to conserve and restore forests of these unique trees. Its initiatives encompass coastal areas in Southeast Asia, India, the Philippines, China, and Indonesia, as well as the west and east coasts of Africa and in the Caribbean.

The easiest way for individuals to support the GMA is through its partners, which include the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and Wetlands International, among others. The IUCN, for example, is combating plastic pollution in the oceans and promoting natural water infrastructure, such as peatlands in Laos (which sequester carbon) and mangrove forests. In Thailand, it supports Mangroves for the Future’s initiative to give children hands-on experiences that teach them about the value of mangrove conservation.

A wombat at Cradle Mountain, Tasmania, Australia

A wombat at Cradle Mountain, Tasmania, Australia

Photo by Visual Collective/Shutterstock

Pitch in on fire recovery efforts in Australia

In the Black Summer of 2019–2020, massive wildfires burned nearly 60 million acres and killed an estimated 1.25 billion animals in Australia, moving numerous species, including various invertebrates, into the most endangered and possibly extinct categories. The recovery will take years of effort, so although the story has long been eclipsed by the pandemic and other disasters, help is still needed.

After its long pandemic closure to the world, Australia has finally reopened its borders. If you’re headed Down Under, why not stay a while to actively engage in conservation efforts? GoEco is a tourism company that offers two experiences—land or sea—for paying volunteers: 2 to 4 weeks at a wildlife sanctuary (an hour’s drive from Sydney) or 12 days at the Great Barrier Reef.

If hanging out with echidnas, bilbies, and wombats for a few weeks won’t work for you, a short-term option is to join a Clean Up Australia event. Or support such groups as Greening Australia, the Australian Conservation Foundation, Bush Heritage Australia, and the Australian Geographic Society—all of which are doing commendable work amid recovery efforts.

See Antarctica with the lightest possible footprint

Sure, adorable penguins get ample attention and conservation funds, but let’s not forget the one food source that supports most of the wildlife that lives in the Southern Ocean. Consider contributing to the Antarctic Krill Conservation Project, an international effort and one of many ocean-related conservation projects managed by Pew Charitable Trusts. You can draw a direct line from these microscopic crustaceans to the enormous whales that devour them—to the tune of some 40 million krill a day (or 8,000 pounds) for a single blue whale.

Many whales of various species live in the frigid waters off the South Pole, including orcas, minkes, and humpbacks. To view those whales and other attractions, visitors to the continent have increased rapidly in recent years, and more tourism means more pollution in this once-pristine landscape. Add in the impact of global warming. The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) offers a brief pamphlet regarding what you should know if you’re thinking about going there.

Since 1978, the ASOC, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has been working to protect the area. Coalition members include Chile’s Centro de Conservación Cetacea, Australia’s Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the U.K.’s Blue Marine Foundation, and several others. Do a little research to find the organization you most want to support.

>>Next: Biodiversity Hot Spots and What You Can Do to Help

Pat Tompkins has written for AFAR about books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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