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Zambezi River Valley
Photograph: Shutterstock

Five of the world’s wildest places and the people who are working to keep them that way

Meet the activists on the frontline of protecting the planet’s most remote, beautiful and threatened landscapes.

Written by
Sarah Medina
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As the world slowly emerges from lockdown and life returns to some semblance of normal, we're reflecting on the toll that human activity takes on the natural world around us. While we might emerge from our homes with a greater appreciation for the local parks, national parks, and general green spaces that sustained us over the last year, many of the world's most important landscapes are under threat from climate change and continued human negligence. 

This Earth Day, we're handing the microphone to five conservartionists who are protecting some of the last wild places in the world. Meet the people protecting some of the most underdeveloped, remote and fragile environments on the planet.  

Additional interviews by Huw Oliver and James Manning 

Northern Boreal Forest, Canada
Photograph: Shutterstock

 

Canada’s boreal forest 

Iris Catholique, manager of Thaidene Nëné Indigenous Protected Area

Thaidene Nëné, which translates to Land of the Ancestors, spans 26,376 square kilometres (6.4 million acres), at the transition between the boreal forest and the tundra in Northern Canada. In addition to protecting the deepest freshwater source in North America, the boreal forest stores carbon, purifies the air and water, and helps regulate the climate for the entire planet.

Iris Catholique
Photograph: Courtesy Iris Catholique

I think it's a well-known fact that the Northwest Territories of Canada is very rich in minerals – we've got three diamond mines in our backyard and another mine for gold. So I guess one of the things that sparked the idea for Thaidene Nëné, over 50 years ago, was the fact that the elders had always wanted to have a protected area set aside for future generations, and have it be protected in a way that the First Nation people were involved so they didn't lose any of their treaty rights.”             

“The First Nation is an integral part of the management of the Indigenous protected area, which includes a national park reservee. We have a trilateral agreement with Parks Canada, and the government of the Northwest Territories. So there's always going to be representation of the First Nation people at every single level of decision-making and we’re going to have a say in any plans that are made on our traditional territory. First Nation people also have the right to hunt, to trap, to fish and to sustain themselves as they have traditionally done for a millennia, and they can live that lifestyle without penalty.” 

We've always been taught to respect the land and to protect it - if you take care of it, it'll take care of you.

“I grew up in the area. I was raised as a young child to always respect the land. We have a deep connection with the land and the water and all of the animals, because we live together, but also because it gives back to you, it sustains you, it keeps you alive. The water is so pristine here that you can take a cup and just dip it in the lake and drink it without having to worry about any contaminants. We've always been taught to respect the land and to protect it – if you take care of it, it'll take care of you.” 

“The colonialistic way of establishing parks has always been: Okay, well, we're gonna protect this area and these are the rules – and we’re not going to consult anybody. That’s the way of the past. Our small little model is leading the way into the future. It's giving other Indigenous folks across the world an idea: ‘Hey, if they can do it, why can't we use our traditional knowledge, our history, and our traditional laws to govern ourselves and our people and our way of life within a national park?”

“We just purchased a lodge, we've done renovations, and we’re prepared for visitors to come. We’re investing in our young people, providing hospitality training and helping them start their own businesses for outfitting, canoeing, kayaking, and other really cool activities. We've got stellar, stellar views – we have crazy aurora. I was just taking pictures of the northern lights the other night and the entire sky was on fire. And we want to share our stories and our places with people.” 

“It's a responsibility for us to pass on these teachings and traditions, not only to our children, but to everybody that we work with, because that's how we were taught by our elders. We're creating a path for future generations.” 

Arctic
Photograph: Shutterstock

 

The arctic 

Elisabeth Kruger, arctic wildlife manager with World Wildlife Fund 

Arctic sea ice helps determine Earth’s climate. Sea ice has a very bright surface and reflects 80 percent of sunlight that strikes it back to space (while the ocean absorbs about 90 percent of solar radiation). The preservation of the Arctic’s thick, reflective sea ice is crucial to moderating ocean temperatures around the world.

Elisabeth Kruger
Photograph: Courtesy Elisabeth Kruger

“The Arctic is warming at two to three times the rate of the rest of the world and it is evident in our day-to-day life in Alaska, especially along the coast and in the marine areas. We are seeing later freeze, earlier melting, and the sea ice is not the same quality as it was before. We literally have villages falling into the ocean because of coastal erosion that’s caused by climate change. And we’re only just starting to see the real ecosystem impacts and the impact on animals and people. Everything that I do is somehow connected to climate change, and climate change is by far the biggest threat to all of the things that we care about in the Arctic.” 

“We literally have villages falling into the ocean because of climate change.” 

“My focus is on marine mammals, primarily polar bears, but you really have to take a holistic approach to conservation. You really can’t address one species in a silo: it’s all interconnected. In Alaska, people are very much part of the environment. Alaska Natives live an interconnected life with the ecosystem and consider the ocean to be their garden, and that’s where a lot of their food comes from. We have a common goal in ensuring ecosystem security, which helps with food security.”

“In Alaska, people are a part of the ecosystem – not apart from it. And that level of connection is something that a lot of people who live in cities have lost. They’re separated from the really deep roots that many communities have here, whose families have lived here for thousands of years alongside and interconnected with the wildlife and plants, the seasons and the tundra. That intimate relationship with nature really makes Alaska special.”  

“People here are a part of the ecosystem - not apart from it.”

“At this point, we as humanity have already committed to a certain amount of climate change. We’re unlikely to see an ecosystem that remains unchanged here. In fact, we’re already seeing some pretty drastic eco shifts in places like the Bering Sea. What we need to do is give the environment and the communities here some elbow room to adapt to new realities. And what we can do is try to lower the risk of things that we know are detrimental to life, like a ship spilling oil into the water.” 

“These areas have enabled life to flourish for thousands and thousands of years, and we can help ensure that there is enough of a healthy ecosystem here to continue on, as long as we don’t ruin the habitat through contamination. Wherever you are, talk to your elected representatives and really push that we need to reduce our emissions and we need to do it fast.” 

Australia's Great Sandy Desert
Photograph: Courtesy 10 Deserts Project

 

Australia’s deserts

Peter Murray, chair of the 10 Deserts Project

Australia’s arid deserts are home to an exceptional diversity of animals and plants, including almost 100 endangered species. They also have immense cultural value due to 50,000 years of continuous occupation by Indigenous people.  

Peter Murray
Photograph: Alan McDonald

My passion is traditional methods of land management in the Great Sandy Desert of Australia, which have been passed on to me from my ancestors, elders and cultural leaders. Australia’s deserts are the last wild and untouched places on Earth. They’re also diverse, and nothing like what people imagine when you say desert. They’re home to iconic threatened species such as the bilby, desert skink, and central rock rats (one of the most threatened species in the country), and right now they’re under threat from climate change and other issues such as invasive plants and weeds, uncontrolled fire and introduced predators such as cats and foxes.” 

Australia’s deserts are the last wild and untouched places on Earth.

“The 10 Deserts Project, which covers the 10 different deserts of Australia, grants access and opportunities to traditional landowners and remote desert communities through jobs, training, and access to their ancestral lands. Indigenous First Nation peoples have a practical and spiritual connection to the land, and there is a richness that comes from traditional owners working in conversation with modern conservationists, while also preserving a culture and way of life that has been in existence for over millennia. The way we work now is to blend traditional knowledge with contemporary techniques, which allows young people a pathway into conservation work as well as maintaining a spiritual connection and fulfilling cultural responsibilities.” 

“Right now we’re working on Indigenous ‘right way’ fire [cultural burning] as a means of preventing wildfires. We’re developing dedicated female ranger teams to look after the land and develop tourism. And we’re encouraging people to return to the desert to share and exchange knowledge as well as collecting and storing that knowledge to pass onto younger generations.” 

“The desert is a hot place that continues to get hotter with the impacts of climate change. We’ve also seen extreme periods of rainfall and drought, which leads to more wildfires. Some of the species most at risk are the mammals and birds that don’t burrow: living in extreme environs makes it harder for them to cope. We’re working to improve landscape health and resilience. If we continue to do this, we will be able to maintain much of the biodiversity in the desert. People all over the world can help by reducing their carbon footprint, and working towards an understanding of the desert as diverse, vast and beautiful – it’s home to a lot of life and culture. Come and visit the desert and respect the people and the place and the scale and sheer beauty.” 

deep ocean
Photograph: Shutterstock

 

The deep ocean 

Ricardo Aguilar, senior advisor and expedition leader with Oceana

Under the surface of the sea, invaluable ecosystems are destroyed at an incredible rate. In the deep ocean, some of the last places on earth untouched by humans, entire seascapes are threatened by overfishing and pollution. 

Ricardo Aguilar
Photograph: Juan Cuetos

“There was a study published about five years ago that found only four to six percent of the world’s oceans were not impacted by human activities. We have been overfishing most of the species that were in shallow waters, so they’ve been moving to the high seas and to deep-sea areas. Fishing trawlers have followed – they’re reaching the seamounts, the submarine canyons, they’re reaching many places that were untouched. We’re trying to protect these areas and trying to reduce the impact of human activities in other areas where the seabed can recover. But it’s not only a question of protecting, but also trying to recover some of the areas that have already been impacted by humans.” 

We are especially worried about species that are not going to recover in the future, even if we stop destroying them now.

“We are especially worried about species that are not going to recover in the future, even if we stop destroying them now. Deep-sea sharks grow very slowly – most of the species need two to three years to reproduce and some of them keep their young inside their bodies. That means that when you catch them, you are also catching the next generation. Deep-sea coral reefs need six to ten thousand years to build. You can destroy coral in just a few seconds, and if you do that, then we are not going to recover them. We have been surveying the same places for 10 to 15 years, and we found that where there had been beautiful sponge populations, now there was nothing. Things have changed completely.” 

“In some areas, they have changed not only because of overfishing, but also because of climate change. There are more and more species that are moving north, and they are occupying the ecosystem of other European species. Even if we stop all the pollutants and all the gases that are affecting the atmosphere and the oceans, the process that we have created is not going to stop in the near future. It is going to be with us for centuries. Then, most of the seascapes are going to change in Europe and in the world. That is why it is so important to change the policies on climate change and to be more radical and to reduce much more the gases that we emit into the atmosphere.” 

“One of the most important things we can do to protect these wider ocean areas is to stop overfishing. But there is  something else everyone can do, and that is trying to avoid species presented as souvenirs. In souvenir shops I often see corals, sponges, and deep-sea species. I would ask people not to buy these, because they are promoting the destruction of these areas.” 

Zambezi River Valley
Photograph: Shutterstock

 

The Zambezi Valley 

Richard Maasdorp, strategic director of the Zambezi Society

The Zambezi Valley in Zimbabwe is one of the world’s largest, contiguous areas of protected, unsettled, wild land set aside for natural resource conservation. It is also home to the second-largest elephant population on the planet. 

Richard Maasdorp
Photograph: Courtesy Richard Maasdorp

“What makes [the Zambezi Valley] so special is that it’s about 220km of contiguous wildlife area along Lake Kariba and the Zambezi River. It’s a vast, wild landscape, little known except for Mana Pools and Matusadona national parks. But the entire area is a designated wildlife area, so it’s a significant piece of wilderness. I suppose 70 or 80 percent is really, really wild and is not necessarily conducive to tourism, but it is conducive to animals having a really natural life.”  

[About] 80 percent is really, really wild and is not conducive to tourism, but it is conducive to animals having a really natural life.

“The biggest threat at the moment is deforestation, and where the habitat is most threatened is just outside the park’s borders – what we call the ‘buffer zones’. Small-scale tobacco growers are encouraged by the major tobacco companies to grow the crop, and to cure the plant they use indigenous forest wood. That’s having a devastating effect on some of the forests and wildlife areas outside the park. And it’s much more difficult to protect, because you have this real tension between poverty and people who need to make ends meet [and the threatened wildlife].”  

“Bushmeat poaching and elephant poaching are also constant threats, but the number of elephants being poached here has gone down. But as soon as we relax or we no longer have the resources to do the work, those numbers can move very, very quickly in the wrong direction. There’s nothing more sustainable in our conservation work than philanthropic money, because we’re not a business, we don’t generate income. So by definition, the only way we can keep doing our work is to keep getting funding from someone.” 

“The other challenge is that tourism is what’s going to keep our wild spaces together. But tourism doesn’t pay the bills. It won’t cover the cost of conservation and 70 percent of the park is not amenable to tourism. What’s really going to keep this park going for 20 years is if someone - either governments or other institutions or big philanthropic people – will recognise the value of this amazing landscape and say: ‘We’ve got to invest in it in perpetuity. Because otherwise it’s got to earn its keep some other way, and that by definition will destroy the wildlife there.’” 

 “What we would like the average person to understand is the complexity of the situation. There are no generic solutions. Even with elephants: The generic solution is anti-poaching and no trade. But in Zimbabwe, we’ve got other problems. Be very careful of forming a one-size-fits-all solution. And come and visit. Even if tourists don’t put anything back into the landscape, they can take the wild space energy back with them, and they will be a different person as a result. And that adds value to the planet.” 

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