Since 2016, we at AFAR have been honoring the visionaries in travel who are making the world a better place with our Vanguard awards, which are celebrated with the recipients each year in New York City. What’s more, we recently attended the biennial Rolex Awards for Enterprise in Washington, D.C., in June. Since 1976, the luxury watch company has been honoring individuals who pioneer the advancement of knowledge, work toward improvement in the well-being of humanity, and strive for protection of the Earth’s natural heritage.
The awards, which grant funding to recipients for their projects, were created in honor of the late Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf, who was well known for his philanthropy. This past year, there were 957 applicants from 111 countries (and close to 40 percent of those applicants were women), with Rolex allowing the public to vote for the first time. Among this year’s laureates, there are three whose work in the environment is literally helping to save the iconic places that we want to visit. Read on to learn about the amazing work these three people are doing, and then book a trip to experience the very destinations they’re trying to protect and save.
India: The Tiger Champion
One of the biggest issues facing our planet of 8 billion (and rapidly growing) people in the next century? Space. And the world’s dwindling wildlife population is among the biggest casualties. Conservationist Krithi Karanth is determined to find solutions to human-wildlife conflict in her native India, home to 70 percent of the world’s tigers and half of the world’s Asian elephants. “The challenge is, when you have these big animals that want to move across and live in very large spaces and we squeeze them into just the parks—and high densities of people live on the edges—people are going to always see animals come out,” says the Rolex Awards Laureate. “It’s a question of whether [people] are going to retaliate or tolerate the losses they have.”
Those losses can include crops, livestock—and in the worst-case scenarios—human lives. In 2015, she launched a program called Wild Seve, a conflict-responses system for such incidents that serves 600 villages near Bandipur and Nagarahole national parks, in the state of Karnataka. A half million villagers currently have access to a toll-free number that links them to Karanth’s response team, who arrive to help them file compensation claims with the government. So far, 14,000 claims have been filed, amounting to $200,000 in compensations. With her funding from Rolex, Karanth plans to expand the program to three more parks and 1,000 more villages and also test other preventative measures such as predator-proof sheds and fences. She also plans to launch Wild Shaale, a conservation education program for children in 300 schools on the edges of national parks in Karnataka.
Trip to take: While Karanth does her work in southern India, and the “Soul of India” itinerary from Nairobi-based luxury outfitter Micato Safaris takes travelers to the north in Rajasthan, it still gives participants a taste for the areas where she’s doing her visionary work. In addition to stops at iconic places in the region such as the Taj Mahal and Varanasi, travelers go to Ranthambore National Park for close encounters with the Royal Bengal tiger.
Brazil: The Fish Whisperer
A giant fish you’ve probably never heard of is in danger of extinction. But the possible disappearance of this species, native to the Amazon, has much larger ramifications. The preservation of the arapaima, or pirarucu, the world’s largest freshwater fish, is a bellwether for the survival of other wildlife in the area, not to mention the livelihood and culture of the people who live around it, farm it, and subsist on it. Overfishing and habitat loss are the key reasons for the decline of the arapaima, but João Campos-Silva, a Brazilian fisheries biologist, has been experimenting with ways to preserve the species, and the ecosystem around it, along Brazil’s Jurua River. The Rolex Awards Laureate created fishery management systems that are run by locals, which included shutting off certain parts of the area’s river-connected lakes to fishing. Closing those lakes to hunting and fishing has allowed other endangered species to return, including giant otters, manatees, black caimans, and giant turtles. His effort has increased the species to 30 times its original number, which has allowed for better catches among professional fishermen.
His next goal: to extend his formula to the 60 communities living along the Jurua River. “I believe that community-based management of arapaima is the most powerful tool that we have to ensure a sustainable future for the Amazon floodplains,” says Campos-Silva.
Trip to take: One of the best choices for custom travel through the Brazilian Amazon is Brazil-based Matueté, which offers a variety of custom-designed yacht-based trips to help travelers explore the region, including five-day trips along the Negro and Tapajos rivers, which connect with the Amazon River. The itineraries include trips to murkier Amazonian waters, where the arapaima can be found. Matueté is especially conscious of conservation efforts while traveling through the Amazon and does not support the practice of feeding or swimming with the region’s iconic pink dolphins.
Australia: The Reef Healer
Our coral reefs are in peril: Experts say they could be mostly damaged on our planet by the 2030s, due to climate change and human activity. But British marine biologist Emma Camp, a Rolex Awards for Enterprise Associate Laureate, is on a mission to find a solution before it’s too late. Camp, 32, has dedicated her career to studying areas of the world where corals are surviving, despite hostile conditions such as acidic or low-oxygen water, in the hope that these resilient examples could be the future of reef repopulation.
Currently, she’s based in Australia studying the behavior and genetics of resilient coral along the Great Barrier Reef, with the ultimate goal of transplanting them so they can colonize in places where reefs have been devastated. “I believe we need to think outside the box,” says Camp. “We need to go back to nature and see how it has survived for so long, and use that knowledge, combined with innovation and technology, to try to conserve what we’ve got.”
Trip to take: In 2020, U.S.-based Natural Habitat Adventures is launching “Australia’s Wild North: Kakadu, Daintree, & The Great Barrier Reef,” which includes snorkeling outings along the world’s largest coral reef, filled with wildlife such as loggerhead sea turtles, manta rays, barracudas, and giant clams. (Remember to use environmentally friendly sunscreen, especially when you enter the water.) The trip also includes a trip to the Daintree Rain Forest, inhabited by rat-kangaroos and bandicoots, and Kakadu, Australia’s largest national park, where Aboriginal people have lived for more than 65,000 years. Added bonus: Nat Hab is offsetting all carbon emissions from the international flights of its guests.
>> Next: The 2018 AFAR Travel Vanguard
Jennifer Flowers Jennifer Flowers is an award-winning journalist and the senior deputy editor of AFAR.