“Lately, the world felt fragile, like a blown egg, as if it might shatter beneath a careless touch,” wrote Kim Edwards, author of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.
In 2005, a careless backpacker started a camp fire that quickly spread and ravaged 40,000 acres of reserve land in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile, one of the most beautiful and remote UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in the world. It happened again just after Christmas in 2011. That time, another camper/tourist started a fire that engulfed thousands of acres of woodland and shrubs.
There are conflicting reports on the exact number of acres destroyed in 2011, but when I visited Torres del Paine in March 2013, 15 months after the disaster, I witnessed the vast devastation first hand. Charred tree spines and scrubs occupied what was once a region with magnificent lenga forest, Pre-Andean scrubland, and Patagonian steppe.
Today, there are 669 UNESCO Biosphere Reserves in 120 countries. UNESCO defines Biosphere Reserves as “areas comprising terrestrial, marine and coastal ecosystems” that are protected, used for scientific research and internationally recognized.
Here are 8 reserves to visit:
1. Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Located at the southern tip of the Andes, Torres del Paine is a 227,298-hectare biosphere reserve where you can see ancient forests, scrubland, steppe, lakes, glaciers, fjords, mountains and a variety of native fauna and flora. It’s home to pumas, foxes and guanacos (a type of animal related to llamas, alpacas, vicuñas, and camels).
Day tours are available from Puerto Natales, but it’s best to discover the beauty of Torres del Paine by joining the “W” or “O” circuit hikes.
2. Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska
Accessible by cruise ship, tour vessels, and private boats, Glacier Bay National Park offers visitors awe-inspiring views of glaciers, snow-capped mountains, fjords, forests and wildlife like whales, bears, puffins, and eagles.
Tour vessels are available from Juneau for those who do not arrive by cruise ship, and according to the National Park Service, those who take the tour vessel typically stay a night in Gustavus or at Glacier Bay Lodge.
Glacier Bay National Park was designated a Biosphere Reserve in 1986. It is also a National Monument, a National Park and a World Heritage Site. The national park is one of the largest protected reserves in the world, covering 3.3 million acres of rugged mountains, glaciers, temperate rainforest, deep sheltered fjords and wild coastlines.
3. Wakatobi Islands and Marine National Park, Sulawesi Indonesia
“Wakatobi” is the combination of the words Wangi-Wangi, Kaledupa, Tomia, and Binongko, the names of four of the small islands making up the Wakatobi Islands. Located at the southern tip of Sulawesi Indonesia, Wakatobi offers travelers a treasure trove in the underwater world.
The Wakatobi Islands and Marine National Park together make up a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Per UNESCO, the 3.4 million acres of islands and water have a diverse ecosystem.
You’ll see unspoiled beaches, coastal sea grass, coral reefs (396 coral species), fish (590 fish species), marine birds (85 species), turtles, cetaceans, and mangroves. To get there, you’ll have to fly to Denpasar, Jakarta or Makassar, then take another flight to Matahora Airport in Wangi-Wangi or Tomia. There are private boats and ferries between the four islands.
Wakatobi National Park is one of the most remote and virgin national parks where you can go diving, sailing, snorkeling or swimming.
4. Serengeti-Ngorongoro Biosphere Reserve, Tanzania
Around May and June each year, tourists get to witness the great migration of the 1.5 million wildebeest and 200,000 zebras across 150,000 square miles of open plains, hills, and woodlands.
Common animals to look out for are Thomson’s gazelle, wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, leopard, lion, cheetah and wild dogs. Most tours start in Arusha, Tanzania.
5. Spree Forest Biosphere Reserve, Germany
Located 100 kilometers southeast of Berlin is the Spree Forest, Europe’s wetlands (water meadows) surrounding the Spree River. The Spreewald or Spree Forest boasts forest villages with traditional log cabins and farms, and is rich in Slavic Sorb traditions and customs.
Bicycle, canoe, barge and hiking tours are available for a day or multiple days. There are untouched forests, farmsteads and over 200 small navigable channels in the Spree Forest.
6. Uuru-Kata Tjuta National Park Australia
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta Biosphere Reserve has two unique rock formations – Uluru and Kata Tjuta (formerly known as The Olgas). Occupied by the Australians Aborigines thousands of years ago, you’ll find ancient Aboriginal rock art around Uluru when you join the Mala Walk and Kuniya Walk to Mutitjulu Waterhole.
These days, there are about 350 people in the Mutitjulu community inside the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. To get there, fly to Ayers Rock, which is a three-hour flight from Sydney. Or take the Ghan, a long-distance train from Darwin to Ayers Rock from the North or Adelaide to Ayers Rock from the South.
7. Maya Biosphere Reserve Guatemala
The Maya Biosphere Reserve is in Peten, northern Guatemala, bordering Belize and Mexico. According to UNESCO, the reserve is undergoing extreme pressures as the population in Peten has increased from 25,000 to half a million people in the last 30 years.
This 2.1-million-hectare reserve is home to the famous Tikal National Park, a historically important site where you’ll find Mayan temples and ruins. Animal lovers have the opportunity to see jaguars, scarlet macaws, howler monkeys, blue morpho butterflies and leaf-cutter ants.
8. Killarney Kerry Biosphere Reserve
To visit Europe’s most extensive natural oak woodland, visit the Killarney Biosphere Reserve. Just southwest of Killarney, Ireland, this reserve has forests, mountains, lakes, moorlands, parks, and gardens.
Much of the land within the reserve has been cleared, and now it spans only 26,000 acres. The Killarney Kerry Biosphere Reserve attractions include Muckross House & Gardens, Muckross Abbey, Torc Waterfall, Ross Castle, Inisfallen Island and The Meeting of the Waters.
Article and photos by Claudia Looi