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20 Photos That Celebrate Our Natural World—And Show What’s at Stake

Now more than ever, we're appreciating just how beautiful our world is and starting to understand why it's so important to keep it healthy—in every way.

aerial view of whales swimming among icebergsMonica Bertolazzi/Getty Images

Nature’s incredible beauty

Earth’s natural spaces and the wildlife that live there are part of what makes our world exceptionally beautiful. While human encroachment, environmental disasters, climate change, and even the novel coronavirus are certainly taking their toll, the silver lining is that we’re more aware than ever about the need to protect what we value in the world. By taking care of our environment, we can ensure that nature’s wonders are there for us in the future. It might not even be as hard as we think—after the recent drop in travel from COVID-19, nature is already starting to bounce back.

portrait of an elefant holding up his trunkFrank Rothe/Getty Images

Asian elephants

Elephants are amazing creatures. You’ll never forget the experience of looking one in the eye and seeing its incredible intelligence or watching its dexterous trunk pick up a tiny object. Though African elephants are also endangered, Asian elephants are at an even greater risk. Elephants are hunted for their tusks and their skin, but habitat loss is their most significant threat, particularly in Asia. There are about 20,000 to 40,000 remaining wild Asian elephants, and the majority are in India, reports National Geographic.

Countries like Thailand are protecting both their wild and captive elephants, many of which were rescued from the logging industry. Thailand has a number of initiatives underway to improve elephants’ well-being. However, the coronavirus pandemic has brought new challenges, including a massive drop in the number of tourists that visit elephant sanctuaries and the money that normally pays for the expensive upkeep of these animals. The Thai Elephant Alliance Association is accepting donations to help provide food, medicine, and care for the elephants until tourists can return. Here’s more about how coronavirus is affecting the world’s endangered animals.

Diver swimming with Whale shark, underwater view, Cancun, MexicoKen Kiefer 2/Getty Images

Whale sharks

Whale sharks aren’t just another large species—they’re the biggest fish in the sea and are about the size of a bus! That’s likely just one of the whale shark facts you probably didn’t know. You might also not realize that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified them as endangered. Their population is at risk because of fishing, boat strikes, and climate change adversely affecting their food supply.

Wildlife tourism is one way we can help protect endangered species like whale sharks. Tourists can help make wildlife worth more alive and healthy than, say, on a dinner plate. Mexico is one of the few countries in the world that has laws related to whale-shark tourism. In La Paz, a laid-back town on the Baja peninsula, protecting whale sharks is taken very seriously. Whale sharks visit La Paz between October and April, and by taking a boat trip to snorkel with them, you contribute to protecting these gentle giants.

Australia, Great Barrier Reef, heart shaped reef, aerial viewGrant Faint/Getty Images

Coral reefs

Whether you’re looking at them underwater through your snorkeling mask or admiring them from above, coral reefs are spectacular. They’re found in places like Honduras, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Australia (home to the world’s largest coral reef). Climate change and rising ocean temperatures threaten coral reefs and can cause coral bleaching. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) explains that stressed-out coral expels tiny algae called zooxanthellae, and without it, the coral dies. So, if you see white coral, that’s dead coral.

When coral dies, it affects all the animals that live in and around it (and those that eat them). For humans, dead coral can mean food shortages, as well as risks to our coastal communities, since these reefs can no longer protect the land from storm surges the way they once did. Avoiding pesticides and reducing fertilizer runoff into the ocean can help, but slowing down climate change will make the biggest difference, says the WWF. You can help by wearing reef-safe sunscreen when you swim; hotels like Hawaii’s Aqua-Aston even provide you with it for free via Aqua-Aston’s #ForOurReef initiative. This is just one of the reasons the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants you to use mineral-based sunscreens.

overhead view of ocean wavesBenjamin Lee / EyeEm/Getty Images

The oceans

World Oceans Day, which is on June 8, brings attention to our need to protect the Earth’s largest bodies of water, which are in serious trouble. The COVID-19 crisis has given us a peek into what our oceans can look like if we take better care of them. In Thailand in April, for example, there were rare sightings of orcas and manatees, and a pod of dolphins swam 400 yards off the island of Krabi. A decrease in ocean noise and reduced ship traffic are among the reasons we’re seeing more marine life during the pandemic.

Rare Northern white rhinos in Laikipia savanna.Manoj Shah/Getty Images

The African savanna

The savanna, which stretches from Chad and Sudan all the way to South Africa, is home to some of the world’s most beautiful creatures, including endangered rhinos, elephants, and cheetahs. Check out these 14 photos of cheetahs in the wild to get a glimpse of just how amazing these big cats are.

The savanna is also where, as The Conversation explains, much of the agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa takes place. The savanna is under threat from climate change and because more and more of it is being used by humans for farms, factories, and housing. Without the savanna, we’d lose countless animals, as well as limit human food production. Zimbabwe, for example, is facing the worst drought in almost 50 years. Compounded with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s causing both people and animals to starve. Imvelo Safari Lodges has a GoFundMe campaign to help.

Scenic View Of Mountain Range Against SkyMirko Vitali / EyeEm/Getty Images

Peru’s rainbow mountains

Peru is best known for the “lost” Incan city of Machu Picchu and for the Amazon River that twists through its eastern half. But Peru is also home to the strangely striped mountains known as the Rainbow Mountains. Their real name is the Ausangate Mountains, and they’re considered to be holy by many Peruvians. The rainbow stripes are caused by weather and minerals: The red is from iron oxide, yellow from iron sulfide, and green and turquoise from chlorite. Atlas Obscura says it used to take six days of hiking to get there, but now you can drive to the base of the mountain from Cusco in about three hours. Be warned, though, that the peak is at 20,095 feet, well within the altitude-sickness zone.

PINK DOLPHINSylvain Cordier/Getty Images

The Amazon

The Amazon River weaves not only through Peru but also through five other South American countries (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela). It is home to a whole host of unusual plants and animals, including pink dolphins (shown here) and these 17 animals that live only in the Amazon rainforest. Taking a tour that goes out on the river itself, with a company like Nature Tours, is the best way to see and learn about one of the world’s most important ecosystems.

The Amazon Basin is also home to approximately 350 ethnically different indigenous peoples. About 60 of them are “essentially isolated” from the outside world, according to Live Science. Unfortunately, the Amazon is threatened by deforestation, agriculture, drought, dams, and resource extraction, notes the WWF.

Infant Mountain Gorilla kissing Silverback malePaul Souders/Getty Images

Mountain gorillas

You’ve probably seen gorillas in a zoo, but unless you’ve trekked in the rainforests of Uganda, Rwanda, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, you’ve never seen a mountain gorilla. Lowland gorillas can survive almost anywhere, but mountain gorillas live only in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest and in the Virunga Mountains, which cover the border area of all three countries. Like much of the world’s wildlife, they’re at risk largely because of habitat loss. The last census, in 2019, counted just 1,063 mountain gorillas.

National Geographic explains that if their numbers get too low, the mountain gorilla population will become too inbred to survive. They might suffer the same fate as Tasmanian devils, for example, which are dying off because there’s not enough genetic diversity for them to survive a form of transmissible cancer. Like elephants, the care of mountain gorillas is at risk because of the COVID-19-related drop in tourism.

Santa Ana VolcanoJoel Sharpe/Getty Images

Volcanoes

While it may seem strange to protect things that are destructive, volcanoes play an important part in our environment, in addition to being cool to look at. When a volcano spews ash, it makes the soil it lands on very fertile. We also use pumice, ash, and basalt in things like concrete, insulation, soap, and electroplating. Volcanoes are even responsible for creating new islands.

El Salvador’s Santa Ana Volcano, pictured here, is a stratovolcano, and it’s the highest point in the country. When it erupted in 2005, it shot out boiling water and mud, as well as rocks the size of cars, and made the soil around it incredibly fertile. You can hike the volcano to see the unusual plants growing at its different elevations and admire the strange yellow-green lake that sits in its crater. Here are another 13 active volcanoes you can actually visit.

Seawall Promenade and Siwash RockRudy Sulgan/Getty Images

Green spaces in cities

The parks and green spaces in our cities are an important part of our natural world, too. This photo is of the Seawall in Stanley Park, right next door to downtown Vancouver. Stanley Park’s 1,000-acre protected temperate rainforest is home to centuries-old giant trees and to animals like great blue herons, bald eagles, beavers, coyotes, and raccoons. Plus, the occasional harbor seal and whale swim by, much to the delight of anyone who sees them. These urban green spaces are important locations for humans to play and relax, and they contribute to our physical and mental health. Don’t miss these 50 powerful photos that prove the Earth still needs our help.

Orca hunting, underwater photographyMike Korostelev/Getty Images

Whales and dolphins

Killer whales, like this one, have a misleading name. First, they’re not whales at all; they’re a type of dolphin. And while they do hunt for their food, calling them “killer” is like calling any carnivore a killer. Off the west coast of Canada and the United States, the resident killer whales eat salmon. Transient killer whales, which travel in small groups of three or so instead of in large pods, prefer to eat seals.

Protecting whales of all kinds involves creating a quieter ocean environment by reducing ship noise, ensuring that toxins aren’t spilled into the ocean, and making sure they have an adequate food supply. An important part of that is protecting the rivers and streams where fish like salmon spawn, so they can eventually make their way to the ocean and become food for killer whales. Canada has a recovery strategy for these sea creatures. Next, find out which 14 countries are doing the most to protect the environment.

Man swimming in a cenote, Yucatan, MexicoMatteo Colombo/Getty Images

Cenotes

Cenotes are limestone sinkholes filled with clear aquamarine water. There are about 8,000 of them in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, especially in the state of Quintana Roo, home to the Mayan Riviera. Some cenotes are open to the air, and some are enclosed as caves. They can feel otherworldly, and they were, in fact, spiritually significant to the ancient Mayan people. Strangely, the Yucatán’s cenotes are among the 11 places on Earth that are still unmapped. When you swim in one, you’ll see all sorts of fish, as well as animals like iguanas and coatis in the surrounding jungle. At places like Xcaret eco-archaeological park, you can even swim from cenote to cenote via underground rivers.

who is the boss?Freder/Getty Images

Orangutans

This orangutan might be contemplating why humans, who share 96.4 percent of his genes, have done so much to endanger his species. The WWF says there are three different types of orangutan. About 104,000 Bornean orangutans remain (classified as endangered), only 7,500 Sumatran orangutans (critically endangered), and fewer than 800 Tapanuli orangutans (the most endangered of all apes). Harvesting palm oil is one of the main causes of their habitat reduction. According to the WWF, avoiding palm oil altogether is a bad idea, but you should look for products with an RSPO label, which shows they’re made with certified sustainable palm oil.

Salt crystals on surface of Dead Sea, IsraelIdo Meirovich/Getty Images

The Dead Sea

The Dead Sea is so salty that it looks like icebergs of salt crystals float in it, as in this photo. The salt makes swimmers very buoyant, and people can float so high in the water that they can read a newspaper without getting it wet. This salt lake between Israel and Jordan is 1,300 feet below sea level, the lowest point on Earth.

Every year, the Dead Sea shrinks by about three feet, and dangerous sinkholes appear around the lake. Some hotels built in the 1980s are so far from where the shore of the Dead Sea is now that they pump water into reservoirs so that tourists don’t have to take a drive to go for a swim. Better water-management policies in the region might help it survive, but just in case, it’s on our list of the breathtaking places you should visit before they disappear.

Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) lying on backs, Manitoba, CanadaGeorge Lepp/Getty Images

Polar bears

Polar bears, which can weigh up to 1,600 pounds, live in the Arctic and need ice to survive. The reduction in sea ice due to climate change is a threat to the population, and these animals are now classified as vulnerable. Polar bears particularly like to feast on seals, and they position themselves on the edges of the ice, waiting for one to bob up to breathe. And here’s a fun polar-bear fact: Mothers usually give birth to twins. You have a good chance of seeing polar bears on a safari in Canada’s north, like with Churchill Wild.

Glaciar Perito MorenoParque Nacional Los GlaciaresPatagonia Argentina.Alvaro Espinoza Fotografía/Getty Images

Icebergs

Icebergs are important to polar bears. Once part of glaciers or ice shelves, they often look like floating castles. When an iceberg falls off a glacier, it’s called calving. A certain amount of calving happens every year when summer arrives in the Arctic or Antarctic and the weather warms. Too much global warming, however, means too many icebergs that can interfere with shipping lanes and potentially sink ships. Scientists study icebergs to learn more about climate change and about ocean currents. Icebergs also provide a habitat for sea life like plankton and fish, and they’re a nice resting spot for seals and polar bears (though not at the same time). Icebergs visit the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador every year, and viewing them from the shore or from boats is a popular tourist activity.

Travertine terrace pools, Pamukkale, Anatolia, Turkey, AsiaMarco Simoni/Getty Images

Pamukkale

Pamukkale, which means “cotton castle” in Turkish, is the name of a strange mountain in southwestern Turkey. This surreal UNESCO World Heritage site looks like it’s covered in snow and has a cascading series of turquoise blue pools, dripping with “icicles,” down the side of the mountain. The terraced pools are made of travertine, which is a kind of white limestone deposited by hot springs. People used to bathe in the warm pools; in Roman and Byzantine times, it was a spa city, and you can still explore the ruins of a 15,000-seat amphitheater. All that tourist traffic, though, caused erosion and damage to the pools, so people are now only allowed in a select few. You’re still allowed to walk on some parts of the white stone, but only barefoot. Pamukkale is one of the 15 most gorgeous hot springs in the world.

Aerial View of Iguazu FallsGonzalo Azumendi/Getty Images

Iguazu Falls

Niagara and Victoria Falls seem to get all the attention, but people who haven’t seen Iguazu Falls are missing out. In fact, when Eleanor Roosevelt first saw them, she reportedly said, “Poor Niagara!” There are 275 different falls in the area, all complemented by bright green jungle, rainbows, and butterflies. This spot is so amazing that it’s one of the real places that inspired Disney rides.

You can see the falls from both Argentina and Brazil, and each side of the gorge offers a different experience. The falls are also at the border of Paraguay, and the three countries are working together to protect them with the help of Canada and the United Kingdom, reports Culture Trip. The falls are affected by the increase in population in the region and by climate change, with extreme rainstorms causing erosion and landslides.

Maldives: Wonder of natureMohamed Abdulla Shafeeg/Getty Images

Tropical islands

Tropical islands, with their white-sand beaches surrounded by turquoise waters, look like paradise. But remaining a paradise isn’t always easy. Bloomberg, for example, notes that the Cook Islands sacrificed their tourism-dependent economy during the COVID-19 pandemic in order to remain free of the virus.

Another issue: Climate change is causing some tropical islands to sink. Especially in the South Pacific and in the Maldives (shown here), many islands are at risk due to rising sea levels and extreme storms. In fact, an 11-acre island in Hawaii disappeared in 2018, and three other islands disappeared in 2019, NBC reports. One was in the Pacific island nation Kiribati, which is made up of 32 atolls. All that remains of one atoll, called Tebunginako, is a ruined church that’s surrounded by water at high tide.

Man exploring an amazing glacial cave in IcelandAnton Petrus/Getty Images

Glaciers

Climate change is melting the world’s glaciers, which contributes to rising sea levels. It’s happening everywhere. Mont Blanc’s Planpincieux glacier was at risk of collapsing last year. Canada’s high Arctic, one of the most glaciated regions in the world, is losing its glaciers due to some of the fastest global warming on the planet. Another heavily glaciated country is Iceland. About 11 percent of Iceland is covered by 269 named glaciers, and sometimes they form strange caves that tourists can explore, like the one in this photo. This is what could happen if glaciers continue to melt.