Traveling to the Edge of Extinction

Sunday, April 20, 2008; Page P04

Last month a piece of Antarctic ice nine times the size of Manhattan unexpectedly collapsed into the sea. Now, although that was dramatic evidence that something's gone awry in the world, you probably weren't planning to go there anyway. But comparable things are happening to popular travel destinations. The causes vary: overdevelopment, global climate change, pollution, plain old rotten luck. And, sometimes, it's tourism itself. Just in time for Earth Day, here are five books to make you think about where you're going.

· "Disappearing Destinations: 37 Places in Peril and What Can Be Done to Help Save Them," by Kimberly Lisagor and Heather Hansen (Vintage, $15.95, 400 pages)

Lisagor and Hansen's "places in peril" include disasters in the making that previously seemed inconceivable. The highest ski slope in the world (near La Paz, Bolivia) has almost evaporated. Ditto Kilimanjaro's famous snows. And you people climbing Everest? Pick up after yourselves: The mountain is on its way to becoming the world's highest garbage dump. And melting. Fabled Timbuktu has had to sell off some of its cultural riches, as desertification impoverishes the Sahel. Meanwhile, the Dead Sea is still dead, but smaller, shallower and saltier.

The entries are not all somber; destinations are introduced with descriptions of their natural charms. And the authors do spotlight cruise lines and resort operators who are trying to get it right. But the book's principal mission is to show what we stand to lose, how quickly we stand to lose it, and how we might avoid that.

· "Disappearing World: 101 of the Earth's Most Extraordinary and Endangered Places," by Alonzo C. Addison (Collins, $34.95, 272 pages)

While Lisagor and Hansen provide first-person accounts of travel to their imperiled destinations, Addison's book is shorter on text but generous with photographs -- a coffee-table book for people drinking fair-trade coffee. Focusing on UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites, Addison groups them by threat: natural disaster; theft and poaching; overdevelopment. War's human casualties deservedly occupy the forefront of our minds, but such conflict can devastate the environment as well. Rangers are driven away from parks, formerly protected animals are poached, displaced civilians cut down forests for fuel.

The plights of elephants and gorillas have been widely documented, but who remembers Mexico's vaquita porpoise (frequently caught in fishing nets) or the Mount Nimba toad of the Ivory Coast (threatened by mining)? Cultural sites are at risk as well, with Petra, Ayers Rock, Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat being loved to death by tourists. Some places, such as the Taj Mahal and Venice, you will have heard of; but at others -- with such names as Bam, Jam and Chan Chan -- there also are real threats and real losses for all of us.

· "The Quest for Kaitiakitanga: The Ancient Maori Secret From New Zealand That Could Save the Earth," by Richard Bangs (Menasha Ridge Press, $16.95, 150 pages)

If it all seems just so impossible -- taming global climate change, saving species, protecting authentic cultures -- ancient New Zealand natives might have had the secret: Kaitiakitanga. An herbal supplement? No, but wait, there's more.

Writer, adventure tour guide and TV producer Bangs runs the length of New Zealand -- on foot, by bike, by kayak -- to find the meaning of Kaitiakitanga, a concept that . . . well, that's the problem. While the Polynesian Maori people who settled the islands centuries before the 1642 arrival of white explorers know and live its meaning, it seems that each of them can articulate just a part of it. But as Bangs moves among Maori enclaves, aggressively "green" resorts and whale-watching enterprises, each Maori spokesman adds "a bead of this chainless necklace." It's not just conservation, it's community spirit -- and even tourism, if conducted carefully. And following the mythical path of the white heron, traditionally believed to carry human spirits northward, Bangs also gets to see some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth.

· "Across the Tibetan Plateau: Ecosystems, Wildlife, and Conservation," by Robert L. Fleming, Dorje Tsering and Liu Wulin (W.W. Norton, $49.94, 120 pages)

Something like Kaitiakitanga seems to be working on the Tibetan plateau. The book's many color photographs show a diversity of plant and animal species, a revelation to people who think of Tibet as all snow and yaks and . . . more yaks. But the authors do a fascinating show-and-tell of rare animal species, from the "glass snake" (actually a lizard), which falls apart when attacked, to the Tibetan wild ass (once nearly hunted to extinction), to the black-lipped deer and the white-lipped pika (related to rabbits). The plant life is equally striking: 60 species of rhododendron; intense, pure-yellow peonies.

But it isn't merely the region's isolation that keeps it so picture-perfect. It took coordination among the government, community representatives and others to achieve a condition where now 40 percent of the land is under conservation management, producing the tantalizing landscapes and close-ups shown in the book.

What a sight to see. If you could. This book was published before the current political violence that prompted a State Department advisory to defer travel to Tibet. Such books may be our only view for a while.

-- Jerry V. Haines

© 2008 The Washington Post Company