Þingvellir National Park

Lessons Learned: Five Countries Leading the Way in Conservation

Lessons Learned: Five Countries Leading the Way in Conservation

Aug 6, 2020|Where we travel| by Lindsay Taulbee

Conservation and responsible travel go hand-in-hand. Here, we turn the spotlight on five countries that stand out for protecting the planet through measures like reducing carbon emissions, preventing deforestation, and protecting wildlife. These countries rank highly in internationally recognized indices and set an example with their often innovative solutions.

 Photo by ThinkGeoEnergy


Iceland regularly makes headlines for its commitment to responsible practices, and it consistently ranks among the top 20 countries in Yale University’s biennial Environmental Performance Index (EPI), including landing the top spot in 2010. The island has numerous glaciers, and much of its economy depends on fisheries and related industries, so Icelanders have a lot to lose from a changing climate.

In 2018, it vowed to cut net emissions to meet its Paris Agreement targets by 2030 and to be completely carbon neutral by 2040.  Toward that end, the country currently derives nearly all of its electricity consumption from renewable sources. The distinctive geological features like volcanoes, hot springs, rivers, and waterfalls that are so attractive to travelers also serve the country in the form of geothermal energy and hydropower.

Looking ahead, Iceland is the site of cutting-edge developments in carbon capture technology. According to the World Economic Forum, researchers at Hellisheiði geothermal power station are testing methods of injecting carbon dioxide into porous basalt rock, where it is trapped and converted to minerals through chemical reactions.

 Photo by Ashley Loza

Costa Rica

Over the past few decades, Costa Rica has carved out a name for itself as one of the world’s top ecotourism destinations. This transformation didn’t happen by accident, but rather with the dedicated support of the country’s government and its people. Today, Costa Rica is working toward simultaneously reducing and offsetting carbon emissions in its goal to become the world’s first carbon-neutral country and to completely end the use of fossil fuels by 2050.

Not only does the country have an extensive national park system, but it also holds large swaths of privately protected land. Incentives such as the government’s Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) program reward farmers who practice sustainable forestry and environmental protection. According to the World Bank, it is the only tropical country in the world that has actually reversed deforestation.

Other national initiatives include the Certification for Sustainable Tourism program (CST), which evaluates the environmental, cultural, and social impacts of companies in the tourism sector, and the Blue Flag Ecology Program, a joint campaign between multiple governmental agencies and community members that promotes environmental education and protection, focusing specifically on healthy beaches and coastal environments.

 Photo by Pelin Karaca


Namibia was one of the first countries in the world—and the first in Africa—to incorporate protection of the environment into its constitution. It also boasts a number of wildlife success stories; it’s home to the largest remaining population of wild cheetahs, as well as the highest number of free-roaming black rhinos. Its elephant population has increased from 7,500 to 22,000 animals over the past 25 years, and it’s one of the few countries on the continent with a growing giraffe population.

These achievements can largely be attributed to the strength of its community involvement, specifically through “communal conservancies.” There are more than 80 communal conservancies in Namibia, protecting about 20 percent of the country’s land (in addition to the 20 percent that’s protected in national parks). In this inclusive model of conservation management, community members are empowered to manage their own natural resources.

Once a protected area is designated, the conservancy maintains control over the land and can therefore benefit from ecotourism activities, ensuring money is funneled directly back into the community, and in turn supporting anti-poaching operations, wildlife management, and other initiatives. Local residents are employed to monitor wildlife or as game guards, providing a sustainable source of income.

 Photo by Pelin Karaca


In 2017, Botswana was ranked first out of 152 countries on the Megafauna Conservation Index for its outstanding efforts to protect large animals like elephants, rhinos, and hippos. The designation came as part of a study carried out by Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit and the big cat conservation organization Panthera. The study looked at three key indicators: how widely spread megafauna is within the country, what proportion of the animals’ ranges fell within protected areas, and the percentage of money each country was allocating toward conservation as compared to their GDP.

While wildlife tourism plays an increasingly important role in Botswana’s economy, the country has recognized the importance of taking a sustainable approach to this growth. It has promoted a (sometimes controversial) low-volume, high-cost tourism model that restricts the number of visitors and promotes a more intimate, exclusive experience while placing less stress on vulnerable ecosystems. The fact that the government has a Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism demonstrates a recognition that the three components are inextricably linked.

 Photo by Bas Wallet


Stretching 1,700 miles from Puerto Montt in northern Patagonia to Cape Horn at the region’s southern tip, Chile’s Route of Parks is a one-of-a-kind undertaking. The recently unveiled network comprises 17 national parks. Combined, they protect 28 million acres. The Route of Parks safeguards Patagonia’s pristine landscapes, wildlife, and unique flora. Furthermore, the initiative partners with 60 communities throughout the region to develop sustainable tourism opportunities, thus providing economic benefit to local residents.

The scenic route is the result of a partnership between the Chilean government and Tompkins Conservation, a private foundation established by Kristine Tompkins and the late Doug Tompkins (former CEO of Patagonia, Inc. clothing company, and founder of The North Face clothing and equipment company, respectively). Through a historic donation of 1 million acres of previously acquired private land, matched by millions of additional acres earmarked by Chile’s government, the conservation project was born and garnered international recognition for the country.

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