Each year more people die while attempting to protect the world’s most biodiverse places. It’s a trend poised to devastate the planet itself. How can we stem the rising tide of attacks to ensure a safer future for us all?

The daylight has faded in the Caribbean port of Santa Marta, but high above the coast, the sun’s last rays sharpen the outlines of the white peaks of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. From my vantage point at the Hotel Don Pepe’s rooftop bar, the glowing mountaintops form a jagged, triangular halo behind Tito Rodríguez, who rolls an unsipped bottle of beer between his palms.

Rodríguez is the director of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta National Park, a natural wonderland that rises from Colombia’s Caribbean shore to nearly 19,000 feet in just 26 miles. The park ascends from beaches and mangroves through dry forests, rainforests, cloud forests, glaciers, and the tropical tundra known as páramo. Its steeply stacked microclimates support an exuberantly complex range of ecosystems and endemic wildlife, including 23 birds found nowhere else. The reserve is, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Science, the most irreplaceable protected area in the world for threatened species.