This article appears in Volume 21: The Islands Issue.

Picture paradise. There you are, swinging from side to side carefree in a hammock, surrounded by white sand and azure waters and daydreaming about parrotfish and eagle rays. You’re in the Maldives, or somewhere similarly idyllic, and it’s everything that you had hoped for.

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Except. When you get up to take a dip in the plunge pool you notice a charcoal-grey blip on the horizon. It doesn’t take long before you realise that it’s smoke – it looks as though a whole island is on fire. You start to panic and a little farther down the beach you alert one of the waiters. Without even looking at the sea he retorts with a reassuring grin: “Not to worry, that’s just Thilafushi, the landfill island. When the pile of trash gets too high, they burn it.”

Paradise islands are a lot less enticing when accompanied by piles of man-made materials, toxic smoke and bleached coral. Tourists typically produce twice as much rubbish as locals, and islands are ill-equipped to deal with its disposal – they also have finite resources. Experts predict a collapse of global fisheries by 2048, by which point our oceans may contain more plastic than fish.

Nonetheless, when the owners of private islands genuinely commit to conservation, tourism can be a force for good. On Chumbe Island, eight miles southwest of Zanzibar, a zero-impact eco-lodge has been built to fund the creation of a nature reserve, rather than the other way around. Chumbe was the first property to be certified by conservation gurus at the Long Run, a membership organisation dedicated to driving sustainable business, and its 81-acre coral reef sanctuary is now home to 90 per cent of East Africa’s hard coral and reef species. Local fishermen, originally disgruntled by the impact of the reserve’s no-take area, have been given the opportunity to train as Chumbe Coral Park rangers, while the Chumbe Environmental Education programme provides free excursions for local children, teachers and community groups.

When it comes to conservation it’s imperative to have this community buy-in. Locals must benefit from tourism and recognise that preserving a pristine environment leads to long-term economic prosperity. A travel company that knows this better than most is andBeyond, which last year linked three exclusive island lodges on the east coast of Africa – Mnemba, Benguerra and Vamizi – to create Oceans Without Borders. Designed to help protect 2,000km of African coastline by focusing on fishing and alternative income sources, the programme acknowledges that long-term conservation within the region will be successful only through efforts to reduce dependence on the ocean, giving communities a stake in its preservation.

In putting nature and community first, these islands provide a better experience for travellers – everywhere you turn, wildlife is thriving, and you can forge an instant and strong connection with the destination as well as its staff.

Mnemba Island, Mozambique

Under andBeyond’s protection, Mnemba has developed a steady conservation record. After needs-testing the local community, the island created its own marine protection zone and developed alternative sources of food and income for local fishermen. With no natural predators and long-term commitment from staff members, the island has become an unlikely haven for Africa’s rarest antelope, the endangered Aders’s duiker– five have now been sent back to the mainland to promote breeding efforts.

Soneva Fushi, Maldives

Soneva Fushi is run by dedicated environmentalists. A behind-the-scenes tour of its “waste-to-wealth” centre is the eco-equivalent of stargazing with Brian Cox. Since 2008, Soneva has prevented 1.2million plastic bottles from going to landfill and currently 72 per cent of its waste is recycled. As the national headquarters for FINished with Fins, which educates consumers about the environmental dangers of eating shark’s fin soup, Soneva plays an active role in nationwide conservation efforts and, on a grassroots level, offers free swimming lessons to local children to help them to develop an understanding of the sea.

Nikoi Island and Cempedak Island, Indonesia

The owners of Nikoi and their recent opening Cempedak always wanted to protect the islands rather than simply create resorts. Their dedication to conservation is evident in the beautifully constructed villas (which use a local design that requires no air conditioning), their committed team of employees from local villages and the islands’ thriving populations of hawksbill turtles and sea otters. Having recently sighted a rare species of dolphin, their conservation teams have developed a positive dialogue with native fishermen, who now allow them to monitor sightings.

Song Saa, Cambodia

These 27 eco-luxury villas are far more than just a resort. When developing Cambodia’s first private island, its founders, Rory and Melita Hunter, embraced responsibility towards the land and locals. Alongside creating the country’s first marine reserve, conducting clean-ups and trialling artificial reefs, the Song Saa Foundation’s Boat of Hope delivers health and education services to the cut-off communities of the Koh Rong Archipelago.

Misool Eco Resort, Indonesia

Helping local communities to reclaim their traditional tenure of the surrounding coral reefs – some of the world’s most diverse – has long been the objective of Misool’s owners. Built on the site of a former shark-finning camp, its aim is to persuade those who live there that protecting the reef will also protect their future. Since helping to create a 300,000-acre marine protected area, fishing stocks have greatly improved outside of the no-take zone.

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