What Makes the Andes a “Jewel” of Biodiversity

Human Wrongs Watch

By Musonda Mumba Chief, Terrestrial Ecosystems, UNEP and Hugo Mantilla-Meluk Coordinator, Climate Service Health Surveillance Platform, University of Quindio, Colombia*

This year, much of the planet will mark World Environment Day, which falls on 5 June, under lockdown. But if we want to be reminded of the majesty of nature, we can look to Colombia, which is hosting the international celebration. A treasure trove of biodiversity, Colombia’s natural bounty is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the Andes, which run through the country. *


The longest mountain range in the world, the Andes form the spine of vibrant South America, running for 7,200 kilometres (4,500 miles) from frigid Patagonia to the Caribbean coast of Venezuela.

Here the levels of geographic and ecosystem complexity have resulted in a unique flowering of life. The northern reaches of the chain, known as the Tropical Andes, support more than 45,000 plants and 3,000 vertebrate species, half of them endemic.

“The Andes are an incredibly unique place and rich in life,” says Dr. Hugo Mantilla-Meluk, a professor at Colombia’s University of Quindio. “They are truly a jewel of biodiversity.”

While in temperate regions the physics of glaciers regulates the climate, in tropical mountains this job is performed by vegetation, says Mantilla-Meluk. The highlands of the Tropical Andes are crowned by paramos, ecosystems found nowhere else. These environments are full of life.

Their lagoons and lakes are guarded by frailejones, gigantic silver-leafed plants specialized in collecting water from the clouds and siphoning it into the ground. Here is the place in which rivers such as the Amazon and Orinoco are born.

The Andes are most diverse in Colombia, where the mountain system is subdivided into three branches created by the valleys of the Atrato, Magdalena, and Cauca rivers.

This subdivision has generated contrasting piedmonts on each range. On its western side we have the rainiest spot on Earth, the hyper-humid Choco, with more than 12,000 millimeters of precipitation per year. The rain supports one the densest and most diverse jungles on the planet.

Meanwhile, in the range’s inner valleys, as a product of rain shadows, we find dry forests. Some enclaves are home to the largest number of pollinator bat species on the planet. They feed on the nectar of cacti, a prime example of co-evolution in which plants and animals change their forms and behaviors together.

Finally on the eastern side of the range, Andean waters feed the Amazon basin, a synergy that provides more oxygen than any other ecosystem on the planet.

The Colombian Andes has more species of orchids, palm trees, birds, and bats than any other place in the world. More than species 400 mammals live at elevations above 800 metres in the northern Andes.

They include 198 rodent species and 166 bat species, along with marsupials, hares, rabbits, nocturnal primates, the mountain tapir, the Andean brocket deer, and the spectacled bear. They share their habitats with 122 hummingbird species, 133 species of tanagers, a colourful bird, 32 parrot species, crystal frogs, butterflies, and moths.

Colombia has chosen as national symbols animals endemic the mountains: the condor, the largest flying bird, the Cattleya trianae, a giant orchid found in the Andean cloud forests, and the Ceroxylon quindiuense, a wax palm that can reach up to 70 metres tall.

Due to its complexity and altitude, the Andean system in Colombia is particularly susceptible to climate change, which will warm up the upper portion of mountains, changing the conditions for the plants and animals adapted to cold environments.

The region faces other threats, as well. “Habitat degradation has been accelerated by the spread of agriculture into previously untouched areas,” says Dr. Musonda Mumba, Chief of Terrestrial Ecosystems with the United Nations Environment Programme. “The destruction of cloud forest and paramos by mining activities is also compromising the supply of water and the regulation of climate and life cycles.”

The IPBES Land Degradation and Restoration Report released in 2019 showed that lands managed my traditional, local, and indigenous peoples were degrading the least across the world.  And 35 percent of these ecosystems are terrestrial and mainly forest landscapes.

It was evident from this report that community-based institutions are often more successful at conservation than governments simply because they are closer to the ground and can respond more quickly to changes or threats.

It is important to preserve the ancestral knowledge on the use of mountain environments, particularly the respect that indigenous groups have for water as a source of life, health and goodwill. The northern Andes is a natural treasure, and it is our responsibility to preserve it for future generations.

*SOURCE: UN Environment. Go to ORIGINAL.

2020 Human Wrongs Watch

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