Mountains - the last stronghold of nature

Posted: 22 July 2002

Author: Lawrence S. Hamilton and Shengji Pei

Throughout history, as we watched our lowlands become permanently altered by commercial agriculture, industry , infrastructure and urban settlement, we humans have raised our eyes to mountains, both for inspiration and as the last stronghold of nature.

Today, even after centuries of increasing flatlander-exploitation and impoverishment, mountain ecosystems remain repositories of great genetic, species and ecosystem diversity.

The snow leopard Uncia uncia of the high mountains of central Asia is threatend by poaching, loss of prey, conflicts with herders and habitat destruction.© Helen FreemanMount Kinabalu in Sabah, for instance, is estimated to have 4000-4500 species of plants, which is about one-quarter of all the native species in the USA (see page 12). The richness of the fynbos of South Africa is renowned (see page 16). Moreover, species endemism is particularly high in mountains owing to geographical isolation. That faunal biodiversity correlates well with plant diversity is demonstrated by BirdLife International's recent maps of endemic limited-range birds.

Much scientific and popular concern to slow species extinctions have focused on 25 'hot-spot' areas in the tropics. Sixteen (over half) of these are either mountains or have at least half their area in mountains.For example:

  • the uplands of Madagascar

  • Andean slopes of Western Amazonia

  • Eastern Himalayas (Nepal, Bhutan, and neighbouring Indian states plus China's Yunnan)

  • the uplands of the Philippines

  • the eastern arc montane forests of Tanzania

  • mountains of Central America

  • Brazil's Atlantic Forest
This richness in biological diversity is due to the altitudinal zonation of life forms on these 3-D landforms, their different directional exposures, their soil variability and abundance of micro- and mesohabitats which are characteristic of mountains. Other factors are light intensity and quality change, rainfall variability and natural disturbance regimes.

On relatively high mountains in the tropics, vegetation may range from sub-montane tropical rainforest to dry montane tropical forest, boreal forest, alpine heaths, cloud forests, grasslands, tundra and permanent ice fields. Each has its own assemblage of plant and animal species, even the ice fields. But wherever mountains come under human use, the flora and fauna may be drastically altered by agriculture, forestry, water management, mining and infrastructure.

Food and medicine

Mountains supply us with abundant natural resources, among which we can count the genetic diversity of their rare or unique species. For instance, we have taken some of our most important current food staples from mountain storehouses. Potatoes come to us from the Andes; the current International Centre for Potato Research, including the conservation of priceless genetic material, is located here. We secured coffee originally from the Ethiopian Highlands; it is now grown in uplands throughout all the continents in a wonderful array of varieties - as is maize, barley and wheat.

Our mass-produced, commercial agricultural crops periodically need fresh infusions of genetic material from their wild relatives. New technologies in plant and animal breeding have increased the value of our genetic storehouses, rather than reducing our reliance. The only known stands of the most primitive wild relative of corn or maize are found on a 2880m mountain in Sierra de Manantland, Mexico. The former Soviet Union has established a reserve to produce the wild relatives of wheat and fruit trees high in the Caucasus Mountains.

A long list of medicinal materials are derived from high wildlands, and these provide actual and potential benefit to ALL humankind. The importance of wild plants for local subsistence (food and medicine) is well illustrated by the annual fair in Dali, Yunnan (China), where as many as 574 species of medicinal and food plants are brought for trading by mountain people.

Animal products of many kinds are also part of the diverse mountain economy. And some of the world's most interesting and rare mountain animals are the basis for much of the nature-based tourism in some areas; for example, the mountain gorilla in Rwanda/ Uganda/DR Congo, the resplendent quetzal in Costa Rica and Guatemala, and the spectacled bear in the Andes.

We need to know more about these banks of biological wealth, and about the potential for a sustainable flow of benefits. We can learn much about this from traditional mountain peoples who have had a long association with, and dependency on, these natural resources. Mountains contain exciting possibilities for new products for humankind.

Moreover, there is an ethical imperative not to destroy the wonderful diversity of life on Earth. All countries have an obligation to stop and think of better, more responsible, and sustainable ways to pursue mountain development. The Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by almost every nation, recognises this responsibility, and mountain biodiversity will be the focus of the Conference of the Parties at its meeting in 2004.

Lawrence S. Hamilton is Vice-Chair (Mountains), IUCN World Commission on Protected Areas. Shengji Pei is Senior Scientist, Department of Ethnobotany, Institute of Botany, Kunming, China.© IUCN 2002. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in the IUCN bulletin, World Conservation (No. 1, 2002) and is reproduced with kind permission.