Mountains Under Threat
“Everyone has a stake in ensuring that the world’s mountain regions continue to provide their riches for many generations to come.”—KOFI ANNAN, UNITED NATIONS SECRETARY-GENERAL.
MAJESTY, stability, and strength come to mind when you think of mountains. What could threaten these giants of nature? Some may find it hard to believe that earth’s mountains could be in danger. The reality, though, is that our mountains are under threat. Conservationists cite several specific problems that undermine the bulwarks of the mountains’ ecosystems. All are serious, and they are getting worse. Consider some of the problems threatening mountains.
◼ DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS. About 25 percent of the world’s mountainous regions are under threat from roads, mining, pipelines, dams, and other development projects planned for the next 30 years. The construction of roads can cause erosion on steep slopes, and the roads provide access for loggers, who may do much more damage. Mining operations extract some ten thousand million tons of ore every year, much of it from mountains, and produce an even greater amount of waste.*
◼ GLOBAL WARMING. “The nine warmest years on record have occurred since 1990,” notes the Worldwatch Institute. And mountain habitats are particularly affected. Glaciers have been melting, and snowcaps are receding—a process that, according to some scientists, will affect water reserves and provoke serious landslides. Dozens of glacial lakes in the Himalayas now threaten to burst their natural barriers and cause catastrophic floods, a phenomenon that has already occurred repeatedly in the last few decades.
◼ SUBSISTENCE FARMING. Population pressure is driving people to farm unproductive areas. According to one study, almost half of Africa’s mountainous regions are now used for cultivation or livestock—10 percent for crops and 34 percent for grazing. Often this farming brings only marginal benefits, since these highlands are not ideal for growing crops.* And overgrazing by cattle easily destroys the fragile vegetation. A recent study indicates that only 3 percent of all mountain land is ideal for sustainable agriculture.
◼ WAR. The upsurge in civil wars has devastated many mountain environments. Insurgents use mountain sanctuaries as the base of their operations. A United Nations report calculates that 67 percent of Africa’s mountainous regions have been affected by “violent human conflict.” Furthermore, some highlands have become centers of narcotic production, which often leads to armed conflicts as well as degradation of the environment.
Is More Action Needed?
The consequences of man’s assault on the mountains are already being felt. Floods, landslides, and water shortages are just some of the signs that all is not well. Governments have begun to take notice. Forests are being replanted, and logging is banned in some areas. National parks have been created to safeguard the most spectacular scenery and the most endangered wildlife habitats.
Even protected areas, however, suffer from environmental pressure. (See the box “Some Strongholds of Nature.”) The accelerating rate at which species are becoming extinct is a sign that the battle to protect the mountain strongholds is not being won. Experts know the problems, but wholesale action to preserve unspoiled wilderness has not been forthcoming. “I feel encouraged by our scientific knowledge,” says renowned biologist E. O. Wilson, “and discouraged by the destruction of the principal reservoirs of biodiversity.”
Does the loss of biodiversity really matter so much? According to many biologists, humankind benefits greatly from the conservation of earth’s biodiversity. As an example, they point to the rosy periwinkle from the highlands of Madagascar, an area with a rich store of biodiversity. This plant has provided an important drug in the fight against leukemia. In addition, for many decades the cinchona tree, a native of the Andes Mountains, has been the source of quinine and other medications used to treat malaria. Many other plants that grow in mountainous regions have helped save the lives of millions. Granted, some of these mountain plants are successfully cultivated in nonmountainous areas. However, the concern is that in the large-scale destruction of mountain vegetation, man may inadvertently lose undiscovered resources with potential medical and nutritional value.
Can the current destructive forces somehow be stemmed? Can the damage be undone? Will the mountains continue to be bastions of beauty and biodiversity?
On average, the production of just one gold ring generates three tons of waste.
On the other hand, over the centuries indigenous mountain people have learned to farm mountainous terrain without damaging the environment.
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Fauna of the Heights
The mountain lion, also known as the puma, is found principally in the mountains, as its name suggests—mainly the Rockies and the Andes. Like many large predators, it has gradually retreated to more inaccessible areas because of threats posed by man.
The red panda lives exclusively in the Himalayan mountain chain (even on the lower slopes of Mount Everest). Despite its remote habitat, however, the red panda is struggling to survive because of destruction of the bamboo forests on which it feeds.
Cortesía del Zoo de la Casa de Campo, Madrid
The brown bear once roamed across most of Europe, Asia, and North America. In Europe it is now restricted to a few isolated mountainous areas, although it is more common in the Canadian Rockies, Alaska, and Siberia. Its numbers in the United States have been reduced by 99 percent during the past century.
The golden eagle is the lord of the mountain skies throughout most of the Northern Hemisphere. Sadly, in Europe its numbers have been reduced to fewer than 5,000 pairs as a result of its former status as ‘a hated bird.’
The giant panda’s “very existence depends on three essentials,” notes Chinese naturalist Tang Xiyang. These are “high mountains and deep valleys, thick bamboo forests, and rippling streams.” According to one estimate, fewer than 1,600 pandas survive in the wild.
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Some Strongholds of Nature
Yosemite National Park (California, U.S.A.) was founded in 1890, thanks to the untiring work of naturalist John Muir. Its impressive scenery attracts four million visitors every year. Park authorities, however, struggle to find a balance between protecting the wilderness and providing facilities for nature lovers.
Podocarpus National Park (Ecuador) preserves a region of Andean cloud forest that harbors a huge variety of fauna and flora—over 600 different birds and some 4,000 species of plants. Quinine, a drug that has saved countless human lives, was discovered in this area. Like many parks, it suffers from uncontrolled logging and poaching.
Mount Kilimanjaro (Tanzania) is one of the world’s largest volcanoes and is the highest mountain in Africa. Elephants graze on the lower slopes, while unique flora, such as the giant lobelia and the giant groundsel, inhabit the alpine zone. Illegal hunting, deforestation, and grazing by domestic cattle are the main threats.
Teide National Park (Canary Islands) protects unique flora that enlivens the stark volcanic scenery. Mountainous volcanic islands invariably have fragile ecosystems, susceptible to introduced species.
The Pyrenees and Ordesa national parks (France and Spain) conserve majestic alpine scenery along with its flora and fauna. Like other mountain chains in Europe, the Pyrenees suffer from a proliferation of ski slopes and other tourist amenities. The abandonment of traditional agriculture has also had a negative impact on the environment.
Sǒraksan National Park is the most popular park in the Republic of Korea. Its spectacular granite peaks and forested slopes take on a special beauty during the autumn. But its popularity means that on weekends some trails are as busy as city sidewalks.
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Tower of jewels. During a few weeks in the spring, this magnificent flower grows to the height of a man. It can be found at an altitude of about 6,000 feet [1,800 m] on just two volcanic peaks in the Canary Islands. Many mountain species have a similar restricted range.
Carline thistles grow in the Alps and the Pyrenees. Their sunny appearance brightens up the high meadows in late summer, and the blooms provide a feast for insects.
English iris. Hybrids of this attractive wildflower are grown as garden plants. Many garden flowers originally came from alpine flora.
The mountain houseleek is one of many alpine plants that cling to fissures in the rocks. A species native to the mountains of southern Europe, it is also called live-forever because of its tenacity and durability.
Bromeliads. Many types of bromeliads and orchids thrive in the cloud forests of the Tropics. They grow at elevations of up to 14,500 feet [4,500 m].
The Algerian iris grows in the Er Rif and Atlas mountains of northern Africa, an area designated as a hot spot of Mediterranean flora.
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Mining for copper and gold near the Maoke Mountains, Indonesia
© Rob Huibers/Panos Pictures
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