Cloud Forests Fading in the Mist, Their Treasures Little Known

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The trees perform a crucial hydrological function. They strip water from windblown fog and clouds, aiding the healthy functioning of surrounding ecosystems.

"One of the key things is they are important for capturing water from clouds, which provides water downstream to industry, towns, and regions," said Phillip Bubb, director of the Tropical Montane Cloud Forest Initiative.

Based in the United Kingdom, the program was launched in 1999 by a host of conservation organizations that include the United Nations Environment Program, the World Conservation Union, and the World Wide Fund for Nature. The groups are working collectively to raise awareness and promote conservation of cloud forests.

The importance of cloud forests to the year-round provision of fresh water cannot be overestimated, said Bubb. Many mountainside trees filter the water that feeds the headwaters of river systems. Cloud forests, however, capture water that would otherwise never fall to the ground as rain.

The extra water from this cloud-stripping effect amounts to 20 percent of ordinary rainfall. In mossy forests that are particularly exposed to the elements, the extra water-trapping capacity can be as much as 60 percent.

The cloud forest in La Tigra National Park in Honduras, for example, supplies 40 percent of the water consumed by the 850,000 residents of Tegucigalpa. In Tanzania, the cloud forests of the Udzungwa mountains provide water needed to operate the hydroelectric dams that supply power to Dar es Salaam.

Storehouses of Diverse Species

The provision of abundant, fresh water ought to be reason enough to conserve cloud forests. But these forests are also important because they are rich in biological diversity.

Nuñez, an ethnobiologist specializing in the plants of southern Peru, estimates that he has collected 30,000 to 40,000 plants, most of which have gone to museums for closer examination.

That amount only begins to scratch the surface. "In a small area the size of Machu Picchu, we can find the same plant diversity as on the whole continent of Europe," he said.

"So far we have described only 20 percent of the species—plants and animals—that live in this almost vertical landscape," he added.

Much of the biodiversity found in cloud forests is endemic—it can be found nowhere else. For example, most of the shrubs, orchids, and insect-eating plants found on the Cerro de la Neblina in Venezuela are unique to the mountain's summit.

"Cloud forests are habitat pockets," said Bubb. "There are different species found on each [mountain] range."

Scientists say a cloud forest's water-tapping ability can be restored by measures such as replanting.

"But restoration of the intricate mix of life-forms—of the authenticity, and of the complexity of the ecological interactions that maintain a healthy ecosystem—is simply beyond our capability," the scientific coalition notes in its publication titled Decision Time For Cloud Forests.

Bubb said the group has stepped-up efforts to raise public awareness of the need to conserve cloud forests and obtain funding for conservation strategies, such as establishing private reserves and national parks.

Meanwhile, scientists such as Nuñez are dedicated to documenting the diverse life of cloud forests and the traditional way of life of people who inhabit them, before the forests are gone.

He is aware that time is running out: "It is so easy doing research, but we have just 3 percent of the forest left."

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