PERU is one of the world’s most diverse countries, with a great concentration of species found nowhere else on Earth. Its ecosystems range from the arid mid-Pacific coast across steep Andean mountains into the dense Amazon rainforest, yielding 84 life zones with countless species of flora and fauna. This enormous variety is further enriched by the great cultural wealth of native populations, who have extensive knowledge of the characteristics and potential uses of the country’s biodiversity.

Many Peruvian ecosystems are in danger, however. Unsustainable agriculture and timber exploitation along with demand-driven development of petroleum and mining operations present a serious threat to Peru’s biodiversity.

Our work here supports tremendous local efforts and expertise in the field, protecting Peru’s rich biological wealth while helping local communities find and sustain livelihoods based on thriving ecosystems.

Rainforests

Characteristics

Tropical rainforests are the world’s richest ecosystem. They have several times the biomass of temperate forests and house an estimated 50% of all the planet’s species on only 2% of its land. They occur in the equatorial zone between the Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn, latitudes that have warm temperatures, high levels of rainfall and copious sunlight.

Tropical rainforests include both tropical lowland rainforests such as the Amazon as well as other forest types such as montane and elfin forests depending on altitude, soil and climate conditions. These forests form a mosaic of vegetation that contributes to the incredible diversity of the tropics. About 40% of the world’s tropical rainforest occurs in Latin America, where NCI works.

Species

No one knows exactly how many species live in the world’s tropical rainforests — estimates range from 3 to 50 million species — but they are the undisputed champions of biodiversity among the world’s ecosystems, containing far higher numbers of species on a per-area basis than any other ecosystem. A tropical rainforest averages over 200 tree species in a single hectare (2.5 acres), compared to a few dozen species in a temperate forest in the United States and even fewer species in the boreal forests of Canada. The tiny country of Panama has more bird species than the U.S. and Canada combined, and a single bush in the Amazon may have more species of ants than the entire British Isles. This diversity is not a haphazard event, but the result of the unique circumstances that create rainforests.

Ecosystem Services

Nature continues to provide the great majority of the ecosystem services that sustain all life on Earth. The world’s richest ecosystem, the Amazon, is the source of one fifth of all fresh water on the planet, and plays a critical role in regulating the global and regional rainfall cycle. More locally, the Amazon rainforest directly affects the water supply by filtering impurities and preventing soil erosion.

Rainforests also contain four times the biomass of our temperate forests, meaning they store major amounts of carbon. This regulates global climate patterns through the sequestration and storage of carbon dioxide in above-ground biomass and soil. By absorbing roughly 20% of the atmospheric carbon emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, the world’s tropical rainforests help mitigate climate change substantially.
As the central repository of biodiversity, rainforests provide the basis for future advances in medicines and agriculture.

In addition to these global life support functions, tropical rainforests provide valuable local ecosystem services such as erosion prevention, flood control, water filtration, and fisheries protection—functions that are particularly important to the world’s poorest people, who rely on natural resources for their everyday survival. Forests also provide such renewable resources as timber, medicinal plants, nuts and fruit, and game.

Threats

There is rapidly mounting pressure on all forests and natural resources, fueled by the region’s growing population and economic activity based on the over-exploiting of natural resources for short-term revenues. Logging and deforestation for agriculture and oil palm plantations are not practiced sustainably; they degrade the region’s natural capital, and perpetuate a cycle of poverty and over-exploitation.

Over the long term, deforestation of tropical rainforests can have a broad impact, affecting global climate and biodiversity. These changes are more challenging to observe and forecast from local effects, since they take place over a longer time scale and can be difficult to measure.

Cloud forests

Characteristics

The Andean cloud forests of South America that cloak the slopes of the Andes are considered the world’s most biodiverse ecosystem, and host an extraordinary variety of life. Here are trees laden with bromeliads and orchids, hundreds of species of hummingbirds, and world record numbers of butterflies, moths and amphibians. Collectively, in virtually every category they contain the greatest number of plant and animal species that are endemic, or restricted to a single ecosystem, on the entire planet.

This profusion of life is made possible by abundant amounts of rainfall and sunshine, as the Andean mountains straddle the equator. But geography is also important – because the Andes are so tall, their slopes are divided into numerous life zones that change with the rising altitude, each one with its own variety of species. Many of these species are restricted to a narrow band of elevation or a single mountain range, creating all the more urgency for conservation action.

Species

Cloud forests are found on mountain slopes and are tied with the Amazon lowland rainforests for the title of ecosystem with the greatest number of species found on earth. While the Amazon will have the most species per unit area (called alpha diversity), the cloud forests of the Andes collectively hold more species due to the changing variety of species on each mountain range (endemic species or beta diversity).

Because of their diversity, these forests hold world record numbers of species such as orchids, amphibians, and many bird families such as hummingbirds and brightly colored tanagers. Bird species range from the magnificent Andean Condor, to the Golden-plumed Parakeet and Grey-breasted Mountain-toucan to tiny hummingbirds such as the Violet-throated Metaltail and Marvelous Spatuletail, each found only in single mountain ridges in Ecuador and Peru. These forests also preserve healthy populations of such charismatic mammals as Spectacled Bear, Andean Tapir and Jaguars. Among hundreds of species of amphibians, many are on the endangered and threatened species list.

Ecosystem Services

Cloud forests play a vital role in a number of ecosystem services, but especially the water cycle. Because cloud forests grow on mountain slopes, they capturing the moisture present in the persistent cloud cover, and so actually increase the amount of water that enters the ground, enhancing the water supply. They also act as a sponge, absorbing and retaining water in the wet season and releasing it in the dry season, stabilizing water flows throughout the year.

Their biodiversity is not only stunningly beautiful – it also contains present and future sources of medicines and agricultural products. Only a small fraction of tropical forest species have been thoroughly investigated for potential uses to date.

By protecting these forests, we also safeguard the carbon stored in their vegetation and soils, thus mitigating the global problem of disruptive climate change. A single acre of cloud forest will typically hold 250 metric tons of carbon, about three times as much as a temperate forest.

Threats

Cloud forests are threatened by habitat destruction and soil erosion, especially the clear-cutting of forests for cattle pastures. Because they cover steep slopes, once the tree cover is removed these forests are especially prone to erosion and complete loss of their soil cover. Today only 5-20% of the original cloud forest cover has survived, with continuing loss of 1-2% per year.

Tropical deciduous forests

Characteristics

Tropical deciduous or “dry” forests are in many areas as endangered as tropical rainforests. In the Americas, these forests are primarily found along the Pacific coasts from Mexico to Chile, but can also be found in inland areas such as the Marañon Valley of Peru and central Brazil, wherever climactic conditions are appropriate. These forests are dense with greenery during their wet summers, but become a starkly different landscape during the dry seasons when most trees shed their leaves. Because of these dramatic changes, these ecosystems have many endemic species that have adapted to these extremes and live only in these forests. What little remains of these forests – barely 5% in some areas– rank among the top conservation priorities in the world.

Peru’s unique dry forest Tumbesian ecosystem, home to 60 threatened bird species, is considered a globally significant hotspot of biodiversity by international organizations.

The dry forests and vegetation of the Marañon Valley in Peru comprise another unique ecosystem, where some of the highest concentrations of endemic species in the world exist. Our strategy in the Marañon Valley is to work with the regional governments of Amazonas and Cajamarca to create over 600,000 acres of Regional Conservation Areas in the national system of protected areas. If we succeed, we will dramatically raise the percentage of protected land in this priceless ecosystem, where currently, only 0.1% is protected.

Species

Because of their unusual nature, tropical deciduous or dry forests tend to have their own unique species especially adapted to each area. One of the most biodiverse such regions is the Tumbesian forest found only in southwest Ecuador and northwestern Peru that are home to 60 threatened bird species and considered one of the top three global priorities for the conservation of birds by Birdlife International. Another globally significant hotspot are the dry ecosystems of the Marañon Valley of Central Peru, where only one percent is protected, and NCI is especially active in working to set aside lands for conservation. NCI also works in the dry forest of Sonora, Mexico, also host to many endemic species of plants and animals.

Ecosystem Services

Not only are tropical deciduous forests home to hundreds of remarkable species, they provide ecosystem services similar to that of other forests. They store carbon, and so help to mitigate climate change, and are also important in regulating the water cycle in areas of watersheds.

Threats

Tropical dry forests are highly threatened by deforestation, and are particularly sensitive to burning. Unsustainable practices such as overgrazing are also altering these ecosystems at a rapid pace, as is the introduction of non-native species. Thus, we’re working to preserve intact deciduous forest ecosystems to mitigate these many forms of destruction.

Coastal and marine areas

Characteristics

Mangroves, estuaries, lagoons and reefs are significant for their marine diversity, unique species, and importance for migratory birds. Rivers flow from the high Andes through the cloud and then dry forests to the Pacific Ocean, whose reefs, waters and seamounts provide habitat for countless fish, coral and marine plants. Peru’s coastal waters are famous for having the largest upwelling system in the world, accounting for nearly 20% of the world’s fish catch.

Approximately 70% of Peru’s marine biodiversity is located within the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seas ecoregion in northern Peru, including numerous endemic species. This area is home to such tropical species as mangroves and marine turtles, as well as temperate ocean species such as the endangered Humboldt Penguin and Southern Sea Lion.

Species

The mixing of warm and cold currents in northern Peru where NCI works create an exceptional ecosystem that includes the rare Humboldt Penguins, sea turtles, and hundreds of fish species. The area is also home to species threatened by extinction such as the Giant Seahorse, the Spiny Rock-scallop and the Pacific Goliath Grouper.

Ecosystem Services

In addition to sustaining the habitats essential to aquatic and bird species, these marine ecosystems account for nearly 20% of the world’s fish catch. This has a huge impact on economies from the local to the global level.

Threats

Despite the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seas ecoregion’s significance to both the natural world and the economy, it is currently not represented in Peru’s system of protected areas. It faces enormous threats including unsustainable fishing practices, industrial pollution and unmanaged tourism, posing an urgent need for its protection. Threatened aquatic species have disappeared from many of the Peruvian shores due to their economic value, unregulated exploitation, and life cycles with low reproduction rates, slow growth and long lifespan.