The high life

A glimpse of a spectacular mountain peak or the panoramic view from a mountaintop must be among the most inspiring sights in the natural world.

Mountains lift our spirits, and they also harbour a wealth of species – some obscure, some iconic – that are perfectly adapted to the high life and, in many cases, are found nowhere else on the planet.

In Central Asia, for example, sure-footed argali sheep and Asiatic ibex play high-altitude hide-and-seek with hungry snow leopards, which have evolved thick coats and small ears to minimise heat loss, and a long tail to improve balance on precipitous ledges. Elsewhere, mountain gorillas – larger, stockier, longer-haired and shorter-armed than their lowland cousins – cling to survival on their island of montane forest in Central Africa’s Virunga Massif. And there are countless others.

It is no coincidence that half of the so-called biodiversity hotspots in the world (areas that hold a particularly wide range of threatened species) are located in mountainous terrain. As you hike up a mountainside, the steep incline means that within a relatively short distance you move through a series of microhabitats that differ subtly but significantly from each other according to the prevailing conditions at that altitude. Variations in aspect and gradient, rainfall, oxygen levels, soil quality, temperature and vegetation create successive layers of habitat to which different species have adapted over time.

Although biodiversity decreases with altitude, the species that do occur can be unique to these islands in the sky, having become separated over time and often having evolved in complete isolation from other, once similar species.

Mountainous areas act as a primary water source to 50% of the people on Earth.

22%

of the Earth’s land surface is mountainous.

One quarter

of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity is supported by mountain ecosystems.

Threats to mountain environments

Despite their remoteness, mountain environments are increasingly threatened by human activity. Mountainous areas are becoming ever more accessible for tourism, recreation and development, and are being overexploited for timber and other natural resources.

As trees and other vegetation are removed from mountainous landscapes, soil quality, fertility and stability begin to deteriorate as the nutrients provided by decaying plant matter cease to be replenished and the root systems that help to shore up and bind the soil begin to disintegrate. This can also result in a downward spiral of landslides, soil erosion and further vegetation and nutrient loss that gradually denudes the landscape.

Climate change is also beginning to cause unprecedented temperature and weather variations, with glacial retreat, melting snow caps and other climatic changes upsetting the delicate balance of conditions within high-altitude microhabitats.

Species within any mountain ecosystem are highly adapted to their habitat, especially within biodiversity hotspots, and this places them at high risk if any aspect of their home begins to change. Endemic mountain species are therefore among the most vulnerable on the planet, in view of their often limited range and extreme isolation.

Snow leopards are well adapted to their mountain habitat.

Destroying mountain ecosystems doesn’t just jeopardise the survival of the animals and plants that depend on this habitat. Mountains help to filter and provide fresh water for roughly half the world’s people, and any profound changes to that process would have serious implications for humans as well as the species with which we share this planet.

How are we helping to protect mountain habitats?

Fauna & Flora International (FFI) recognises that mountains are not only important in their own right, but also contribute to the stability of ecosystems at lower altitudes. Examples of our work in this area include:

  • Putting the neglected biodiversity of Tajikistan on the conservation map through a suite of sustainable livelihood and training initiatives to help combat the widespread habitat fragmentation and degradation that threaten the country’s wild and mountainous landscape
  • Working with indigenous communities and government agencies in Cambodia’s biologically rich Cardamom Mountains to ensure that natural resource use for local livelihoods and wider economic development is sustainable, and supporting conservation scientists in this important area
  • Developing a coordinated conservation programme to protect the isolated pockets of intact mountain forest habitat that are essential to the long-term survival of Vietnam’s gravely endangered primates
  • Enhancing the sustainable management of the Zarand landscape corridor in Romania (a crucial ecological corridor that allows wildlife to travel between the Western and Southern Carpathian Mountains) by improving land management for biodiversity, restoring habitats, addressing human-wildlife conflict, and improving local livelihoods such as small-scale sustainable agriculture

Learn more about our work in this environment