Ecuador’s cloud forests are a unique biodiversity hotspot. In the face of threats from mining and logging, the creation of private and community-owned reserves offers growing hope for their future
Words and Photographs by Daniel Allen
From above, Mashpi Lodge is nestled in a dream-like landscape, as swirling tendrils of water vapour permeate the foliage and cloak the distant treeline in silky whiteness. Towering either side of the slow-moving metal gondola, magnolia trees materialise out of the mist, their outstretched branches draped in a moisture-laden beard of moss, lichen and epiphytic ferns. Orchids and bromeliads punctuate the green with vibrant splashes of colour, while the occasional waterfall is visible on the forest floor way below.
Known as the Dragonfly, Mashpi Lodge’s two-kilometre-long cable car trail – which took 18 months to construct (largely by hand) – is a highly immersive experience. As the gondola clanks onward, more of the 2,500-hectare Mashpi Cloud Forest Reserve swings into view, as the mist slowly lifts and thins. A pair of collared aracari fly past, the lemon-and-vermilion chest feathers of this dazzling toucan contrasting sharply with the unbroken canopy, which blankets the Andean foothills in verdant waves.
Yet while the scale of the scenery in the reserve may be impressive, this kind of pristine panorama is sadly becoming increasingly rare.
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‘This is one of the few places in Ecuador where we still have this kind of forest,’ explains Estuardo Lima, a naturalist guide who has worked at Mashpi for about five years. ‘Around 20 per cent of the Ecuadorian Chocó cloud forest remained in 1998 – now there’s just two per cent. Logging, mining and farming are the main threats. The long-term plan is to double the size of this reserve to 5,000 hectares. This is a place where tropical rainforest and cloud forest meet, so it was vital to protect its special biodiversity.’
A unique ecosystem
Ecuador is one of the smallest countries in South America – a diminutive jigsaw piece on the continent’s Pacific coast – and is also one of its most biologically diverse. It includes the endemic wonders of the Galápagos Islands, 1,000 kilometres out in the Pacific, and also the lush rainforests of the upper Amazon basin area known in the country as El Oriente, which also teem with life.
Yet far fewer people know (and visit) Ecuador’s Chocó – a narrow strip of forest that’s flanked by the towering peaks of the Andes on one side and the calm waters of the Pacific on the other. The Chocó is one of the few regions that includes both rainforest and cloud forest (called the Chocó Andino, or Andea Chocó), with the vast diversity of landscapes and wildlife found within it caused by variations in elevation. The altitude here ranges from an upper limit of 2,500 metres – where montane forests turn into cloud forest – down to 900 metres, where cloud forest gives way to the coastal forest that continues almost all the way to the Pacific Coast.
This 180,000-square-kilometre area belongs to a broader biogeographical region that runs all the way from Panama to Peru.
As part of the Chocó, Ecuador’s cloud forests are bathed in nearly constant moisture from the clouds that form above and then drift through the moss-covered trees. The staggered topography, diffuse light, high humidity and abundance of gnarled tree trunks and twisting branches provide the perfect environment for the growth of epiphytes, which spend their lives attached to other plants, rather than rooted in the ground. The most famous of these are orchids, which adorn the trees with flowers of every colour, size and shape, and striking bromeliads, of which the best-known example is the pineapple.
Although relatively small in size, Ecuador’s cloud forests are considered the single richest terrestrial biodiversity hotspot on the planet, containing an astonishing 15–17 per cent of the world’s plant species, and nearly 20 per cent of its bird diversity. Equatorial regions are so diverse, to a large degree, because there is a constant supply of energy from the direct angle of the sun and high rainfall as a result of the inter-tropical convergence zone, while the rapid uplift of the Andes also increased speciation by opening up new niches, and by forming physical and climatic barriers to gene flow.
The Ecuadorian cloud forest is home to such iconic species as the Andean (spectacled) bear, jaguar, sloth, howler monkey, puma, Andean cock-of–the-rock and more than a 100 species of hummingbird, as well as myriad rare plants and invertebrates. Since the foundation of Mashpi Lodge a decade ago, in-house biologists, in collaboration with Ecuadorian and international researchers, have documented nine new species in the Mashpi Cloud Forest Reserve alone. The latest, a new species of glass frog (Hyalinobatrachium mashpi), was discovered from recordings of its distinct call.
‘We are now pushing for the calls of 400 bird species and rare frogs in the Mashpi Cloud Forest Reserve and surrounding area to be awarded UNESCO World Heritage status for acoustics,’ says Estuardo Lima. ‘This would see an acoustic category added to the UNESCO World Heritage List for the first time ever.’
Despite their breathtaking biodiversity, Ecuador’s cloud forests are one of the most fragile and vulnerable ecosystems in the country. Around 2,000 square kilometres of Ecuadorian Chocó, including large areas of cloud forest, are cleared every year for palm oil plantations and timber for charcoal and local construction. Many wildlife species are hunted for meat or for sale as exotic pets. Climate change is also affecting cloud forests, drying them out and exposing them to greater levels of ultraviolet radiation.
The Ecuadorean Chocó still lacks effective governance. Forests are cleared despite the low economic yield of timber products. Road development projects promote colonisation of areas with immigrants who have limited knowledge of agro-economies. They typically over-exploit the areas in which they settle, leading to diminishing revenues over time. Once the soil is depleted, colonisation and forest clearance spreads to other areas of intact forest.
Mining also presents a serious threat. In 2016 and 2017, the Ecuadorian Ministry of Mining increased exploratory mining concessions across the country from roughly three per cent to around 13 per cent of Ecuador’s continental land area. If exploration or exploitation does take place, these new concessions will further decrease the size of the remaining Ecuadorian cloud forest, given that they extend over parts of privately protected areas such as Mashpi.
Tourism to the rescue
But all is not lost. Over the past decade, the emergence of the Ecuadorian Chocó as a nature-based tourism destination has helped to raise awareness of both
its unique qualities and the threats that it faces. National parks in the region have expanded their boundaries, anti-logging and -poaching laws are becoming increasingly well enforced and the number of private and community-owned reserves has increased, as locals and entrepreneurs see the economic value of healthy and fully functioning cloud forest. Leading Ecuadorian NGOs, such as Fundación Jocotoco, are proving increasingly effective in their fundraising efforts to protect vital cloud forest hotspots and corridors.
Tourism is Ecuador’s fourth-largest non-petroleum source of revenue. It already contributes more than five per cent of the country’s GDP, while the Ecuadorian Ministry of Tourism’s goal is to reach two million ‘high value’ visitors by 2025 (compared to 1.4 million in 2018). While revenues are concentrated around the Galápagos Islands, the country’s other biodiversity-rich ecosystems, including the cloud forest, are steadily attracting growing numbers of visitors. At the end of January 2022, the Ministry of Tourism presented a new strategy to attract travellers whose goal is to interact with nature.
A growing awareness
A two-hour drive from Quito, 6,000-hectare Maquipucuna is the largest cloud forest reserve located close to the Ecuadorian capital. Its hikeable trails provide access to hundreds of birds, insects and flowers, while the reserve has become famous for its unique annual congregation of ecologically vulnerable Andean (spectacled) bears, which come to feast on wild avocados.
‘Andean bears are both a keystone species and an umbrella species [species selected for making conservation-related decisions],’ says Isabel Ontaneda, director of operations at Fundación Maquipucuna, which manages the Maquipucuna Cloud Forest Reserve and Maquipucuna Ecolodge. ‘It’s really important that we’ve been able to develop bear watching as a sustainable activity on the reserve. By having this charismatic ambassador for the cloud forest, humans can relate better to it and are more passionate about its protection.’
In addition to playing a leading role in Ecuadorian cloud forest and Andean bear conservation, the Maquipucuna Foundation has also worked hard to ensure local people benefit from the growing numbers of tourists visiting the area, employing them on the reserve and in the ecolodge. It has also funded an ecolodge in Santa Lucia, a nearby community of 12 families, enabling them to quit illegal logging, and organic gardens in Yunguilla, another neighbouring community of 60 families. Both projects have been successful, drawing international visitors and further incentivising local people to value the cloud forest and its wildlife.
While Maquipucuna, like Mashpi, is also threatened by mining concessions, Ontaneda remains cautiously optimistic about the future. ‘Until cloud forests that are standing are valued more than cut-down forests in monetary terms, there will always be a constant threat. But there is a growing awareness, in Ecuador and beyond, that the Ecuadorian Chocó is a uniquely precious part of our natural heritage, and a resource that should be used sustainably, for the benefit of all. As more people visit and learn about species such as bears, hummingbirds and orchids, the force for cloud forest protection will grow ever stronger.’