National Geographic once stated that “if earth’s biodiversity were a country, it could be called Colombia,” and this is no mere hyperbole. The South American nation is the most biodiverse country on earth by area, and second overall behind the much larger Brazil. The staggering fact is that one in every 10 species of flora and fauna that is found on earth can be found in Colombia. So what’s the reason behind this incredible biodiversity?
Before we get into the ‘why’ of Colombia’s remarkable biodiversity, it is worth taking a deeper look at some of the astounding numbers. In 2016, Colombia was home to 56,343 species (and many more have been discovered since then), of which over 9,000 were endemic (unique) to the country, and it is classed as one of earth’s 17 megadiverse countries. There are more species of birds and orchids in Colombia than anywhere else on earth, and Colombia is second in the number of species of plants, amphibians, butterflies and freshwater fish, third in the number of species of palm trees and reptiles and fourth in its diversity of mammals. Truly, Colombia is a paradise of biodiversity.
Why is this the case? The key to Colombia’s enviable biodiversity lies in its varied ecosystems. The six natural regions of Colombia –Andean, Caribbean, Pacific, Orinoquia, Amazon and Insular – are home to practically every type of ecosystem on earth, from tropical rainforest and Andean cloud forest to open savannahs and high-altitude moorland.
While Colombia’s biodiversity is highest in the Andean region, followed closely by the Amazon, the entire country is remarkably biodiverse. In Colombia, it is possible to travel from desert to alpine tundra within a few days, passing through jungles, along rivers and over seas. The Andes splits into three ranges in Colombia, and all of these deep valleys and divisions have made for remarkable endemism, as new species evolved in isolation.
One area worth highlighting is the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a small coastal mountain range which is older than the Andes and, according to National Geographic, is the most irreplaceable ecosystem on earth due to its high concentration of endemic and threatened species. The mountain encompasses almost all types of ecosystems, from tropical coastal jungle to high-altitude tundra, with everything from desert and scrub forest to cloud forest and páramo in between. It’s essentially a microcosm of earth’s biodiversity in one small mountain range. Little wonder, then, that the local indigenous people who call the area home consider it to be the heart of the world. When it comes to biodiversity, one could perhaps say the same of Colombia.
However, all of this stunning nature and these amazing species are under grave threat. According to WWF, around half of Colombia’s ecosystems are critically threatened, and a third of its plants and half of its animals are under threat from habitat loss. Oil, mineral and metal extraction, deforestation, wildlife trafficking and the impact of the coca trade are all playing their part in causing this threat, which continues apace in spite of the fact that, in theory, around 10% of Colombia’s national territory is protected.
In spite of these concerns for the future, Colombia’s biodiversity is something to be celebrated and protected, as well as seen with your own eyes. One of the greatest assets Colombia has in terms of tourism is this biodiversity, and ecotourism is growing into a key aspect of Colombia’s strategy for protecting its ecosystems and wildlife.