Conservation of Cloud Forests
Jake Miller
Northeastern State University


Cloud forests are among the most unique ecosystems in the world. They hold large scale amounts of biodiversity, and protect lowland forests from drought and erosion. They can be found on every continent except for Europe, and make up drastic parts of Northwestern South America, Central America, and Southeastern Asia (Aldrich et al., 1997). They’re currently under threat by all the common ecosystem enemies: poor agricultural methods, unsustainable logging, global warming, tourism development, and infrastructure extension (Kelvin et al., 2011). But there are a few groups whose concerns have produced drastic conservation efforts for these vulnerable forests, and hopefully through their models of awareness and education these beautiful trees in the clouds will reveal their beauty and necessity to future generations.


Cloud forests generally occur at altitudes of 1200 meters (m) on coastal and isolated ridges or on mountain summits where gnarled tree forms are dominant and cloud formation is frequent. However, cloud forests can also occur between 2000 and 3000 m on large inland mountains, and as low as 500 m above sea level on small islands (Kelvin et al., 2011). Cloud forest distribution is ultimately controlled by the climate produced within different geographies, so depending on the particular place, cloud forests can grow at lower elevations or originate at higher elevations. There are currently 529 cloud forest sites, which range from 50 hectares to hundreds of square kilometers (Aldrich, 1997). Most of the largest sequences of cloud forests occur in Southeast Asia, making up approximately 50% of the total ecosystem (Kelvin et al., 2011). This is also where they are most threatened.

Because cloud forests are often found isolated on islands or remotely located, they produce a very diverse range of animals and plants. And most of these animals and plants are endemic to the cloud forest biome. Peru, in particular, relies on cloud forests to sustain many of its rare species. Nearly 30% of its endemic mammals, anurans, and birds are found primarily in cloud forest ecosystems (Rosenbarger, 2007). One specific bird that stands out in an already unique and diverse backdrop is the Resplendant Quetzal. This bird has the stunning beauty that peacocks are known for, but is nearer in size to ordinary song birds. The very first thing you notice about the Quetzal is the magnificent feathers that make up its tail. Its tail is covered by 4-6 extended feathers in an otherworldly greenish blue color that gives the Resplendant Quetzal a very regal look. Unfortunately, the Resplendant Quetzal is losing its habitat at an alarming rate, which makes this beautiful animal vulnerable to extinction (Cahill et al., 2011). Plants are also unique. Because of the poor, acidic soils that make up a cloud forest, trees only grow a width average of a single millimeter a year, comprising a landscape of dwarfed and elfin trees. Perhaps the most defining characteristic of the cloud forest is the abundance of epiphytes, which thrive here at incredible densities. Up to a quarter of all cloud forest species are classified as epiphytes (Rosenbarger, 2007). Most of the trees in cloud forests have developed mutualistic and symbiotic relationships with the animals. According to studies done in cloud forests between 30% and 50% of the tree and woody plant species depend on birds for seed dispersal (Cahill et al., 2011). This means that deforestation not only means the removing of habitat for birds, but it also means fewer birds available to disperse seeds. One of these symbiotic relationships occurs in Guatemalan cloud forests. The Band-tailed pigeon enjoys the delicacies offered by the Wax Myrtle tree. The pigeon eats the fruit and digests all but the kernel. Later, the kernel will be defecated out ensuring the population of the Wax Myrtle tree (Cahill et al., 2011).

This photo was taken on December 9, 2009 by Thomas Chamberlin.
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Wax Myrtle photo taken by Mary Keim on November 13,2011

Picture credits:

Cloud forests being destroyed at a dismal rate. They are being clean cut for new fields for agriculture and they are being chopped down for new roads through the mountains. Both of these first two issues are directly related to the third issue of tourism. Tourism requires more resources and better access to cloud forests from existing communities and raises the GDP of those countries. Fourthly, the logging practices in cloud forests are largely unregulated. Commercial logging affects around 1.1% of all cloud forests globally per year, a rate higher than that for other tropical forests (Kelvin et al., 2011). And after all of these impacts are finished, there is global warming waiting in the shadows. But cloud forests aren’t without hope. Organizations are starting to get local and global support for protecting cloud forests and reinvigorating them. One specific organization, Community Cloud Forest Conservation (CCFC), is making significant headway in its progress. Not only does CCFC provide materials for reforestation and for re-fertilizing existing farmlands, but they also provide social solutions to farmers near cloud forests who are experiencing poverty and substandard health. This approach not only promotes the healing of the forests, but also for the citizens around it.

CFCC is stationed in Guatemala and works primarily within two of the mountain ranges that form part of the Sierra Chama. This area is known historically for being the place where Spanish conquistadores were defeated multiple times by the Mayans (Cahill et al., 2011). The terrain is aggressively sharp, climbing and falling at a moment’s notice. The clouds live amongst the trees and create an almost haunting atmosphere. CFCC begins their projects by doing major assessments of the problematic areas. Not only do they evaluate the environment, but they also gauge the locals and their needs. CFCC has been quick to notice that most cloud forest deforestation is typically a result of desperation by poverty stricken farmers. They can’t afford not to plant crops and extend their fields, because they are nearly starving. Before any environmental work is done, the organization helps local farmers acquire new wood stoves, water filters, and solar units. This method has allowed CFCC to then educate locals on the value and importance of cloud forests, and these same locals are often given internships with CFCC to ensure long term care for their cloud forests.


Cloud forests are vibrant and distinct. They hold orchids, jaguars, bears, and a host of birds found nowhere else. Their aesthetics are unparalleled and their sounds are unforgettable. They would be a terrible loss for humanity and for science. There are still several acres of cloud forests yet to be explored, but with the push and strain of development they’re dwindling. It’s important that organizations like CCFC are provided with the staff and support that they need and that other efforts are encouraged to restore and protect this biome, if it’s to remain intact for the coming years.

cloud forests 4.jpg
By: Steve / License: Creative Commons License

Aldrich et al., 1997. A Global Directory of Tropical Montane Cloud Forests. United Nations Environment Programme. n.d. Accessed July 22, 2012

Peh K, Soh M, Sodhi N, Laurance W, Ong D, Clements R. Up in the Clouds: Is Sustainable Use of Tropical Montane Cloud Forests Possible in Malaysia?. Bioscience [serial online]. January 2011;61(1):27-38. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed July 22, 2012.

Rosenbarger, Anne. Tropical Cloud Forests: Implications of Global Climate Change. Ecology and Global Change. Spring 2007. Accessed July 22, 2012.

Cahill et al., Online. (2011). Community Cloud Forest Conservation. Retrieved July 26, 2012, from: