South America’s Andes, the longest mountain chain in the world, come to a spectacular finish in northern Colombia’s Serranía de Perijá Range. Rising above 12,000 feet, these mountains are impressive not only in size, but also for their biological richness. Until recently, the mountains’ remote location, combined with decades of civil conflict, discouraged not only scientific study, but also colonization and logging. With a return to stability over the last decade, however, colonization has picked up and with it rapid deforestation. Today, nearly 98% of the mountains’ tropical forests in Colombia have been destroyed. The effects have been staggering for local wildlife as populations have dwindled.
Even the last remnants of the Serranía de Perijá’s forest remain exposed to imminent threats. To combat these challenges and save the unique tropical forests of these mountains, we are working to create the first protected area in Colombia’s Serranía de Perijá that will function as a permanent sanctuary for the area’s many rare and endemic species. After much fieldwork, our Colombian partner, ProAves, has identified the most important forest in private ownership available for purchase. Six properties, covering approximately 1,850 acres, are being sold for an average of $100 an acre.
The isolated Serranía de Perijá, which straddles the Colombian-Venezuelan Border, is a stronghold for many endemic and quickly-vanishing species. New studies have established that three endangered and endemic species, the Perijá Thistletail, Perijá Metaltail, and the Perijá Brush-finch, continue to live in the area. Studies have also found several new bird species, including a new Atlapetes Brush-finch, a new Scytalopus Tapaculo, a new Megascops Screech-owl, and a new Cranioleuca Spinetail. Several other birds endemic to the Serranía de Perijá are almost certainly new species. This includes the Perijá Antpitta (Grallaria “rufula” saltuensis) and the Perijá Hemispingus (Hemispingus “frontalis” flavidorsalis). Likewise, several new orchid and shrub species have also been found. The remarkable results of these studies suggest that the Serranía de Perijá, one of the least-known regions in the Northern Andes, holds much for discovery. In fact, many new species found in the area still await formal description.
The first scientific expeditions to the Serranía de Perijá, undertaken in 1922 and 1942, revealed that the area contained several distinct species among resident bird populations. These included the Perijá Thistletail and the Perijá Metaltail, both of which are endemic.
Between 2005 and 2007, ProAves and other organizations studied the lower elevation areas in the Serranía de Perijá and drafted a proposal for the creation of a bi-national Serranía de Perijá National Park. By then, however, stability had returned to the area and the influx of colonists effectively derailed establishment of the park.
In recent years, Colombian birders have begun to enter and explore the highest elevations of the Serranía de Perijá where they have found a relative abundance of rare and endemic species.
Despite its unique flora and fauna, Colombia’s Serranía de Perijá still lacks protection, and many of its forested slopes have been transformed into pasture and farmland. Furthermore, government-backed initiatives have provided incentives for colonists to clear montane forests and replace them with non-native blackberry bushes, used to craft jams and other products.
The mountains’ upper reaches, covered with a unique páramo environment, has been intensively burnt and grazed. Many parts of the ecosystem already damaged have been subsequently re-planted with non-native trees such as Mexican pine and Australian eucalyptus.
To protect remaining habitat, ProAves has identified for purchase one of the most critical high-elevation areas in the Serranía de Perijá holding both forest and páramo ecosystems. This area, which ranges from 6,500 to 10,000 feet in elevation, is comprised of six properties totaling 1,850 acres. Wildlife surveys by ProAves have confirmed that it is home to many of the endemic species known to exist in the Serranía de Perijá. The roadside location of these properties, however, makes them easily accessible to colonists and poses a high risk of deforestation.
Purchasing these properties will not only protect one of the healthiest remaining forests in Colombia’s Serranía de Perijá, it will also strategically block access to larger tracts of forest beyond the road. In addition, saving this forest will protect two watersheds vital for the city of Valledupar and several towns in the otherwise arid Cesar Department.
© 2012 Global Wildlife Conservation