Fairytale-like and abundantly green, the world’s water-capturing cloud forests are the higher altitude, cooler cousins of rainforests. Found in some 60 countries across the tropical regions of Africa, South America and Indonesia, these fog-filled canopies are home to more unique species of mammals per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. Their ability to conjure water out of thin air has spawned isolated pockets of unique biodiversity where the bizarre (think mammal-eating plants), and the beautiful, like the resplendent quetzal bird, thrive. Despite their lofty location, this under-appreciated ecosystem isn’t out of the woods. Illegal harvesting of timber and charcoal, farming and accelerating climate change are slowly but surely fragmenting them.
The Ethicalist ventures into the mist to uncover six of the world’s most biodiverse cloud forests and the unique species that call them home…
Mount Kampalili, The Philippines
Best known for its paradisiacal beaches, this Southeast Asian archipelago is also one of the world’s 17 “mega-diverse countries.” On the southernmost isle of Mindanao, its eastern highlands overflow with endemism, earning the island its “Land of Promise” moniker. Despite the ongoing threat of encroaching gold and nickel mining, 2,340-metre-high Mount Kampalili remains largely untouched, for now.
Species: Kampalili’s cloud forests are the stronghold of one of earth’s rarest raptors: the critically endangered Philippine Eagle. Found on four of the archipelago’s 7,641 islands (where hunting and habitat loss looms large) there’s estimated to be fewer than 700 breeding pairs in existence. Also sharing their home with Kampalili’s indigenous Mandaya people is the tapering-nosed Kampalili Shrew Mouse. The endemic creature isn’t just a new species previously unknown to science, rather a brand-new genus called Baletemys kampalili, named after late Filipino zoologist Danilo Balete who discovered it.
El Yunque, Puerto Rico
Nourished by 100 billion gallons of rainwater a year, El Yunque National Forest carpets the slopes of the rugged Luquillo Mountainsin northeastern Puerto Rico. Named “yuke” or “white lands” after its cloud-capped namesake peak, 83 per cent of this tropical paradise remains undisturbed thanks to its inaccessibility. Despite being perched 1,000 metres above sea level, it isn’t immune to nature’s wrath. El Yunque was battered not by one, but two mega hurricanes in 2017.
Species: A staggering 40 per cent of its cloud forest is endemic, from the towering 23 species of tree that grow nowhere else on the planet, to the terrifically tiny orchids (50 varieties and counting). As for its dazzling diversity of birdlife, flitting between its canopy are ruby-throated Puerto Rican todys, endangered Puerto Rican parrots (whose numbers dwindled to unlucky number 13 in the 70s), and elfin woods warblers who favour the forest’s dense vines.
Despite its reputation as nature’s nirvana, a staggering 90 per cent of this island country’s forests have been razed to the ground. Still pristine however is southeastern Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park: a 160 square-mile swathe of montane cloud forest that’s been hailed a hotspot for global biodiversity. So much so, New York’s Stony Brook University created a cutting-edge international research station there called Centre ValBio among the clouds.
Species: Ranomafana protects 12 species of lemur including the brown mouse (one of the world’s smallest primates) and critically endangered golden bamboo, which led to it being gazetted a national park in 1991. Rustling on the forest floor, meanwhile, are seven species of tenrecs: a hedgehog-like animal. And flitting in the mists above are some 100 species of bird, including the Henst goshawk and Rufous-headed ground roller; both endemic to Madagascar.
Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve, Mexico
It’s remarkable to think that one of the planet’s most critically-important cloud forests is scarcely a two-hour drive west from one of the world’s most populous cities, Mexico City. Awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008, the 350-square-mile Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is a high-altitude boreal forest nestled in Mexico’s central highlands.
Species: As the reserve’s name implies, its home to brilliantly-coloured monarch butterflies, who overwinter in its cloud forests after an epic journey of more than 3,000 miles from North America and Canada’s Rocky Mountains. These endangered marathoners cluster in their millions in the reserve’s oyamel fir trees, whose branches buckle under their weight. Despite ongoing encroachment of their native habitat stateside, in some uplifting news, their numbers have increased a hundredfold from 2020-2021, in California.
Mossy Forest, Malaysia
More than half the world’s cloud forests are found in Southeast Asia. One of its most eerily beautiful is million-year-old Mossy Forest in the Cameron Highlands: mainland Malaysia’s highest point. It’s so fiercely protected that trekkers need a permit from the Pahang State Forest Department to enter. Hovering at 2,032 metres above sea level and clinging to the slopes of Mount Brinchang, this mysterious forest is perennially mist-wreathed and moss-swathed.
Species: Rare ferns, giant pandans, medicinal plants and lichens all call this trail-threaded cloud forest home. And there’s no shortage of eccentric fauna either, like rat-eating carnivorous pitcher plants and short-tailed gymnure: a cross between a common tree-shrew and tarsier. Meanwhile, in the wider Peninsular Malaysian Montane Rainforests ecoregion, red-cheeked squirrels, siamangs (a black arboreal gibbon), and some five species of hornbill thrive in its near-constant 75 per cent humidity.
Maquipucuna Cloud Forest, Ecuador
Home to 4,200 species of orchid, Ecuador’s column of verdant cloud forest runs north to south along the spine of the mighty Andes, stretching all the way to the Peruvian border. One of its most biodiverse is 15,000-acre Maquipucuna, located a two-hour drive from the capital of Quito at the gateway to the Chocó Andean Corridor.
Species: The Andean cloud forests’ flagship species is the berry-eating Spectacled Bear. Normally solitary creatures, Maquipucuna is one of the only places where the reclusive bears have been observed in groups, feasting (seasonally) on wild avocados. The only surviving species of bear native to South America, fewer than 10,000 remain in the wild according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Armadillo and prowling puma also flourish in Maquipucuna’s mist-shrouded canopy, alongside 250 species of butterfly and 2,200 plant species, including innumerable epiphytes (a type of plant that grows on another plant), dubbed “canopy composters.” A twitchers paradise, 4 per cent of the earth’s bird species call Maquipucana home too, like the charismatic cock-of-the-rock, distinguished by its fan-like crest and red-orange plumage.
For the intrepid, wildlife-loving traveller who has already ticked off some of the world’s greatest coral reefs and iconic rainforests, the otherworldly realm of cloud forests offers a refreshingly different nature-driven experience.