ANTIOQUIA, Colombia – Five hours by truck and mule from the nearest town, a rumbling generator cuts through the silent night to power large spotlights as botanists crouch and kneel on large blue tarps spread across a cow pasture. It's nearly midnight, and the team works urgently to describe every detail of the dozens of colorful orchids, ferns and other exotic plants they have collected that day in Las Orquídeas National Park, one of the single most biologically diverse places on the planet.
For nearly two weeks, each day begins and ends like this. At 6 a.m., the botanists emerge from their tents, just before the sun peeks over the mist covered mountains. They down a breakfast of cornmeal arepas and steaming bowls of agua de panela, a local drink made from boiled sugar cane. Then they don their rain gear, cross the river on a dubious bridge made of a single log and trudge along narrow, muddy trails before fanning out into the cloud forest.
Their mission: To collect as many species of flowering plants as possible and return to base camp before heavy afternoon rains swell the river to dangerous levels. They're racing a different clock, too. Climate change and development are beginning to erase these irreplaceable ecosystems. The researchers are scrambling to understand what is here before it disappears.
The scientists are carrying out a three-year project, funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, to create a comprehensive inventory of all the vascular plants in this park. It's a considerable undertaking. At least 3,000 plant species – including the more than 200 species of orchid for which the park is named – are believed to inhabit Las Orquídeas. Potentially hundreds of plants have yet to be identified by science.
What makes this park in northwestern Colombia a global biodiversity hotspot is its location at the intersection of the Chocó and the Tropical Andes, two of the richest biogeographic regions in the world. But for the better part of two decades, Las Orquídeas, like many other ecologically important areas in Colombia, was largely off limits to scientists because portions of the park had become the unofficial territory of armed groups in the country's decades-long conflict.
All over the mountain tropics of South America, the race is on identify unique, often endemic species before natural resource exploitation and climate change converge to threaten them. Before scientists can document the impacts of climate change, they must be able to establish a baseline for how these ecosystems function. But in Colombia, which may have the greatest biodiversity of any country on earth, research is often decades behind; field expeditions can be dangerous, making funding hard to come by.
Today, the Colombian government is holding peace talks with the largest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, and the conflict has retreated from Las Orquídeas over the past several years. Yet the high mountain ecosystems of the Colombian Andes remain besieged. As the country becomes more secure, mining, timber, agriculture and ranching are expanding rapidly, leading to massive deforestation and contributing to temperatures that are rising significantly faster than at lower altitudes.
"The Andes is actually the most diverse region of the planet," said Paola Pedraza-Peñalosa, a Colombian botanist at the New York Botanical Garden who is co-leading the Las Orquídeas research. "Here we have a great diversity of plants that has no parallel in the rest of the world, but also the Andes is one of the most deforested areas."
Like coral reefs and glaciers, the tropical Andes are among the most vulnerable to the dual impacts of climate change and human population pressures. About a sixth of the world's biodiversity – perhaps two million species of plants, animals, fungi and microorganisms – can be found in the region. About 10 percent have been identified.