Today is the International Mountain Day 2021. Being a mountaineer myself, a trait that I have inherited from my parents and grandparents, it goes without saying that I have over the years developed a passion and love for the mountains which I would say is deeply embedded in my blood and soul. The pleasure of being outside in nature, bare of human tracks and sounds, coupled with amazing landscapes and wonderful sceneries, provides a peace of mind that, at least for me, nothing else can. The mountain environment, due to its wilderness, also is one of the few places that still holds the potential for adventure, as it is not tamed like urban places. It provides us a mirror for our souls through nature’s purity and simplicity, something that our fast-paced lifestyle is hardly able to anymore these days.

Express Views: The role of mountains for biodiversity conservation (Ingmar Schumacher, December 2021)

We cannot any longer underestimate the significance of mountain regions for the conservation of nature.”

Leave only footprints, take only memories – living according to this saying seems always so much easier in the mountains than in our modern society which is filled with advertising and consumption and things that somehow accumulate but are of limited need or practical use. How little we really need is something that one can easily figure out in the mountains, and how much we actually have is something that we notice again when we return from these. This dichotomy between life in the mountains and life in the rest of society could not be greater, and the implications for sustainability and attitudes towards nature cannot be overemphasized.

However, we humans have, for a long time, been taking more from nature than it can regenerate itself. The result is that the gap between what we consume and what nature can provide is widening. If we do not reverse this process, this will ultimately lead to the demise of nature and with it life on our planet as we know it. Currently, 10-30% of all the mammals, birds and amphibian species are threatened with extinction; 3/4 of all the fish stocks are over-fished; the bird population in Europe has decreased by 30% since 1970; and if we do not reduce our impact on nature and minimize climate change, then an estimated 70% of all species on this planet will face extinction. In addition, the regions on this planet that do not see a (significant) human interference, the so-called wilderness regions, have been reduced by a 1/3 during the past century.

“85% of the world’s species of amphibians, birds and mammals live in mountain regions.”

IMD 2021 infographic
Canadian Mountain Network

What, however, gets emphasized very little is how important the mountain regions are for the conservation of nature. Approximately 85% of the world’s species of amphibians, birds and mammals live in mountain regions. Around 50% of the world’s biodiversity hotspots are found in mountains. And more than 60% of all freshwater comes from the mountains.

This implies that we cannot any longer underestimate the significance of mountain regions for the conservation of nature. There are many ways in which mountain regions can be conserved, among which protected areas and sustainable tourism are the main ones.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) writes that “about 17% of mountain areas are protected representing 32.4% of the extent of the world’s terrestrial protected areas; nevertheless there are mountain areas of significance that are not adequately protected when considered at country, biogeographic realm, biome and ecoregion scales. For example, of the 6109 Key Biodiversity Areas located in mountains, 52% are less than 30% protected and 40.4% are completely unprotected. Nearly 40% of the world’s mountain ranges do not contain any protected areas.” Clearly, there is room for improvement here, and a key challenge is how to increase the percentage of protected mountain regions. If you are interested in more information, there is an interesting quarterly newsletter called the Mountain Protected Area Update, published by the World Commission on Protected Areas. The percentage of mountain areas that is protected is ultimately a political decision, but grassroot movements can go a long way to help motivate politicians to take the right steps. Political interests are shaped by lobby groups, and it is important to have sufficiently strong voices that oppose further development of mountain regions, such as in the form of ski resorts or urban centres. If we want to conserve nature and wildlife for our future generations, but also for its own sake, then we need to learn to take our hands as far off nature as possible, especially in mountain regions. We also do have a moral obligation to animals and nature itself, we should not forget that in our decision taking and policy choices.

The other way in which mountain regions can be conserved is via sustainable tourism. As the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations notices, “[s]ustainable tourism in mountains can contribute to creating additional and alternative livelihood options and promoting poverty alleviation, social inclusion, as well as landscape and biodiversity conservation. It is a way to preserve the natural, cultural and spiritual heritage, to promote local crafts and high value products, and celebrate many traditional practices such as local festivals.” The point here is that if we cannot find a way to fully protect and conserve nature, in a hands off way, then at least we should try to find a way to live with it such that we leave only footprints. This also means reducing, or minimally to not construct additional mountain resorts that make it easier and easier to get to remote places. Yes, it is true that humans need to be as much exposed to nature in order to learn to love and appreciate nature, but that it is also important that it does not come at the price of destroying nature. Making access to nature easier will only result in shifting the barrier between what is an urban development and nature. We need to understand that nature should not be made convenient for us and that one can only truly experience nature if it is in its pristine form. Sustainable tourism is one way in which this pristine form can be guarded and in which we can hope to conserve as much nature as possible. We owe it to our future, and to all life on this planet.