Colombia is recognized as a megadiverse country home to a diverse range of ecosystems, including paramos, mangroves, wetlands, coral reefs, glaciers, oceans, and tropical forests, as well as significant biodiversity and water resources. With a total of 63,303 known species, Colombia ranks second in the world for species richness; it ranks first in birds and orchids, second in plants, amphibians, and freshwater fish, third in palms and reptiles, and fourth in mammals.
Many zones and particular ecosystems of the country are exceptionally or uniquely biodiverse. All the Pacific coast of Colombia is part of the Tumbes-Chocó-Magdalena hotspot, one of the 36 biodiversity hotspots of the world. This hotspot extends along the western coast of the Andes Mountains, from southeastern Mesoamerica to northwestern South America. It harbours both the world's wettest rainforests and South America's only remaining coastal dry forests. The hotspot includes a wide variety of habitats, ranging from mangroves, beaches, rocky shorelines and coastal zones to rainforests in the Colombian Chocó. Scattered throughout the relatively flat coastal plain are a number of small mountain systems that have fostered the evolution of "islands" of endemism within the region.
An estimated 11,000 vascular plant species have been found in the hotspot, about 25% of which are endemic. About 5,000 of these are found in the Colombian Chocó, an area thought to be the most floristically diverse area in the Neotropics. The northern parts of the hotspot in Ecuador and the Colombian Chocó are characterized by extremely wet or pluvial forests that receive eight meters of rainfall annually and hold as many as 300 tree species per hectare. The hotspot's forests are globally important for bird endemism, holding nearly 900 total species, some 110 of which are endemic. Amphibian diversity is even more impressive, with more than 200 species, about 30 of which are endemic. Many of the hotspot's endemic amphibians are limited to habitats of only a few square kilometers, making them particularly vulnerable. The hotspot includes about 250 species of fish nearly half of which are endemic; endemism is centered around the Magdalena and Atrata valleys.
In addition, the Colombian Andes are part of the Tropical Andes Biodiversity Hotspot, the most biodiverse of the 36 biodiversity hotspots of the world. The Tropical Andes Biodiversity Hotspot extends from western Venezuela to northern Chile and Argentina, and includes large portions of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. The Tropical Andes contain about one-sixth of all plant life on the planet, including 30,000 species of vascular plants. The region also has the largest variety of amphibian, bird and mammal species, and takes second place to the Mesoamerica Hotspot for reptile diversity. The Tropical Andes is the world leader in plant endemism, with an estimated 50% (and perhaps 60% or more) of its species found nowhere else on Earth. More than 375 species of freshwater fishes are documented in the hotspot. The Andes is by far the most diverse region in the world for amphibians, with approximately 980 species and more than 670 endemics. Amphibians represent more than half of all threatened species in the hotspot. With more than 1,700 species, a third of them endemic, birds are the most species-rich vertebrate group in the hotspot and represent another group for which diversity is greater in the Tropical Andes than in any other hotspot. With 570 species, no other hotspot has a greater diversity of mammals. The majority of the species, as elsewhere in the tropics, are rodents and bats. The large mammals of the Andes are remnants of a much more diverse megafaunal community that became extinct with the arrival of humans on the continent.
The Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund (CEPF) has identified 152 Key Biodiversity Areas (KBA) in Colombia, which cover about 15.2% of the country’s territory. KBAs are sites of global significance for biodiversity conservation and require priority protection due the vulnerability and uniqueness of the animal and plant populations that reside in them.
About 1,500,000 ha of natural ecosystems were transformed in Colombia between 2005–2009 and 2010–2012, with the island areas being the most severely affected, followed by coastal areas, with losses of 15.92% and 2.86% of their natural ecosystems respectively. The most affected ecosystems, in terms of area lost, were the humid basal forests (456,381.74 ha), seasonal savannas (211,871.37 ha), floodable savannas (138,490.02 ha), basal swamp areas (198,373.71 ha), basal floodplains (136,514.37 ha), and basal subxerophytic forests (110,151.39 ha). The Caribbean region suffered the largest transformation (8.3%) followed by the Andean region (2.67%). The coverage of mangrove swamps has been continuously reduced. Mangrove area decreased from 246,971 ha in 1996 to 228,659 ha in 2016.
Although data are still insufficient to assess with certainty the extent of species loss, a total of 721 plant and 281 vertebrate species have been identified as vulnerable or threatened with extinction in Colombia.
The main threats to Colombia’s biodiversity are related to sectoral development and the lack of territorial planning; the Colombian economy is resource intensive, posing pressures from the extractive industry, livestock ranching, agriculture, urbanization and motorization, among others. Between 2005 and 2015, the greatest pressures on natural areas came from agricultural activities including the establishment of low-productivity agricultural and livestock production systems that demanded the occupation of new areas or expansion from existing ones.
Livestock ranching utilizes 34 million ha in the country and is one of the activities that poses the greatest threat to forests. Cattle ranching in the Amazon region has been a trigger of deforestation; with incremental deforestation in the Amazonas, Caquetá, Guaviare, and Putumayo departments by cattle ranches with inefficient models of extensive production and ancillary activities such as colonization and extraction of wood and illicit fauna. Agriculture in the Andean region has low technological levels and very low yields that push producers to intervene forests and areas of secondary vegetation looking for better quality soils. Agriculture is itinerant with the constant displacement of farmers to take advantage of secondary forests.
Between 1990 and 2015, the growth of agribusiness in Colombia and its relationship with deforestation has been often associated with the expansion of oil palm plantations; this sector has shown an important growth, going from 1000 ha in 1960-2001 to 466,000 ha at the end of 2015.
The main threats to species are habitat fragmentation and loss, water and soil pollution, among others. Fisheries and aquaculture are among the biggest challenges in managing aquatic biodiversity in the country. Most fishery resources are in difficult condition, with a significant number of overexploited fishing species. Total fish production in the Magdalena River basin has decreased by almost 50% in 30 years. The catch landed in the Caribbean and Pacific of Colombia has shown a progressive decline since 2016. For the Pacific, the values were also similar to those of recent years, with the 2017 capture representing only 11% of the historical maximum recorded. Aquaculture is a mostly informal activity based mainly on exotic species that affect ecosystems and compromise native biodiversity. Approximately 308 exotic terrestrial and aquatic animal species and 597 exotic plant species (42 of these regarded as high-risk species) have been reported. Sixteen introduced species have been reported in marine-coastal environments.
Key policies and governance approach
The National Policy for the Integrated Management of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services aimed to mainstream biodiversity in the country; the intrinsic value of species and ecosystems and their functions are now recognized as linked to human well-being and the social viability of local communities.
The National System of Protected Areas-SINAP comprises a total of 1,093 protected areas covering 30,891,512 ha or 30% of the country’s territory. Other areas managed through conservation strategies comprise additional 11,108,488 ha.
Colombia has also adopted its National Strategy for the Conservation of Plants, the Quadrennial Institutional Research Environmental Plan 2019-2022, the National Policy for the Comprehensive Management of Biodiversity and its Ecosystem Services, and the Biodiversity Action Plan 2016 – 2030.
Additionally, the National Program for the Conservation and Restoration of Tropical Dry Forest and its Action Plan 2020-2030 are being implemented. Colombia will have a Restoration National Plan adopted by 2035.
The National Strategy for the Conservation of Plants set sixteen goals under five objectives: (i) understand and document plant diversity, (ii) conserve plant diversity, (iii) use plant diversity sustainably, (iv) promote education and awareness about plant diversity, and (v) build capacity for the conservation of plant diversity.
The Biodiversity Action Plan envisions that, by 2030: (i) the Ecological Structure will have been incorporated into all the land-use planning and management instruments; (ii) the country will have raised awareness of the public value of biodiversity, and the need for its conservation and sustainable use; (iii) the country will have consolidated green business chains at the regional level, increasing competitiveness, using biodiversity sustainably and improving the well-being of local populations; (iv) the proposal for public-private partnerships aimed at financing CTI programs at the national level, based on the use and exploitation of biodiversity and ecosystem services and a portfolio of strategic projects in science, technology, and innovation will be under implementation; (v) the main drivers of forest loss and degradation will be under control, and (vi) the country will comply with 100% of the prioritised environmental goals related to the Sustainable Development Goals.
SUCCESSES AND REMAINING CHALLENGES
The coverage of protected areas is still limited, leaving a number of biodiversity-important sites and vulnerable ecosystems out. Only 40 of the 152 Key Biodiversity Areas of Colombia are fully covered by protected areas, 65 are partially covered, and the remaining 46 are entirely outside of the existent protected areas.
Deforestation remains one of the country's greatest environmental challenges; about 6 million ha of forests were estimated to have been lost in the country between 1990 and 2016; with a historical maximum of 219,973 ha deforested in 2017. Some 12,417 ha of forests in protected areas were lost in 2017, amounting to 5% of the countrywide total deforestation.
Regional priorities for plant conservation have been identified; results are available in the Biodiversity Information System (SIB). A total of 123 species were evaluated in the coffee region and 40 of them were identified as priority; 78 species were identified as priority (out of 123 species evaluated) in the Orinoquia region; and 111 priority species for conservation were identified in the Caribbean region. These lists of priority species are a necessary input for decision-making and resource management at the regional scale and inform the implementation of in situ and ex situ conservation actions.
Regarding the Aichi targets Colombia has reported that: (i) 51% of the country's moors are under some protection scheme and 86% keep their natural hedges, indicating a high degree of protection and conservation; (ii) Permanent wetlands have the largest percentage of natural cover (94 and 88%, respectively) and are located mainly in the complex of Mojana, in Tumaco (Nariño) and in the Darien region; (iii) Results from the Evaluation of extinction risk of endemic trees and shrubs in Colombia showed that 45% of the endemic trees and shrubs are at risk of extinction and it is crucial to promote their conservation; and (iv) Essential areas for life support — ELSA — were identified in the departments of Vichada, Chocó, Guainía, Caqueta and Amazonas.
Initiatives and Development Plans
Colombia has adopted a Research and Monitoring Agenda including four work phases aimed at identifying priorities for conservation and in situ and ex situ conservation actions.
- The national system of protected areas has been a major pillar of Colombia’s biodiversity conservation policy. However, major efforts are still required to achieve the Aichi targets.
- The combined impacts of agriculture, illegal crops, livestock ranching, mining, and social inequality have to be jointly analysed to elucidate, from a socio-ecological perspective, the trade-offs between sectors and formulate concrete solutions for specific regions of the country.
- Measures to protect the marine and coastal environment should be strengthened.
- Although biodiversity knowledge has improved, the lack of scientific and economic information about biodiversity and ecosystems services remains an important constraint for policy-making.
 Biodiversidad en cifras. Retrieved October 2021
 Ministerio de Ambiente y Desarrollo Sostenible 2017. Resolución No. 1912. Por la cual se establece el listado de las especies silvestres amenazadas de la diversidad biológica colombiana continental y marino costera que se encuentran en el territorio nacional, y se dictan otras disposiciones.
 Moreno, L. A., Andrade, G. I., Didier, G & Hernández-Manrique, O. L. (Eds.). Biodiversidad 2020. Estado y tendencias de la biodiversidad continental de Colombia. Bogotá, D. C., Colombia: Instituto de Investigación de Recursos Biológicos Alexander von Humboldt.