Take a bath where the tropics touch the sky
Huascaran National Park, Peru, World Heritage site
In the Cordillera Blanca, the highest tropical mountain range in the world, lies Huascaran National Park with its breathtaking lakes and glaciers between 27 snow-capped peaks reaching into the sky with a height of above 6000m.
The mountain region is not only scenic, but also crucial for the water supply in the lower areas. The 296 lakes and 41 rivers discharge into three watersheds in the region, supplying the population with an ever running flow of fresh water. The Santa valley for example, a densely populated region containing cities such as Huaraz (90,000 inhabitants), Caraz (15,000 inhabitants), and hundreds of rural villages, gets 10 to 20% - even up to 40% in the dry season – of its total annual water run-off from glacial melt. This feeds the economic activities in the valley, provides drinking water and water for the irrigation of the puna grasslands. Moreover, glacial melt supports the hydroelectric power station of Cañón del Pato. To complement Huarascan National Park’s importance for water resources, the park holds three thermal springs at its borders, known for their therapeutic properties.
The national park was established on 1 July 1975, accepted as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1977 and designated as World Heritage site in 1985. The highest mountain in the park, Nevado Huascaran, was named after the 16th century Inca chief Huascar.
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Size and Location
Huascaran National Park is located in the Cordillera Blanca, in the heart of the Peruvian Andes. The national park covers an area of 340,000 ha and spans parts of ten Peruvian provinces. The area recognized as a Biosphere Reserve under UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere program is even larger, covering 399,239 ha. However, even more impressive than its size is Huascaran’s altitude: Ranging from 2,500 m to 6,768m at the summit of Huascaran, the area is famous for being the earth’s highest point in the tropics and consequently one of the points on the Earth's surface farthest from the Earth's center, further even than Mount Everest.
Fauna and Flora
The wide topographic range supports an equally wide range of vegetation types with humid montane forest in the valleys and alpine fluvial tundra, and very wet sub alpine paramo formations at higher levels. About 800 plant species have been identified in the area, including Puya raimondii, a distinctive alpine bromeliad, and several species of mountain orchids. Several medicinal plants can be found in the park and local communities harvest these plants for personal use.
The Huascaran National Park is home to ten mammal species including the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), puma (Puma concolor), mountain cat (Leopardus jacobita), white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and the vicuna (Vicugna vicugna). A very rare species of deer can also be spotted here, the North Andean huemul (Hippocamelus antisensis). The Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), with its impressive wingspan of up to 3.2 m roams the skies of Huascaran National Park. Besides this mighty bird, the giant coot (Fulica gigantea) and the giant hummingbird (Patagona gigas peruviana), ornate tinamou as well as various species of duck, including the torrent duck (Merganetta armata), are noteworthy.
The variety of geomorphological features in the Huascaran National Park is very high. The base rock consists of sediments from the Upper Jurassic seas and of Cretaceous and tertiary volcanic deposits which make up the Andean batholits.
In Huascaran National Park the consequences of climate change are already apparent. As noticeable for all Andean glaciers, the Huascaran National Park has witnessed a major retreat of its glaciers during the 20th century. Since water from these glaciers is critical for the valleys below, it is predicted that annual water availability will increase slightly as more of the glaciers melt, but that there will be a dramatic decline after 2050. Seasonal variations will become more intense, with less water available in the dry season.
Uncontrolled land-use by the surrounding communities has been a threat to the park for a long time. Pasture burning, hunting and overgrazing can be seen as problematic for soil erosion and the key flora and fauna.
Other threats arise from continued demand for mining operations, water power and for even more roads within the park. Major mining concessions have been granted before the establishment of the national park and still persist, with actual mining activities ongoing in some areas.
Growing tourist numbers in the last years also have a negative impact on the park’s value. It is not only the most irresponsible tourists, destroying some of the pre-Hispanic rock paintings in the park with graffiti, who pose a threat, but more generally the necessity for infrastructure developments as more and more people visit the area.
Dealing with the threats
Climate change is a problem which has to be tackled on several levels: on the global level, international efforts and (in-) actions regarding climate change are well known; on the local level, adaptation projects still have to be implemented in the upcoming years, to find new and sustainable ways for living and doing agriculture with the changed water supply in the area.
To resolve conflicts between community land use and the protection of the park, committees of traditional land users have been set up, which now cooperate with the park management: pasture areas for raising cattle or alpaca are attributed to traditional users while the land users are supporting the reforestation efforts of the park management. Local communities are also actively participating in supporting park staff in other conservation activities such as control, patrolling and rescue operations.
To better manage the tourism within and around the park, a number of meetings and workshops have been organized by the park’s administration with key tour operators. Dialogue and cooperation is also the key for managing the negative impacts of mining activities. In some cases, very effective cooperation can be witnessed, but a lot of work still needs to be done and future developments have to be observed vigilantly.
Verena Treber, IUCN World Heritage Programme