After diplomatic thaw, Cuba looks to protect nature from rising tide of tourism

bee hummingbird, Cuba

The famous bee hummingbird — the world’s tiniest bird — is only found in Cuba. This female is feeding from a hand-held flower at a rendezvous point for this sadly declining species. (© Les Kaufman)

Editor’s note: Earlier this month, Cuba and the U.S. agreed to work together to protect marine life in their adjacent seas. Coral scientist and CI Marine Conservation Fellow Les Kaufman recently traveled to Cuba to survey the health of its biodiversity, which has been off-limits to U.S. citizens for decades.

During my decades of coral reef research on the northern coast of Jamaica, my colleagues and I often ended our work days, good Jamaican rum in hand, staring through the heat lightning across the Caribbean toward Cuba.

Isolated by a decades-long freeze on trade and tourism with its massive neighbor to the north, Cuba’s vintage-car-lined streets and vibrant culture have long held allure for outsiders. But I was just as interested in what lay below the surface.

Cuba is home to a bevy of world-class ecologists whose years of hard work under difficult circumstances have revealed some of the best remaining coral reefs, mangrove forests and seagrass beds in the tropical Atlantic. Cubans and the Cuban government are proud of their natural heritage, and fully aware of the uniqueness and importance of their nation’s biodiversity. They are also keenly aware of the diverse livelihoods that nature can support in a tourism-based economy. Furthermore, though the entire archipelago has been ravaged by centuries of unsustainable sugar cane production and shipbuilding, much of Cuba’s natural heritage remains intact — or at least restorable.

With the recent thaw of diplomatic relations with the U.S., Cuba will inevitably see an influx of American visitors. In light of both the increase in tourism and the development that will follow, it’s crucial to survey and safeguard the health of the country’s natural areas. I was to be part of a small group of American coral reef scientists invited by the organization Ocean Doctor to join forces with our Cuban colleagues to address the challenges of maintaining the health of their country’s biodiversity.

Photo gallery: Wildlife in Cuba

Coral off the coast of Cuba. (© Paul/Flickr Creative Commons)
Northern curly tail lizard. (© Les Kaufman)
Rearing out pond for large Cuban gar at the restoration facility, leading out into the open swamp, and perhaps also into a future for this ancient and iconic species. (© Les Kaufman)
Zapata Swamp, Cuba. (© Les Kaufman)
The Cuban pygmy owl (Glaucidium siju) is a charming and widely distributed little owl found only in Cuba. (© Les Kaufman)


A conservationist’s dream

Last month, I stood on the tarmac in Havana’s viscous August heat and humidity for a two-week appointment with some rare wildlife, from the world’s largest woodpecker to the vivid Gramma dejongi, one of the world’s most beautiful reef fishes.

With me was Dr. Joe Roman, a well-known Vermont-based conservation biologist, author and specialist on marine mammals. Joe is an originator of the “whale pump” hypothesis — the idea that whale poop is key to ocean nutrient cycling in space and time. Also with me was Dr. Jackie Liederman, Boston University neurobiologist and, by chance, also my beloved wife.

Our trio arrived a week ahead of the rest of our group to familiarize ourselves with Cuba’s famed biodiversity, culture and storied landscapes above and below the waterline. At the Bay of Pigs and Zapata Swamp, a few hours southeast of Havana, we met Arturo Kirkconnell, a leading expert on Cuban birds. Together with his son Arturo Jr., he has logged decades of detailed study of the birds and their habitats in Zapata National Park, the Caribbean’s largest, most intact and most species-rich wetland landscape.

The list of what we saw was a conservationist’s dream: Cuban vireo and trogon (the national bird), bee and emerald hummingbirds, Zapata wrens and sparrows, pygmy and bare-legged owls, and two of our prizes: Fernandina’s flicker (a ground-loving woodpecker), and Gundlach’s hawk. The lush shoreline forests of Zapata were dominated by large wild tamarind, with swamp forest lorded over by pagoda-like black olive trees and spectacular Cuban royal palm. We also knew that somewhere in those tannin-stained waters were the legendary Cuban gar and cichlids. At first glance, Zapata seemed remarkably intact, a place of shining promise and an example for the Caribbean and the world.

Further reading

For some species, an uncertain future

Realizing this bright promise will not be easy. Encroachment and habitat destruction nibble at the edges of Zapata, and eat at it from the inside out. African walking catfish, tilapia, water milfoil and exotic trees like paperbarks have invaded the swamp. Some of the native freshwater fish species, many found only in Cuba, are barely hanging on. On our way out of the swamp we stopped at a conservation center where Cuban gar and other endangered and endemic freshwater fishes are being bred to someday repopulate the wild — if this habitat can be adequately protected.

The future of the Cuban gar and Cuban crocodile both are highly uncertain, as is the Cuban population of Caribbean manatee. The Zapata rail has not been seen in at least a decade, while the Cuban royal woodpecker (either a relative or a subspecies of the famed ivory-billed) has been missing in action for a quarter-century. The bee hummingbird — the world’s smallest bird — is in decline, likely due to habitat destruction. Several of the island’s endemic hutia species (guinea-pig like rodents) are critically endangered or extinct. The once-common Cuban macaw was last seen in the mid to late 19th century.

On the other hand, Cuba remains home to some species that have long since vanished on nearby islands like Jamaica, mostly due to larger threats or weaker protection outside of Cuba. It has a surviving species of solenodon, an ancient, venomous, insectivorous mammal that looks like a cross between a rat and an elephant shrew. The other surviving solenodon was recently rediscovered in Haiti; the third known species went extinct in Jamaica. Cuba boasts two species of gorgeous day-flying moths, while Jamaica’s Urania sloanus — perhaps the most magnificent species in the genus — went extinct in the late 1800s.

Out of the swamp, into the sea

Slipping into the water of the Bay of Pigs, about midway between Playa Larga and Playa Giron, we were greeted by lovely, intact patch reefs, large schools of parrotfishes, surgeonfishes and snappers. Yet the water was uncomfortably warm, with many corals showing bleaching on the upper surfaces of their branches and blades.

In the shallows, however, we saw regenerating patches of endangered staghorn and elkhorn corals. It looked like there would be a full recovery, likely facilitated by the legions of herbivorous fishes about, busily grazing away the fleshy algae so threatening to the well-being of reef-building corals.

Overall, things were looking good — but when we began exploring other reefs, it was a different story.

This is the first half of a two-part blog post; read Part 2. Les Kaufman is a marine conservation fellow at Conservation International. He’s also a professor at Boston University, where he teaches in the marine program. He is currently working with CI on the relationship between biodiversity conservation and human well-being in coastal Brazil, central Cambodia, the Pacific and other important fisheries.

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