A different kind of Conservation

Cuba has placed a remarkable 22% of its island area and 25% of its marine habitat under some sort of protection as national parks, biosphere reserves, or managed resources.

A typical example of one such protected area.

A typical example of one such protected area.

Conservationists have called Cuba the “jewel of the Caribbean” because its lack of development (in particular, tourism) has permitted both marine and terrestrial fauna and flora to thrive, where they have disappeared elsewhere on other Caribbean islands.  A smaller national economy, however, means less support for the maintenance of those protected areas, including their staffing and maintenance.

For example, the largest Cuban biosphere reserve, the Zapata Swamp, encompassing the entirety of the Pensinsula de Zapata (1682 square miles) operates on a budget of about $1 million US with 87 staff, some of whom make less than $30 a month as professional biologists.  With such limited internal monies and severe restrictions on visits from wealthy US ecotourists, protected areas need to do their own fundraising, and some have discovered novel ways to bring in much-needed cash.

The Rio Maximo Wildlife Reserve is a flamingo conservation and rehabilitation facility run by dedicated Cuban conservation biologists who have been collecting data on the flamingo breeding population there for 30 years.

Biologists here also run educational programs for children. To help instill the conservation ethic in the next generation, they use donated materials like coloring books that provide useful facts about Cuba's unique wild species.

Biologists here also run educational programs for children. To help instill the conservation ethic in the next generation, they use donated materials like coloring books that provide useful facts about Cuba’s unique wild species.

From a few thousand birds censused in 1984, the population has grown to more than 150,000 in this protected site. They have minimal government funding for their research, but instead have a unique strategy for fundraising which maximizes their conservation efforts:  raising orphaned flamingo chicks to sell to zoos worldwide, which reduces poaching and collecting of wild flamingos for zoo exhibits.

We were transported to the flamingo viewing area in the back of the refuge's trucks.

We were transported to the flamingo viewing area in the back of the refuge’s trucks.

We were transported to the flamingo viewing area in the back of the refuge's trucks.

A couple of kilometers down a very bumpy road in the back of a truck was sufficient to make me want to walk!

Then, a long walk across the flood plain of the Rio Maximo to a viewing platform overlooking open water and mangrove swamp.

Then, a long walk across the flood plain of the Rio Maximo to a viewing platform overlooking open water and mangrove swamp.

During the previous breeding season, 60-70,000 flamingo chicks were produced here.

During the previous breeding season, 60-70,000 flamingo chicks were produced here, one of the largest sites along the entire Cuban coast.

In Najasa about 22 miles southeast of the largest city in central Cuba, Camaguey, the Sierra del Chorillo Managed Resources Area breeds and raises Morgan, Arab, and Cuban Criollo horses for sale and uses the funds to manage a large area of palm savanna and forest habitat as a bird reserve that is attractive to a large number of Cuban as well as North American migrant bird species.

horses at Sierra del Chorillo managed resource area

horses at Sierra del Chorillo managed resource area

Sierra del Chorillo managed resource area

The bird trails at Sierra del Chorillo would through open pasture and woods where we saw some of our favorite endemic species, like the Cuban Trogon and Pygmy Owl.

The bird trails at Sierra del Chorillo wound through open pasture and woods where we saw some of our favorite endemic species, like the Cuban Trogon and Pygmy Owl.

A new endemic species we encountered at Sierra del Chorillo, the Giant Kingbird, distinguished by its very large, thick bill and black head.

A new endemic species we encountered at Sierra del Chorillo, the Giant Kingbird, distinguished by its very large, thick bill and black head.

For more information about Cuba’s conservation efforts and the potential threats of increased ecotourism, view the interesting PBS Nature video:  Cuba, the Accidental Eden.

3 thoughts on “A different kind of Conservation

  1. I forgot to explain above that the Cuban Criollo horses are descendants of the horses brought by Spanish explorers to the Caribbean. They were almost exterminated during the revolution for Cuban Independence.

    • Yes, tourism is both a boon and a bane for Cuba. It would bring a much needed stimulus to their economy, but could endanger fragile ecosystems with development, especially along the coast. The nesting sea turtles and flamingos, as well as thousands of migrating birds would be drastically impacted by coastal development. I was impressed with how proactive Cuba has been in implementing their protection plans. The big question is how well they work when the embargo is finally lifted and Americans are able to travel there.

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