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.
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.
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.
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.
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.