The Nature of Cuba- page 3 | Travel | Smithsonian
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The Nature of Cuba

Tiny frogs. Vast swamps. Pristine rivers. Whether by design or default, the island boasts the Caribbean's best-kept wildlands. But for how long?

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Whether or not ivory-billed woodpeckers live in Humboldt Park, there’s little doubt that the government’s actions to save the bird highlight an environmental approach that differs from that of Castro’s predecessor, the plunder-minded president Fulgencio Batista. Since Castro seized power in 1959, forest cutting has slowed markedly, according to Perera; forest cover has increased from about 14 percent in 1956 to about 21 percent today.

The headquarters for this section of HumboldtPark sits above TacoBay. A couple of rangers take us for a spin around the lagoon in search of a manatee family that divides its time between TacoBay and another lagoon nearby. In a dinghy, powered by an impossibly small outboard, we put-put across the placid waters, stopping first in a channel that becomes a tunnel as it passes under mangrove boughs—one of the few places in the world where pine forests meet mangrove swamps, Perera says. We encounter no manatees, but TacoBay still looks like a wonderful ecotourism spot. Though the ranger station has a small bunkhouse for visitors, little seems to have been done to enhance such sites. Perera, speaking carefully (all Cubans speak carefully when touching on official matters), says the government has trouble delegating the authority for the planning and design of ecotourist ventures, making it difficult for entrepreneurs to get started.

Tact is especially valuable in a country where a verbal misstep can land one in jail. In its latest human rights assessment, Amnesty International reported in 2002 that a significant but unspecified number of Cubans were imprisoned for their personal beliefs and political dissidence. (In 1997, for instance, Cuban journalist Bernardo Arévalo Padrón was sentenced to six years in prison for saying in an interview that Castro lied and broke promises to respect human rights.) This past March, the Castro regime reportedly arrested at least 75 Cubans for alleged dissident activity—the largest roundup of political activists in decades—after a number of them had met with a member of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Cuba. A U.S. State Department spokesman said the arrests were a reaction to “independent individuals and groups which are willing to take a few more risks these days and express their opposition to, or independence from, the government.”

Islands showcase the capricious paths of evolution: their very isolation acts as a filter, minimizing somewhat the coming and going of species that make terrestrial ecosystems so diverse and complex. From an ecological point of view, Cuba is strategically situated between North and South America, with flora and fauna drawn from both continents. And it’s a big island—750 miles long and up to 150 miles wide—the 15th largest on the planet. Arrayed around the main island are more than 4,000 other islands; some, like the Isle of Youth (890 square miles), are quite large. Many, according to Michael Smith, of Conservation International in Washington, D.C., serve as important refuges for endangered species.

Cuba’s living world can be traced to the geological forces that created the place. Its mammals have a particularly South American accent, for instance. Most experts argue that South American primates, sloths and other animals reached Cuba on rafts of floating vegetation. Ross MacPhee, a mammalogist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has a different idea. He theorizes that a ridge, a part of which is now 6,000 feet below the Caribbean between the West Indies and South America, rose above the ocean surface 33 million years ago. For a little less than a million years, the bridge allowed animals to reach Cuba, which was then united with Puerto Rico and Hispaniola as one great peninsular mass contiguous with today’s Venezuela. Evidence for this, he says, is the presence of ferric oxide, or rust, in the Aves Ridge seabed; the compound is formed when iron-containing soil is exposed to atmospheric oxygen.

However they got there, the island’s animals and plants make for an eccentric mixture. Mammal species are scarce, though there’s the tree-dwelling rodent, the hutia, and the insectivorous solenodon. Perhaps not surprisingly, the one mammal that flourishes on Cuba (and many other islands) has wings: bats. Plants that can float (or have seeds that float) also have become established. Cuba has a great diversity of palm trees—roughly 100 species. Reptiles, like the iguana and the crocodile, are well represented, too, perhaps because their capacity to estivate, or wait out the summer heat in a torpor akin to hibernation, suits them to ocean voyages on tree trunks and the like. Cuba ranks tenth in the world in reptile diversity, with some 91 different species.

Geology continues to shape island life. An abundance of limestone-rich terrain is heaven for mollusks, particularly snails, which fashion their shells out of the mineral. In western Cuba, erosion has created steep-sided limestone hills called mogotes. Asnail originating on a particular mogote is essentially limited to it, so snail evolution follows its own course on virtually each mogote, producing a great number of species. Cuba has hundreds of different snail species, including the gaudy polymita of the island’s eastern region; it might be green, red, yellow or some combination of colors. Alas, the polymita is critically endangered because people collect its shell; the Cuban kite, a bird that feeds on the mollusk, is also disappearing.

In nature, one animal’s absence is another’s opportunity, which may partially explain a peculiarity of islands: disproportionate numbers of both gigantic and tiny creatures, such as the giant lizards and tortoises on some islands today, and the pygmy rhinos on Borneo. (Not to mention a 300-pound rodent, amblyrhiza, that once graced, if that is the word, Anguilla.) Cuba is home not only to the world’s smallest bird but also the smallest scorpion (Microtityius fundorai), a big-voiced tiny frog (Eleutherodactylus iberia) and one of the world’s smallest owls. There is a small insect-eating bat (Natalus lepidus) with an eight-inch wingspan as well as a gigantic, fish-eating bat (Noctilio leporinus) with a two-foot wingspan.

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