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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Why dwarfs and giants flourish on islands has long provoked debate among biogeographers. J. Bristol Foster of the University of British Columbia theorized in the early 1960s that reduced predation and competition on islands allow species to expand into unusual ecological niches. There can be powerful advantages to the extremes, researchers say. Gigantism may offer otherwise diminutive mammals like rodents access to new food sources. Dwarfism may give a large-bodied animal an edge in lean times, and on an island, where predators are few, a dwarf won’t necessarily pay a penalty for its size.

Moreover, a key element of island biology is that, just as living things are suited to the extremes, they are especially susceptible to being wiped out when the environment to which they are so finely adapted is disrupted. So says E. O. Wilson, the Harvard biologist and pioneer of island biogeography, who points out that most of the major extinctions caused by humans have occurred on islands.

Human beings settled Cuba about 5,500 years ago, many thousands of years after they established themselves on the continents. Humanity’s relatively recent appearance in Cuba may explain why some animals persisted longer there than on the mainland. The giant sloth, for instance, vanished from South America roughly 11,000 years ago, presumably after being hunted to extinction, but held on another 5,000 years in Cuba. Numerous endemic Cuban species are threatened by human activity, biologists say. Among them are the solenodon, whose numbers have been reduced by feral dogs, and the hutia, which is illegally hunted for food. The Zapata wren is endangered largely because of habitat destruction, the Cuban pygmy owl because of logging, and the Cuban parrot because of a thriving illegal pet trade. Ross MacPhee says the Cuban government can’t afford to enforce environmental regulations, but most environmentalists I spoke with disagreed with that assessment, saying the government backs up its conservation laws.

Continuing along the northeast coast to Baracoa, we stop at a church to see a remnant of the cross said to have been left by Christopher Columbus in 1492. (When Columbus landed he reportedly said, “This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.”) The cross, shown by radiocarbon dating to be about 500 years old, is made of coccoloba, a relative of the sea grape. Originally more than six feet tall, it has been whittled to half its size by relic seekers. Given the island’s tumultuous history of invasions, wars and pirates, not to mention atheistic Communists, it’s something of a miracle that even a splinter of the cross remains.

From Baracoa we head over the mountains toward the south coast, passing Cubans hawking goods to tourists. Among the items are protected species—polymita snails and Cuban parrots. The parrots have drab green feathers, modeled, it would appear, on the fatigues favored by Castro. Pérez, seeing the contraband sales, wants to stop. But Perera says no. “If we stopped,” he says, “I would feel obligated to denounce the sellers and have them arrested, and we would spend the rest of the day on this.”

Traversing the pass through the Nipe-Sagua-BaracoaMountains, we leave the range’s rain shadow, and the tropical forest soon gives way to desertlike dryness. Along the southeast coast are remarkable marine terraces, including the most dramatic, at Punta Caleta. The limestone formations look like giant steps, the risers formed by cliffs dozens of yards high. Exposed by geologic uplifting, they offer an extraordinary record of past sea levels. Geophysicists flock here to “read” the climate record encoded in these marine terraces, which are said to be the oldest, largest, most elevated and least altered on the planet.

As we pass Guantánamo on our way to Santiago de Cuba, Perera remarks sardonically that the DMZ surrounding the United States naval base—wrested from the Cuban government in 1898 and then leased for 99 years beginning in 1934—is the most protected environment in Cuba, because it is guarded by fences and armed sentries (and reportedly ringed by land mines that Cubans placed outside the fences). Maybe someday it will be a park, Perera speculates.

A site of historical significance to Cubans that is already a nature reserve is Desembarco del Granma National Park. It marks where Castro, upon returning from exile in Mexico on December 2, 1956, disembarked from the yacht Granma and began the revolution. Castro chose the spot for its remoteness. The area more recently captivated Jim Barborak, an American protected-area specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. His evaluation of the local geomorphology—marine terraces reaching from several hundred feet above sea level to deeply submerged reefs—helped get the park designated a U.N. World Heritage Site. Barborak wrote in his report that it was “one of the most impressive coastal landscapes in the Americas from the Canadian Maritimes to Tierra del Fuego.”

What happened after Castro landed here, as Perera tells the story, would later bear on the government’s approach to wildlands. Three days after Castro landed, Batista’s troops took Castro’s guerrillas by surprise in Alegría de Pío. Outgunned, the rebel force scattered. An illiterate farmer named Guillermo Garcia Frías assembled the survivors, including Fidel and his brother Raúl, and led them into the Sierra Maestra, where they regrouped. For saving Castro’s life and then leading the ragtag revolutionaries to safety,Castro made Garcia one of five comandantes of the revolution. He later became a member of the central commit-tee and the politburo. Anature lover, Garcia turned to preserving the Sierra Maestra. He hired Perera in 1979 fresh out of the University of Havana’s biology program to work on preserving biodiversity.

Mary Pearl, president of the Wildlife Trust, based in Palisades, New York, says that Garcia’s ties to Castro established a strong environmental ethic for a generation of scientists and officials. As a result, says Pearl, coeditor of the book Conservation Medicine: Ecological Health in Practice, Cuba’s ecosystems are in the best shape of all islands in the Caribbean.


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