The Nature of Cuba- page 5 | 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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(Continued from page 4)

The Florida Straits off Cuba have the greatest diversity of marine species in the hemisphere, according to a recent U.N.-sponsored study by Michael Smith. In addition, Cuba’s wetlands have seen a dramatic reduction in the pesticide runoff that mars wetlands in other countries, as farmers turn from expensive chemicals to organic means of fertilizing and controlling pests. Though the shift probably would not have occurred without the Soviet Union’s collapse, which impoverished Cuba and limited its access to agrichemicals, it is an example of the sort of conservation-by-default that has benefited the island environment.

Now Cuba’s ecology is increasingly a concern of outside organizations. The UNDP channels roughly $10 million a year in aid into Cuba, one-third of which goes into environmental projects such as supporting protected areas, cleaning Havana Bay and helping Cuba devise new coastal management plans. Orlando torres is a short, balding, middle-aged ornithologist and professor of zoology at the University of Havana. He has boundless energy. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone who enjoys his work more. He’s not in it for the money; he earns $23 a month.

He’s eager to show off ZapataSwampNational Park, another preserve with historical importance. Zapata encompasses the Bay of Pigs, where the 1961 CIA-assisted assault by Cuban exiles failed disastrously. The swamp covers about 1,900 square miles, or the size of Delaware, and remains sparsely populated, with only 9,000 permanent residents; 60 to 70 percent of its area is undeveloped.

The HatiguanicoRiver, which runs westward on the ZapataPeninsula, is largely untouched by industry and agriculture. Cesar Fernandez, the local park ranger, takes us down the river in an outboard-powered boat. The water is clear and teems with tarpon and other fish. The surrounding trees and swamp foliage are crowded with birds. As we move downstream, herons, egrets, kingfishers and other birds take flight ahead of us. Turtles, sunning themselves on branches, plunk into the river. At a shimmering pool, I dive in, and feel the cool springwater rising from the depths. Divers have so far probed as deep as 200 feet, Torres says, with no bottom in sight.

Torres keeps a tab of bird species. In the first hour he counts 25. Though hunting and poaching do occur, on the whole wildlife may be the beneficiary of the police state; the government restricts hunting and does everything it can to keep guns out of private hands.

That river trip was a mere appetizer for the visual feast we would encounter the next day. In an eastern part of the swamp, we walk along a path into the park near the head of the Bay of Pigs, stopping at Salinas, a salt flat that once supplied the mineral for trade but long ago reverted to a natural state. At a ranger station, we pick up a former forester and the park’s premier guide, and head into the swamp. He and Torres name the birds they spot—here a broad-winged hawk, there, black-necked stilts on ridiculously spindly legs. The two are hoping to eye a trogon, Cuba’s colorful national bird whose colors are red, white, blue and green—a palette that a Yankee environmentalist might see as saluting the island’s proximity to its giant neighbor as well as its ecological good citizenship.

I see a tall bird with a white chest perched by itself on a tree stump in the wetland. But it flies off before I can ask the experts to identify it. Torres thrusts a bird book into my hands and asks me to point out the creature. After riffling through the pages a few times, I finger an ivory-billed woodpecker. Torres laughs. But hey, the bird really did look like the fabled relic.

Halfway to the coast, the guide leads us into a dry part of the swamp to a stand of dead palms. He studies the hollow stumps and then starts scratching on one. A moment later a tiny head appears and looks down at us with a combination of indignation and suspicion. Torres is ecstatic. It’s a small screech-owl, Otus lawrencii. “This is a very good record,” he says. “I spent a week looking for it with an English bird expert and failed to find one.” Trying to convey the significance to a nonbirder, he says, “If a trogon is worth a dollar, the barelegged [or screech-] owl is one million dollars.” Knowing Torres’ salary, I get the picture.

Leaving Cuba, I was struck by the incongruity of so much pristine beauty so close to the Caribbean’s many overdeveloped islands. For an American, this is a lost world a scant 90 miles from home. It was also hard to digest the irony that the forces that have worked to preserve nature in Cuba contradict so many tenets of conventional wisdom about conservation.

Trying to sort out my reactions I imagine a summit meeting on sustainable development, which is an approach to achieving economic growth without destroying natural systems. Asked to describe their dream of an environmental paradise, the sustainable development mandarins describe a land of high biodiversity with a stable, educated population; a government dedicated to protecting natural resources; a populace that wasted nothing; an agriculture that pursued organic methods and minimized toxic runoff.

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