U.S. Biologists Keen to Explore, Help Protect Cuba’s Wild Places


NPR’s Christopher Joyce focuses on how Cuba could see a new wave of tourism—“with visitors treated to music and scenery that has been closed to most U.S. residents for more than half a century” —and the possible negative side effects of more encroachment into the island’s rich flora and fauna. Joyce says:

But beyond the beaches and cabarets, there’s a spectacular world of wildlife, with hundreds of plants and animals that live nowhere else. Cuba is also a vital stopover for birds migrating from North America, and much of the wild area is pristine because the government hasn’t had the money to develop it. U.S. biologists are eager to explore this “green” Cuba … and help protect it.

On the streets of Cuba, one of the things that you’ll hear soon enough is the country’s unique music; the syncopated rhythm of the changui musical form, for example. Go out into the countryside, though, to hear a different kind of music — the call of a yellow-brown woodpecker called Fernandina’s Flicker [see photo above].

The bird is loud and persistent and you won’t hear it anywhere else but Cuba. “It’s a native — an endemic of the savannahs of Cuba, where it’s rapidly disappearing,” says Eduardo Inigo-Elias, an ornithologist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York. Inigo-Elias says Cuba has about 750 species of birds — a fourth of them found nowhere else on Earth.

[. . .] But the native birds are only half the story — many North American birds visit the island every year, from backyard warblers to big raptors like the osprey. And these birds need Cuba to survive, says Cornell Lab ornithologist Greg Budney. “There are literally millions of birds, migratory birds, that are making use of Cuba as a stopping point as they cross the Caribbean,” he says. The birds rest and regroup there, and they eat — that’s why biologists want to know more about the state of Cuba’s environment.

[. . .] “We have a gap in Cuba,” says Inigo-Elias. “We have a gap in the Caribbean that is huge, and for us it is so important for scientists to know what these birds are. What are the survival rates? What are the threats that are occurring there?”

It has been hard to find out. Inigo-Elias and Budney are among the few U.S. biologists to visit Cuba, and once they get there it’s tough to do field work. Though Cuban scientists have welcomed visiting researchers, Inigo-Elias explains, “They don’t have money to buy gas, to be able to move. Or they don’t have the trucks to go to the field.”

[. . .] Also, years of economic sanctions by the U.S. slowed development that otherwise might have mowed down forests and mangroves. The result: a biological treasure trove. “There are peaks that are more than 6,000 feet high, plunging deeply into the sea that goes 20,000 feet deep,” Rader says. “There are cloud forests that house an incredible array of lizards, painted snails and birds.”

Scientists who know Cuba say the government does have strong environmental laws. It has already protected lots of forests and coastal zones. But newly opened doors to the U.S. could also mean more pressure to create wealth — golf courses, hotels, highways. And the lush greenhouse that is Cuba’s wilderness hangs in the balance.

For full article and program, go to http://www.npr.org/2015/02/27/387891090/u-s-biologists-keen-to-explore-help-protect-cubas-wild-places

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