This article focuses on the extinctions and severe habitat loss for animals such as the Hispaniolan solenodon and the nocturnal hutia in the Dominican Republic due to illicit (and barely licit) deforestation. Mrinalini Erkenswick Watsa reports for mongabay.com.
One makes whimsical clicking and whistling noises, while the other communicates in quiet, bird-like chirps. The first is one of the planet’s only venomous mammals, the Hispaniolan solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus), while the second is Cuvier’s hutia (Plagiodontia aedium), a cryptic rodent that is nocturnal and arboreal. Close relatives of both species have suffered extinctions and severe habitat loss in the past. Currently, the IUCN lists the hutia and solenodon as Endangered, and they face fresh threats in their Caribbean range. This is true even in official protected areas, such as the Dominican Republic’s Biosphere Reserve of Jaragua-Bahoruco-Enriquillo, where conservationists have been uncovering widespread illicit deforestation during the past three years.
In late 2014, an irregularity in the issuance of permits for agriculture-related deforestation was brought to light by Diario Libre, the leading newspaper in the Dominican Republic. On July 30, the Pedernales office of the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources granted permission to local landowners to deforest an area within Jaragua National Park, close to an area that had been identified as critical habitat for the hutia and solenodon. .
According to León, Leovigildo Méndez, Director of Environment for the Province of Pedernales, along with his technician, Rodolfo Méndez, granted permission to Manuel Herasme and his partner, Felisindo, to deforest a piece of land that León argues is within the confines of the Jaragua National Park.
“I think they have no clue it’s a protected area,” said Yolanda León, president of Grupo Jaragua,an environmental conservation NGO in the Dominican Republic, in an interview with mongabay.com, referring to the local agriculturists who cleared the land by burning, “or even if they did, everyone is doing the same around this site, so they would not think this was any serious crime.”
In November 2014, León, representing Grupo Jaragua, along with members of the press from Diario Libre, a Dominican newspaper, visited the office that granted the permit.
“During our visit, we saw a receipt for 10,000 Dominican pesos (about $US220) charged for this permit by the Provincial Environment office,” León informed mongabay.com. “However, the businessman told a trusted source he paid $40,000DOP for the permit in cash, personally, to the aforementioned technician (Rodolfo Méndez). Unfortunately I fear this is not the only [such] case.” [. . .]
The area that León describes as cleared in the video above comprises approximately 15 hectares of land (0.15 square kilometers) within the national park – not a very large area as deforestation goes. However, the permit that was granted erroneously specified only 12 hectares to be deforested, although the process of clearing the land was not complete at the time of her visit. León believes this is not an isolated problem.
“But in this general area, under this sharecropping system, the deforestation under Jaragua and Sierra de Bahoruco National Parks boundaries is at least 20 square kilometers,” León said. In addition, she has recorded another 35 square kilometers of cloud forest cleared within the Sierra de Bahoruco National Park on the southern slopes of the mountain range. [. . .]
The importance of Sierra de Bahoruco
Scientists are still mapping the full range of the hutia and the solenodon on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, which is shared by both Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Little is known of the stability of their populations, how resilient they are to habitat alterations and invasive predators, their genetic diversity across the island, and most importantly, what has allowed these two species to survive when so many other West Indian species have succumbed to extinction.
A collaboration of institutions from the United Kingdom and the Dominican Republic came together in early 2009 to embark upon a three-year study of the hutia and the solenodon under the auspices of a Darwin Initiative Grant. The project was titled “Los Ultimos Sobrevivientes – salvando el Solenodonte y la Hutia de la Hispaniola,” or “The Last Survivors – saving the Hispaniolan solenodon and hutia.” The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, set up originally by Gerald Durrell, led the Last Survivors Project in conjunction with the Sociedad Ornitológica de la Hispaniola, the Zoological Society of London, the Parque Zoologico Nacional, and the Secretaria de Estado de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales de Republica Dominica. They began an island-wide monitoring and awareness-raising program, unearthing along the way evidence of habitat threats in the region.
[Top photo of a Dominican Republic national park burned to clear land for crops by Miguel Landestoy; photo of solenodon by Tiffany Roufs.]