Haiti’s first private nature reserve seeks to protect rare plants and animals

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A report by Shreya Dasgupta for Mongabay.

  • On Grand Bois, an isolated mountain in southwestern Haiti, researchers and conservation groups have carved out the island nation’s first ever private nature reserve.
  • The new reserve overlaps with the Grand Bois National Park declared by the Haiti government in 2015, and covers about 5 square kilometers (2 square miles) of mostly primary forest, offering protection to several rare species found nowhere else on Earth.
  • With the first private reserve created on Grand Bois, which will be managed with the help of local communities, the conservationists now plan to both build a network of private nature reserves and assist the government in managing other protected areas.

On an isolated mountain in southwestern Haiti, researchers and conservation groups have purchased land and carved out the island nation’s first ever private nature reserve.

The new reserve, created on Morne Grand Bois, overlaps with Grand Bois National Park, established by the Haitian government in 2015. It covers about 5 square kilometers (2 square miles) of mostly primary forest, offering protection to several rare species found nowhere else on Earth. These include the critically endangered Ekman’s magnolia tree (Magnolia ekmanii), known only from Grand Bois, and the Tiburon stream frog (Eleutherodactylus semipalmatus), also known as the foothill robber frog and once thought to be extinct.

Recent research has found that Haiti is barely hanging on to its forest cover. The country has less than 1 percent of primary forest left, and many species found only in Haiti have now been lost. But there is some hope.

Blair Hedges, director of the Center for Biodiversity at Temple University in Philadephia, U.S., and his colleagues, who have surveyed Haiti over the past nine years, have identified a few remaining biodiversity hotspots where the original forest cover and their species still survive.

One of these hotspots is Grand Bois. During their surveys, Hedges’ team encountered several rare tree species on the mountain, including the Ekman’s magnolia that hadn’t been spotted in decades. They also recorded at least 68 species of vertebrates, including three species of frogs and one lizard that were new to science.

“Grand Bois was quite unusual in having a substantial amount of primary forest, so we targeted that mountain,” Hedges told Mongabay.

S. Blaire Hedges has carried out helicopter surveys with his team. 

To stop forest loss on the mountain, Hedges teamed up with Haitian businessman Philippe Bayard, CEO of Sunrise Airways and president of the Société Audubon Haiti. Together, they worked to raise awareness about Haiti’s disappearing forests and species among the public, and in 2015, Haiti’s government declared Grand Bois a national park. Two more national parks were created in other mountain hotspots: Deux Mamelles and Grand Colline.

However, Hedges’ 2018 study found that simply declaring national parks did not actually translate to on-the-ground protection of forests in Haiti. There was rapid deforestation inside the national parks, too.

“Sadly, conservation efforts in Haiti were not producing convincing results and therefore the current system of protected areas is not working. Something different was truly needed,” Bayard said in a statement.

To try out a different strategy, Hedges and Bayard founded the Haiti National Trust, a nonprofit that aims to preserve the country’s biodiversity. Since national parks in Haiti can be declared on entirely private land, as was the case for Grand Bois, Hedges and Bayard decided to purchase land and put together a private nature reserve that they could then manage and protect with the help of the local communities. To bring this to fruition, they partnered with conservation groups Global Wildlife Conservation and Rainforest Trust, who would help fund the purchase of private land and pay for the reserve’s management.

“The National Park designation [of Grand Bois] was wonderful and demonstrated a recognition of the importance of the area, but it did not confer any kind of protection,” Robin Moore, senior director of digital content and media at Global Wildlife Conservation, told Mongabay. “By enabling local NGO Société Audubon Haiti to acquire and manage this area, we can ensure that it is protected and restored.”

Most of the people who owned the land in the area Hedges and his colleagues were interested in had already been protecting the forest on Grand Bois, Moore said, partly because they recognized the forest’s role as a “natural water tower.” After a period of consultation, and a few years of delays due to government instability, the purchase of Grand Bois nature reserve was finally completed on Jan. 18 this year.

The reserve will be managed by the Haiti National Trust and Société Audubon Haiti (Bayard serves as CEO for both NGOs), as well as the local communities, Hedges said. “The local communities will help us in planting trees and we need rangers and land managers,” he said. “The local communities will benefit from the presence of this preserve by getting more secure drinking water and soil, and other ecosystem services, so it will be a win-win for everyone.”

Tiburon stream frog on Grand Bois Mountain, Haiti. Image by J. Hoppe.

Grand Bois is part of Haiti’s Massif de la Hotte mountain range, a region that’s considered among the most important areas for amphibians in the world. The mountain range is also an Alliance for Zero Extinction site because it is home to 19 species of critically endangered frogs that are found nowhere else in the world.

With the first private reserve created on Grand Bois, Hedges and the conservation groups now plan to both build a network of private nature reserves and assist the government in managing other protected areas.

“Our goal is to stop the tree cutting in all of the primary forests of Haiti, as soon as possible,” Hedges said. “If those forests are on public land already (national parks), then we would like to work alongside the Haitian government in protecting those areas by bringing more resources and technology to the problem. If we encounter other areas of primary forest that are privately owned, we may purchase them as well.

“But the key thing is not what it is called and whether it is a park or reserve but how the land is managed,” Hedges added. “If the tree cutting does not stop, it will be gone in a decade or two.”

Forests of Massif de la Hotte. Image by Robin Moore/Global Wildlife Conservation.

 

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