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Why Cuba is home to a bounty of rare species

Replete with rare and endangered species, Cuba is a crown jewel of biodiversity in the Caribbean. Science correspondent Miles O'Brien reports on the ways scientists and conservationists are working to survey and protect the island’s rich, and sometimes unique, wildlife

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: Miles O’Brien reports from Cuba, where scientists are working to protect the island’s rich diversity of wildlife, some of it found nowhere else on Earth, against growing pressures, both human and wild, from the outside.

    It is another in our weekly series the Leading Edge of science.

  • Miles O’brien:

    If you want to see a rare Cuban crocodile, you best get to know this man first. Toby Ramos is Cuba’s “croc whisperer.”

    For more than four decades, he has lived in Cuba’s Zapata Swamp, hoping to bring the reptiles back from the brink of extinction. They are feisty, ferocious, and able to jump, as we saw at a nearby breeding center.

  • Toby Ramos:

    (Through interpreter) The Cuban crocodile is very bold and unafraid of humans. They come right up to investigate any disturbance in the water. They stand their ground, even if you try to capture them. This makes them easier to catch than their American counterpart.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Which is one big reason they are in such trouble. The crocs were hunted relentlessly in the first half of the 20th century; 13,000 were killed in one year alone for their skins and meat.

    Today, the poaching continues relentlessly. Right now, the wild Cuban crocodile population is estimated at only about 3,000. They are critically endangered. But they are not extinct, thanks in large part to Toby Ramos. He works closely with Natalia Rossi of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

  • Natalia Rossi:

    He’s not only professionally a person that has a body of work for 40 years, but he is a brave person to work in the field. And he’s still fit and eager to grab a crocodile.

  • Miles O’brien:, but, nevertheless, we came to this remote warden’s outpost to try our luck. And not long after we arrived:

    They offered no guarantees that we would even lay eyes on one

  • Natalia Rossi:

    It seems there is a crocodile.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Oh, is there a crocodile?

  • Natalia Rossi:

    Yes.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Oh, let’s see. Where? Where?

    A curious croc surfaced nearby.

    Toby Ramos is a total pro. In all these years, he has captured thousands of animals, and yet only been bitten twice. We were eager to watch — from a safe distance.

    He is not in it for the thrill, but, rather, to protect the species. Poaching is only part of the problem. The other threat comes from another species that has flourished here, American crocodiles. They thrive here, crowding out their Cuban cousins, but also crossbreeding with them, creating a hybrid species.

  • Toby Ramos:

    (Through interpreter) We have only seen this hybridization happening in two very specific areas, plus other areas where only American crocs are present.

  • Natalia Rossi:

    We are working hard to protect what we have today, because we might lose one of these unique populations.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Cuba is replete with unique populations of rare and endangered species. Scientists say the country is a crown jewel of biodiversity in the Caribbean. Its mangrove swamps, coral reefs and its populations of unique amphibians, reptiles and birds are all unsurpassed.

  • Maydiel Cañizares Morera:

    Now we are heading onto an open area with palm trees, which is seasonally flooded.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Biologist Maydiel Morera gave me an eye-opening tour of some rare birds in another corner of the Zapata Swamp.

  • Maydiel Cañizares Morera:

    And that flooding movement or cycle keeps this area clear, and it’s very, very good for birds mainly.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Cuba is home to 370 species of birds, 27 found only here, including this one.

    What is that? What is that called?

  • Maydiel Morera:

    Cuban trogon. It’s the national bird of Cuba.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Oh, OK.

  • Maydiel Cañizares Morera:

    And it’s my perfect bird in Cuba also.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Yes?

  • Maydiel Cañizares Morera:

    It’s…

  • Miles O’brien:

    Beautiful plumage.

    We also saw a great lizard cuckoo, a Cuban pygmy owl, a West Indian woodpecker, a Cuban green woodpecker, and a Cuban screech owl.

  • Maydiel Cañizares Morera: 

    You see my dot here?

  • Miles O’brien:

    Yes, Yes. I see him. I see him.

  • Maydiel Cañizares Morera:

    That is it.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Yes, yes.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Miles O’brien:

    Beautiful bird. Look at that bird.

  • Maydiel Cañizares Morera:

    I think the most fitting English word for this is cute.

  • Miles O’brien:

    We were joined by ornithologist Ana Porzecanski. She is director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

    In 2015, the museum launched a partnership with the Cuban Museum of Natural History. They funded an expedition to Cuba’s Humboldt National Park, 275 square miles of extraordinary diversity, from sea level to peaks of nearly 4,000 feet.

  • Ana Luz Porzecanski:

    We were able to go and do an inventory, a survey of the biodiversity of the park, together with park technicians, Cuban scientists and museum scientists. And we found amazing things, some species in some cases that we didn’t know were in the park, and probably several species new to science.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Cuba’s ecological bounty is a consequence of some deliberate planning by the Cuban regime, which protected about 20 percent of the nation’s land and territorial waters, and years of geopolitical and economic isolation.

  • Natalia Rossi:

    The political situation kept Cuba isolated from fast development. So, in a way, there wasn’t, like, a strong competing interest of money vs. conservation.

  • Miles O’brien:

    For scientists, Cuba is a tantalizing mystery.

  • Natalia Rossi:

    It’s kind of a black box in terms of knowledge, because there has been a lot of research done in Cuba, but the connection of that research to the research done in North America and other countries in the continent has not been yet integrated.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Cuban scientists don’t have the funding to answer some complex questions on their own, like, can pure Cuban crocodiles survive, and does habitat loss, poaching and cross-breeding make it likely the heartier Cuban-American cross-breeds will prevail?

    On the front lines in the Zapata Swamp, Toby Ramos is also trying to find the answer, studying animals that he understands perhaps better than anyone.

    How many times have you done that before, Toby?

  • Woman:

    Thousands.

  • Miles O’brien:

    Wow. Can I touch? Much dryer than you think.

    Once we let our crocodile swim free, we got back in the boat and gunned it. A big thunderstorm was brewing.

    Keeping these crocodile alive is not easy already, but add to the mix the growing pressure, as tourism increases here in Cuba. As more people come here, there’s more pressure on these animals, and it makes it much harder to keep them alive.

    Can wild Cuba co-exist with widespread progress? More on that in our next report from Cuba.

    Holy cow!

    In Cuba’s Zapata Swamp, I’m Miles O’Brien for the PBS NewsHour.

    This guy’s good.

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