US and Cuban conservationists reintroduce endangered crocodiles to their natural habitat

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A Cuban crocodile ctays still while catching some sun. Photo by André Baumgarten/WCS.

Cuba’s Zapata Swamp is a little more crowded thanks to U.S. and Cuban conservationists who recently reintroduced ten critically endangered Cuban crocodiles to the ecosystem.

The release, which happened on June 8, is promising news for a species whose wild population has dwindled to about 4,000, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It’s also a win for partnerships between the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and various Cuban environmental organizations, which date back to 1999.

WCS Cuba Program Manager Natalia Rossi says Cuban crocodiles are particularly important because they only naturally occur in small sections of Cuba’s Zapata Swamp and Isle of Youth. One of their main contributions to these ecosystems are caves they build that become habitats for fish larvae, shrimp, and small fauna. As top predators, they also regulate the populations of other species further down the food chain.

However, if conservationists don’t find solutions for ongoing issues, such as illegal hunting or hybridization with American crocodiles, their population will continue to decline.

Rossi says she is grateful to the Cuban institutions collaborating with WCS on conservation efforts and research. The Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment oversees all conservation efforts in Zapata National Park and provides permits and technical expertise on crocodile research and monitoring. The Empresa Nacional para la Protección de la Flora y la Fauna oversees and provides information on captive and reintroduced Cuban crocodiles. The Fundacion Antonio Nuñez de la Naturaleza helps WCS facilitate ground research.

A Cuban crocodile swims in its natural habitat. Photo by André Baumgarten/WCS.

“I continue to be impressed with the sheer level of talent, capacity, and creativity in the scientific community, as well the highly-committed workforce working on protected areas to manage and conserve—often times with limited resources—their outstanding biodiversity,” Rossi said.

The partnership understands that simply reintroducing Cuban crocodiles to their natural habitat is not enough. The new additions to the Zapata Swamp were released in an area where American crocodiles do not exist—a move expected to prevent hybridization. WCS’s recovery strategy also includes educating a new generation of ecologists. That’s why the recent release included a workshop attended by 30 international experts and 40 Cubans who work closely with crocodiles.

That combination of direct action, research, and educational outreach has been a consistent theme throughout WCS’s history in Cuba. WCS and its partners are also involved in protecting raptors in the inland forests of eastern Cuba, as well as sharks in the underwater Jardines de la Reina National Park. WCS has also helped train conservation educators and decision makers, in addition to developing comprehensive management plans for the island’s most important protected areas.

Looking ahead, WCS is preparing for upcoming projects focusing on support for Caribbean manatees and sea turtles, as well as a citizen science monitoring project for birds and amphibians in the mountains of central Cuba.

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