Fidel Castro was an admirer of the native Cuban predatory reptile, but his conservation efforts, like most of hos grandiose schemes, were mired in contradictions.
Conserving the Cuban croc was one of Fidel Castroâ€™s first priorities after he steamed into power in 1959. Just months into his rule, he ordered the creation of the Criadero de cocodrilos, CiÃ©naga de Zapataâ€”or Zapata Swamp Captive Breeding Facilityâ€”a cluster of ponds, rows of concrete-block pens, and a couple of narrow one-story buildings split into modest offices and workspaces for staff two and a half hours south of Havana. Castro always had a predilection for wild spaces and things, says environmental historian Reinaldo Funes-Monzote of the University of Havana. Whether he cherished endemic species because they fit with his hypernationalistic sensibilities, or he related to their untamed energy, or he was just enlightened to the inherent value of wildlife is a guess, though crocodiles must have become a point of pride for him at some stageâ€”he eventually developed a habit of gifting them, either living or embalmed, to foreign allies. He also launched initiatives to raise manatees, deer, and Cuban gar in the swamp.
The island of Cuba, some say, is shaped like a crocodile, though you need a highly developed imagination to see it. The hatchery, located on one of its webbed feetâ€”whether front or back depends on which way you tilt your headâ€”has been solely dedicated to the conservation of the Cuban crocodile since 1974. The mission is straightforward in theory: secure the Cuban crocodile for the future and learn about the natural history of the little-understood species along the way. Yet as geneticist Yoamel MiliÃ¡n-GarcÃa of the University of Havana and others peer into the crocodileâ€™s cellular secrets, theyâ€™re revealing that thereâ€™s a lot more that needs to be considered when it comes to conserving Castroâ€™s croc.
In the wild, the Cubanâ€”one of the worldâ€™s rarest crocodilesâ€”is found almost exclusively within the 300-square-kilometer freshwater interior of the Zapata Swamp. The saltier stretches along the coast are the domain of Cubaâ€™s other native crocodileâ€”the widely distributed American (Crocodylus acutus), also found in coastal areas across Cuba and other Caribbean islands, and on the mainland from Mexico and southern Florida down to northern Peru and Venezuela. The Cuban is bolder and hunts during the day. It has a stubby snout, a reputation for jumping, and a tendency to walk with its belly high off the ground. The American is bigger, more apt to hide, searches for prey at night, sports dark bands on its back and sides, and has a long, pointed snout and extra webbing on its hind toes. The differences are as distinct as red from blue. Yet when MiliÃ¡n-GarcÃa analyzed their genetics a few years ago, he confirmed what zookeepers and scientists had already suspected: the two species are skinny-dipping in the same gene pool. …
By the time Castro had taken power, Zapata Swamp had already been altered by human ambition. Land reclamation projects here date back to the 19th century. And as researcher Claudia MartÃnez Herrera from Cubaâ€™s national archive explains in a report, in the 1940s, the sugar industry arrived in the swampâ€”trees were cleared to make way for crops and mills and to power production. Loggers also cut swaths of royal ebony, mahogany, and white oak for export and for coal production. The sediment released from logging changed the areaâ€™s hydrology, causing four distinct areas to merge together into one giant swamp. Inhabitants drove artificial channels deep into the interior to access remaining trees. When Fulgencio Batista was in power, he had even taken steps to slash a canal all the way from the swampâ€™s south coast to Havana, bisecting the country, as a shortcut for ships traveling between the United States and the Panama Canal, though it never materialized.
Castro embraced the notion of bringing economic development to the sparsely inhabited and impoverished region. In The Real Fidel Castro, the late former British ambassador to Cuba Leycester Coltman says that from the beginning, the leaderâ€”who has been heralded as an environmentalistâ€”â€œshowed a fatal attraction to gigantic schemes to conquer nature and change the landscape, the sort of projects that appealed to other modern pharaohs such as Mussolini and Stalin.â€ Castro wanted to drain the swamp, a â€œvirtually unpopulated region, infested with mosquitoes and crocodiles,â€ and convert it into â€œa rich area for rice-growing and tourism,â€ Coltman writes. Under his watch, Funes-Monzote confirms, more water was siphoned away and more artificial channels were driven deep into the swamp, into Cuban crocodile habitat.
Aspiring to save endemic species while simultaneously degrading their habitat is clearly contradictory, though awareness about the importance of saving ecosystems rather than focusing on specific species had not yet become part of the zeitgeist, and land reclamation was still generally viewed as a good idea, says Funes-Monzote. Plus, Castro was perfectly comfortable with contradictions. …
[A]lthough they look and behave differently, Cuban crocodiles and American crocodiles in Cuba are almost genetically the same to begin with. Only a 0.9 percent genetic difference exists between themâ€”which makes American crocodiles here much more closely related to Cuban crocodiles than to members of their own species elsewhere in their range. Perhaps considering them two species was a taxonomic miscalculation and they should be treated as one. Or, maybe the American crocodile in Cuba needs to be designated a second crocodile species entirely unique to Cuba. In that case, could allowing two separate but wholly Cuban species to hybridize prove more palatable from a social perspective?
The Cuban croc is probably really only a sometimes-isolated local subspecies, at best.