Alligator-shaped Cuba, almost as big as all the other Caribbean islands combined (40,533 square miles/105,007 km2) is a country of biological riches with a history of habitat degradation. Reserves have been set aside with few if any measures to protect them. Recent reforestation is a positive step but little has been done about environmentally disastrous practices such as overfishing for anything edible or decorative, including lobsters and endangered sea turtles; destruction of coral reefs for jewelry; agricultural runoff; industrial pollution; inadequate sewage treatment; and construction of highways, causeways, airports, and tourist facilities in sensitive habitat. Nickel-mining and cement factories have created barren wastelands.
Yet, here if anywhere is the great scarlet-crested black-and-white ivory-billed woodpecker, believed long-extinct in the U.S. after logging of old-growth pinewoods, now feared close to extinction in Cuba as forest habitat disappears.
Among 350 stunning avian species is the shining bee hummingbird, smallest bird in the world, smaller than many grasshoppers (2.25 inches/5.5 cm), males green with iridescent crimson heads and throat plumes, their status threatened by habitat loss.
Uniquely here are other “smallest” species—Cuban pygmy frogs, 0.4 inch (12 mm) long; shrew-like insectivorous almiquis, world’s smallest mammals, along with butterfly or moth bats, smallest of their kind; alacras, dwarf scorpions, 0.39 inch (10 mm) long. One tiny orchid’s flowers are just 0.07 inch (2 mm) across.
Other beautiful, interesting, uniquely Cuban specialties include Cuban trogons or tocororos, national bird with the colours of the Cuban flag; green Cuban parakeets, wings flashing scarlet in flight; blue-headed quail-doves; nearly-flightless Zapata rails with long red-based green bills, endangered from repeated wetland burning and introduced predators. Fortunately still fairly common are endemic Cuban pygmy-owls calling plaintively day and night, and endearing Cuban todies, not much bigger than bee hummingbirds, green with red throats, blue throat stripes, pink flanks, and yellow under-tail coverts.
Of over 8,000 plant species, over half are endemic, including hundreds of orchids and the world’s only carnivorous epiphyte or air plant. Of 100 kinds of palms, 90 are endemic, including cork palms, regarded as living fossils from Cretaceous times.
Apart from sea creatures, especially manatees—huge gentle saltwater mammals of the shallows— most abundant fauna are reptiles: iguanas, lizards, salamanders, three kinds of crocodiles, and 14 kinds of nonpoisonous snakes, including huge majas. These relatives of South American anacondas can grow to 13 feet (4 m), and kill by suffocation and swallow victims five times the size of their mouths (luckily they avoid humans).
Designated protected areas cover about 30 percent of Cuba, including its marine platform. They include 14 national parks and four U.N. Biosphere Reserves—but designated national parks here include zoos, resorts, and assorted other areas not so categorized in many other countries and few as yet have visitor centers, maps, camping areas, marked trails, and adequate protection
Gran Parque Natural Montemar near Mauanzas, formerly known as Parque Nacional Cienaga de Zapata, a vast wetland of mangroves, marshes, and swamps, occupies most of the near Mauanzas, formerly known as , a vast wetland of mangroves, marshes, and swamps, occupies most of the 1,745-square-mile (4,520-km2) Peninsula de Zapata, home to 160 bird species, including bee hummingbirds, Cuban trogons, endemic Zapata wrens and rails, owls, parrots, flamingos, raptors, plus 31 kinds of reptiles, 12 mammals, countless amphibians, insects, and fish, and primitive alligator gars. Thousands of red land crabs swarm across the swamp’s one road every spring night.
Reserva Peninsula de Guanahacabibes, U.N. Biosphere Reserve, 392 square miles (1,015km2) of prime birding area in Pinar del Rio on Cuba’s western tip.
Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra, in mountains behind Baracoa, in Granma.
Sierra de Cristal Parque Nacional (aka Cuhillas del Toa), a U.N. Biosphere Reserve, possible home of endangered ivory-billed woodpeckers.
Cuba’s pleasant subtropical climate has two seasons: rainy summer May–October and drier winter November–April. An extensive network of tourism promotion offices overseas are good sources of information on travel and accommodations in moderate-priced hotel chains. (The U.S., at least until recently, has not sanctioned travel to Cuba; however, Americans can easily go to Cuba via Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, or Jamaica. Cuba receives U.S. passport holders under the same terms as any other visitor—but such visitors should know that without U.S. permission, such travel can be prosecuted as illegal back home.)
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CUBA as well as...
Gran Parque Natural Montemar
Reserva Peninsula de Guanahacabibes
Gran Parque Nacional Sierra Maestra
Sierra de Cristal Parque Nacional
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