Shirtless and waist-deep in the dark waters of Cuba’s palm-spotted Zapata Swamp, researcher Etiam Perez released a baby alligator confiscated from illegal hunters into the wild.
It was a small victory in a larger battle, he told Reuters news agency. The Cuban crocodile, an endemic species found only in Zapata and in another swamp on Cuba’s Youth Island, is critically endangered and has the smallest natural habitat of any living crocodile. , according to scientists.
Illegal hunting and crossbreeding with American alligators – which tamper with the species’ genetics – has threatened populations here for decades. A warming climate, changing the sex ratio of newborn crocs, poses a new threat.
“We’re trying to bring them back from the brink of extinction,” Perez said.
And despite the fact that the Cuban government has protected almost the entire vast swamp – considered by many to be the best preserved in the Caribbean – that may not be enough, scientists say .
“When you compare the Cuban crocodile with other species in the world, its house is very small,” said Gustavo Sosa, a Cuban veterinarian in Zapata.
Cuban scientists estimate that there are about 4,000 Cuban crocodiles living in the wild. But because the area they prefer in wetlands is relatively small, a climate-related disaster – increasingly common now globally – could wipe out most of the population.
Those concerns decades ago prompted the Cuban government to launch a hatchery program, releasing several hundred crocodiles into the wild every year. Researchers like Perez also release alligators confiscated from hunters as part of a program to help reduce poaching of the species.
The sale of crocodile meat in Cuba is tightly controlled by the state, and only crocodiles with a physical defect or hybrid genetics, for example, are allowed into restaurants.
However, an illegal market can still be found in some areas, especially around swamps.
Fuel shortages, aging equipment and often harsh conditions are frequent challenges in Cuba, a Caribbean island nation suffering a severe economic crisis.
But in Zapata, those concerns became remote as this year’s crop of newly hatched crocodiles, still covered with mucus from their eggs, snapped their jaws at pieces of fresh river fish, moving in unison. move as they explore their new world.