(Image credit: Martin Llado/Getty Images)
https://www.bbc.com-By Claire Boobbyer
From pirate haven to ecological hotspot, Cuba’s “Treasure Island” is a far-flung gem home to some of the Caribbean’s rarest animals.
A pirate hideaway, a one-time US colony and a biodiverse hotspot home to endangered crocs, parrots, sharks and turtles, Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud is an enigma. The Caribbean nation’s largest offshore island lies 60 miles south off the mainland and is a comma-shaped arc of palm and pine trees, citrus groves and marble hills that few visitors ever see.
In centuries past, real pirates of the Caribbean slipped into the island’s coves, with boats bearing illicit booty. Today, visitors come from the port of Batabanó, 56km south of Havana, on a three-hour ferry ride that costs $0.50 Cuban Pesos (£0.35) and requires reserving a month in advance, or securing a seat on irregular flights.
Those who make the journey usually come to dive off the south-western tip, Punta Francés, staying at the island’s one hotel. Or, they tour the island’s panopticon prison, Presidio Modelo (now an eerie museum), where Cuba’s late Communist leader Fidel Castro was incarcerated in 1953 for attacking army barracks – an event that triggered the 1959 Cuban Revolution. But beyond its few attractions, the island’s sugar-soft beaches, unique culture and history, and protected wildlife havens offer a vastly different Cuban experience than the crumbling colonial facades and raucous rum bars of Havana.
When Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic for a second time in 1493, he dropped anchor close to the island that would later prove to be the perfect refuge for pirates. From the 1850s, Francis Drake, Henry Morgan and their ilk ransacked the Spanish Crown’s treasure fleet as ships, bulging with gems, silver and spices, sailed past La Isla enroute from the tip of South America to Havana. Because of this, La Isla was dubbed both “Island of Pirates” and “Treasure Island”. It was even thought to have inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic book, Treasure Island.
In the late 1970s, Fidel Castro opened dozens of universities on the island for foreign students, and in 1978, the island was renamed Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth) from Isla de Pinos (Isle of Pines). The schools closed in the late 1990s, but their legacy remains in the island’s name.
Back when Columbus’ caravel sought wood and water on the island, his men glimpsed no other human soul. Ship logs reveal the sea was “covered” with so many turtles of “vast bigness”, the air thick with an “abundance” of birds and “immense swarms of butterflies… darkened the air”.
Columbus would still recognise much of the remote southern third of the island today: a landscape patchworked with swamps, mangroves, beaches, coral seas, limestone forests and caves painted with prehistoric drawings, all safeguarded in the 1,455sq km region called South of the Isle of Youth Protected Area of Managed Resources (APRM). Within the APRM’s marine protected area, other vulnerable creatures such as Antillean manatee, hammerheads, elkhorn coral and marine turtles seek sanctuary in the sea.
To enter the protected area, travellers must first obtain permission from the agency Ecotur or a local B&B and pass a checkpoint at the northern limit so officials can monitor the trafficking of wildlife, people and drugs. Three times a week, a bare-bones bus jangles three hours south from the island’s capital, Nueva Gerona, through forest rooted in limestone karst. Within its tangled embrace is Ciénaga de Lanier (Lanier swamp), refuge of the critically endangered Cuban crocodile. The elusive crocs were almost wiped out in the 20th Century by fire, drought and hunting. A few specimens were discovered in 1977 and a reintroduction programme launched in 1987.
“We know American crocodiles and the introduced spectacled caiman are there, but in the last two expeditions, our experts haven’t seen Cuban crocodiles in the wild,” said Yanet Forneiro Martín-Viaña,senior conservation specialist for Flora y Fauna, which manages the island’s southern APRM zone.
Forneiro Martín-Viaña is confident though. “We continue to search for [Cuban crocodiles] and reintroduce more individuals into the swamp,” she said. “We know this area has great potential for the habitat of this species.”
The coarse sand of Guanal Beach, on the south coast, is veined with beach morning glory vine. Trails of the stabilising plant erupted to replace 10km of casuarina, an invasive feathery-leaved Southeast Asian tree that Flora y Fauna cut down over a 10-year period and recycled, converting the slain trunks into charcoal for export.
Across more than 1km of beach, long, lean sticks poked out of the burning-hot sand, marking a veritable “X” for treasure – yet, not the glittery kind, but a natural bounty. Empty water bottles, placed upside down on the sticks, were stuffed with paper notes indicating turtle nest sites, the dates eggs were laid and the expected hatching dates. Some 250 nests of endangered green turtles at Guanal are under guard this year.
According to Dr Julia Azanza Ricardo, a turtle expert and professor at the Higher Institute of Technologies and Applied Sciences of the University of Havana, Guanal is one of the most important nesting areas in Cuba. However, climate change is threatening their future. Turtle gender is linked to the temperature of the nest during incubation, and the rising temperatures are resulting in fewer males being born.
“More than 90% of turtles born in Cuba are female, Azanza said. “In a short time, we expect to reach 100%. When we started monitoring nest temperature 15 years ago, they were 28, 29, 30 degrees. Now it’s 32, 33, 34. It will only take a rise of two degrees to reach 100%. If all males are wiped out, then it’s the end of local populations and then the end of the species.”
Solutions, Azanza explained, include vegetation shading by planting certain species of bushes, moving nests to cooler spots or watering the sand.
West of turtle country and 86km south-west of Nueva Gerona is the village of Cocodrilo, the most remote inhabited spot in Cuba. Founded as Jacksonville after English-speaking Cayman Islanders settled it in the early 20th Century, 122 families now live in single-storey concrete and wooden homes facing the sea. Twenty-four-hour electricity only arrived in 2001.
Here, conservationist Reinaldo Borrego Hernández, known as “Nene”, runs a tourism and conservation project, Consytur, with his wife, Yemmy. Nene’s mission is to preserve and protect the coral reef, wildlife and nature of his home village.
“I’ve lived in this natural environment all my life, and my wish to protect it is in my blood,” said Nene.
By staying in Nene’s B&B, Villa Arrecife (one of only three B&Bs in Cocodrilo), visitors help fund conservation work focused on collecting rubbish from beaches and the seabed, capturing lionfish – an invasive species – and serving it to guests, and growing and planting new branches of critically endangered staghorn coral.
“Lionfish get into the mangroves, seagrass and the reef, and have very few predators,” said Nene, who has a Masters degree in coastal management. “They compete with local species to eat small fish and crustaceans, so capturing them limits their numbers.”
One morning at Americana Beach, a few kilometres west from Cocodrilo, we filled a net bag with 8-10kg of plastic bottles, flip flops and take-away containers from the beach. Later, we dived 15m down through crystal-clear water. We swam over coloured fans, moray eel, monochrome spotted drum, yellow French grunt and iridescent princess parrotfish before touching down on the seabed amid a large rocky field of multi-branched staghorn coral, grown by Nene these last few years.
We picked fragments of pale orange coral, the width of a fat ballpoint pen, from the seabed. Nene hacked off blackened ends, dead from disease or microalgae. We wrapped thread around them before diving up to a special “tree” structure to tie the fragments to its long-limbed branches.
Nene explained that each fragment is asexual and produces a polyp that forms another polyp, and so on. At one year old, the coral reproduces sexually and their planula float to the seabed and the cycle of producing polyps begins again. After a year, Nene will search for a rocky spot with no macroalgae and few predators and plant the new-growth coral. Overfishing has left the reef bereft of much of its previous fish life, Nene said, allowing algae to flourish and suffocate the corals.
“We want to increase the number of juvenile fish on the reef, and staghorn coral offers refuge to young fish,” Nene said. “By restoring and protecting the reef, we increase the diversity and number of fish.”
Staghorn coral grows about 1cm a year. It’s a slow process, but Nene hopes the work he started will outlast him. “My dream is that more people come to stay so that we can include and pay the young people around here. That will incentivise them to care for the sea and the coast,” he said. “And they’ll be able to continue my work when I’m gone.”
Unlike other islands scattered around the Cuban mainland, the no-frills Isle of Youth is relatively undeveloped. Some locals claim the island is abandoned. But within this castaway island, endangered creatures have sought refuge since long before anyone was looking. Natural disasters, invasive species, over-fishing and climate change threaten its delicate ecological footprint. But with help from eco-minded visitors, Cuban scientists and conservationists are setting a benchmark to ensure nature reclaims and thrives in this remote, secluded landscape.