INTERNATIONAL MOTHER EARTH DAY

The reality of a mythical bird
• Cuba is home to one of the largest populations of the beautiful flamingo species Phoenicopterus ruber ruber

Lisanka González Suárez

SERIOUS natural phenomenon occurring more frequently and unpredictably, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, plus oil spills and the constant emission of greenhouse gases due to the negligence or irresponsibility of humans, are affecting, with increased intensity, all forms of life on our planet. Human beings, plants, animals…

The three severe earthquakes of the last two years, first in Haiti, then Chile and finally Japan are signs that cannot be ignored. Hundreds of thousands of people have perished. Well known are the numbers of people who died or disappeared, the dwellings, goods and food lost in the mud and water which overtook communities.

However, can anyone say how many wild animals died, how many species were affected, if any are now extinct? How many forests were lost, how many trees fell? No doubt, some time will pass before specialists are able to answer such questions.

Cuba is not immune to this danger and, in addition to taking measures to mitigate the effects of natural events, is working to protect its flora and fauna, including the flamingo, a bird which is highly sensitive to changes in its environment.

CUBA’S FIREBIRD

Cuba is home to one of the largest populations of the beautiful flamingo species and sub-species Phoenicopterus ruber ruber, best known as the Caribbean flamingo. Its largest concentrations can be found in Cuba, the Bahamas and the Dutch Antilles. They also live in the Yucatan peninsula, Florida, Venezuela, with small populations in Colombia and on the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific.

Like all flamingos, the ruber rubber has a long flexible neck. Although its beak and feet appear disproportionately large given its small head, it qualifies as one of the most beautiful winged creatures. This beauty is based on the colors of its plumage, ranging from the palest pink to scarlet and the elegance of its movement, with the rhythm of a parading soldier when it walks on land. A flamingo taking flight looks like a burning arrow shot into the sky, perhaps the reason it was known to ancient peoples as the ‘firebird’ and believed to be related to the mythical Phoenix.

Cuba has worked on the flamingo’s protection for more than 30 years, leading to an extraordinary increase in the population. It was in 1976 when the Ministry of Agriculture’s Flora and Fauna Protection Service launched a study to determine how many of the birds existed within the archipelago and locate their nesting sites. According to estimates, the number came to 100,000. The study made clear that the most important nesting site of these aquatic birds was around the Máximo River in the northern part of Camagüey province, where after several years of development, what had begun as a conservation project became an Animal Refuge.

Some 20 years later, the country had a population of 200,000 birds, twice the total number in existence outside of Cuba.

Thanks to the considerable increase in the number of flamingos and other animals which make their home there, the Máximo River Wetlands-Camagüey was designated a RAMSAR site in 2002, one of the six wetlands in Cuba which experts consider an ecological preserve of international importance.

THE FLAMINGO MAKER

No one can talk about flamingos in Cuba without mentioning the name of Camagüey biologist José Morales Leal.

The Máximo River wetlands were saved by the perseverance of this man. When Morales first visited the area – nine kilometers from the closest town, Moa – and getting there was a veritable feat, the condition of the locale made a great impression on him. It looked nothing at all like a bird sanctuary. It was deforested, neglected and the river damaged by a high level of salination.

At that point, he knew what had to be done – in the first place, restore it. The problem lay in how to increase the population. He thought about natural selection. Animals usually abandon their weak or unhealthy young: flamingos are no different. There was no other solution beyond trying to save them, feeding, medicating and caring for them adequately.

He then implemented his own method: tend those rejected by their parents on his farm. In his first effort, he gathered 230 chicks and, from then on, during the reproductive season, he searches for abandoned undersized and weak chicks, between 60 and 90 days old, which, if not cared for, will surely die.

In order to reach the nests, Morales and his companions have to cross the wetlands, often through mud up to their waists and avoid the Acutus crocodiles, which are common there.

With the efforts of Morales, his wife Loydis Vázquez, also a biologist, and a team of workers, the sanctuary has recovered and the population has rebound to levels not seen in 50 years, making the wetlands the island’s major flamingo nesting site.

The rescued chicks raised on the farm provide a means of raising funds which are reinvested in the conservation work. Countries in Latin America, Canada, Europe, Asia and Africa purchase them for educational and decorative purposes. Cuba has determined that their removal does not endanger the wild population. Experience showed that it was not advisable to return them to the wild and unnaturally reintroduce their poor genetic profile.

In 1985, within the Máximo River wetlands there were 12,000 nests and by 2000, the annual count was ranging between 35 and 42 thousand. The flamingo population grew from an estimated 151,000 birds in 1989 to 200,000 in 1996 and the figure has continued to rise. The abundant rains of 2006 led to the return of more than 140,000 flamingos which had left during previous years, further increasing the population.

Subsequent studies revealed that significant populations were to be found around the Cauto River in Granma province, in the north and south of Camagüey, in Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spíritus, and Cienfuegos provinces, and along the island’s northern coast from Villa Clara to the Hicacos peninsula.

It would be difficult to accept that the flamingo’s presence on the planet might be reduced to a listing of extinct animals. This small Caribbean island – harassed, blockaded, facing great economic difficulties and immersed in plans for agricultural development and the correction of past errors in order to improve the lives of its citizens – is also determined that this beautiful creature will not disappear.

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