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American birders anxious to explore, protect Cuban species

Millions of migratory birds rely on Cuba's undeveloped fields and forests.

By
Brooks Hays
A Cuban tody perched on a branch in Ciego de Avila Province, Cuba. Photo by Laura Gooch/Flickr
A Cuban tody perched on a branch in Ciego de Avila Province, Cuba. Photo by Laura Gooch/Flickr

HAVANA, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- With travel and communication beginning to open up between Cuba and United States, biologists and birders -- both amateur and formally accredited -- are eager to get to the island nation to see the wildlife.

But some scientists worry that this opening up will put vulnerable species at risk, as travel, tourism and ultimately trade inevitably bring further commercial development. For this reason, many birders are anxious not just to see Cuba's winged wildlife, but to protect it.

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"The normalizing of relationships will unleash a tide of scientists champing at the bit to get back in," Doug Rader, a marine biologist with the Environmental Defense Fund, told NPR.

What makes Cuba especially unique from a birding perspective is not necessarily its plethora of endemic species, but the vast array of birds that use the island as a stopping point on migrations between North and South America.

"There are literally millions of birds, migratory birds, that are making use of Cuba as a stopping point as they cross the Caribbean," Greg Budney, an ornithologist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York, told NPR.

Budney says these birds rely on Cuba's undeveloped fields and forests -- rare and delicate birds like Fernandina flicker and the bee hummingbird.

Of course, there are Cuban scientists working to document their country's unique species -- plants, amphibians, reptiles, fish, insects, birds and more. And scientists from all over the world have been coming to visit Cuba for research purposes for several decades.

But a lack of infrastructure and a political system inherently suspicious of foreigners has limited the reach of scientific work on the island. Scientists say more needs to be done to confirm what's there. Otherwise, looking out for and guarding against the environmental consequences of development will be impossible.

Environmental newspaper columnist Edward Flattau says protecting Cuba against the ecological degradation at the hands of commerce will require cooperation.

"Let us hope a bilateral cooperative environmental pact will come to fruition at the appropriate time," Flattau wrote in the Huffington Post late last year, "because expanded offshore oil drilling and other intense developmental pressures are looming on Cuba's horizon."

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