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Cuba's Wild Side On Assignment

Cuba's Wild Side On Assignment

Cuba's Wild Side
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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Text and photographs by Steve Winter

Known more for its music and politics than for its wildlife, Cuba in fact teems with unusual species, from tiny frogs and orchids to particularly feisty crocodiles.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

In hundred-degree heat (forty degrees Celsius) we slogged through a brutal expanse of swamp on a day we'd remember as hell. Attacked by relentless mosquitoes, we wrenched our boots from the mud, step by step. A horizon of pink pulled us forward until our quarry came clearly into view: some 70,000 nesting Caribbean flamingos and countless chicks, the largest colony of these magnificent birds in the Western Hemisphere. I sat on an abandoned nest and readied my gear. Nearby, on a conical mound of mud, a flamingo bent toward its chick to offer a broth of fats and proteins. Undisturbed by my camera, the pair carried on, allowing me to capture the intimate touch of two beaks poised with grace and purpose.

That moment redeemed the day for me and for my friend Juan Soy, who called our visit to the breeding ground spectacular. A biologist at the University of Havana, Soy works with Cuba's flora and fauna division to help oversee 48 of the country's 263 protected natural areas, which cover nearly 22 percent of Cuba's territory. The critical flamingo nesting grounds lie within Humedal Río Máximo-Cagüey, which recently became one of six places in Cuba added to the Ramsar Convention's list of Wetlands of International Importance. The site's daunting inaccessibility may be its salvation. The same could be said of Cuba's vast—and largely unknown—natural riches.

Before this trip, Cuba for me meant Castro and cigars, alluring beaches and intoxicating Afro-Cuban rhythms. I now know it as a place of unimagined biodiversity. With help from Cuba's Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment, I gained unprecedented access to some of the most pristine island wilderness in the world. Traveling thousands of zigzagging miles over five months, I photographed some rarely documented wildlife behaviors and came to view Cuba as another Galápagos, preserved by its lack of development and by the will of a people committed to conservation.

Stretching for 750 miles (1,200 kilometers), Cuba embraces the greatest diversity of landscapes and life in the West Indies. These habitats arose from soils born of various kinds of rocks cobbled together as the Caribbean plate smashed against the North American plate, creating a submarine ridge that eventually gave rise to the Greater Antilles. It's a long, narrow land of extremes—and I experienced my share of them.

In winding mogote caves I held the crumbling bones of extinct mammals, long ago done in by human hunting, disease, and predation. I watched one of the world's tiniest frogs scrambling through the leaf litter of a riverine forest. I joined a fruitless two-week search for the nocturnal solenodon, an insect-eating mammal hunted to near extinction by feral dogs and cats. Dangling from a rope 150 feet (45 meters) off the ground, I photographed an endemic ceibón tree growing straight out from the face of a cliff.

And then, of course, there were the swamps. At 1.5 million acres (15,000 hectares) the Ciénaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve is Cuba's largest protected area, designated as a Wetland of International Importance, mainly for aquatic birds. But I had come for the crocs. One remote and still unprotected corner of the Zapata swamp is home to more than 3,000 Cuban crocodiles, the largest remaining population of this endangered—and fierce—species.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.

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Sights & Sounds
Experience the lush world of Cuba's wildlife.

Catch a flamingo fly-over, and find out why orange spray paint comes in handy when tracking Cuban crocodiles in this footage from the field.

VIDEO Photographer Steve talks about discovering Cuba's spectacular wildlife through the lens of his camera.

AUDIO recommended for low-speed connections)
RealPlayer  WinMedia

To strengthen a struggling economy, Cuba is concentrating its efforts on developing its tourism industry. How can Cuba balance the need for developing tourism with protecting its environment? What will happen once the U.S. embargo is lifted? Share your thoughts.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
The world's smallest bird is found only in Cuba. Weighing less than a penny and measuring just over two inches long, the bee hummingbird, Mellisuga helenae, is aptly named for its size—and also for the sound it produces. With wings moving at an estimated 80 beats a second, the tiny bird creates such a buzzing noise that it's often mistaken for an insect. This fascinating bird is one of thousands of animal and plant species endemic to Cuba.

—Nora Gallagher
Did You Know?

Related Links
Biosphere Reserves  
Discover more about UNESCO's Man and the Biosphere Programme—one of several programs working to protect the natural areas of Cuba.

Bat Conservation International
Learn more about the amazing world of bats—such as those photographed by Steve Winter in Cuba—and what Bat Conservation International is doing to protect their natural habitats.

Welcome to Cuba
If you're planning a trip to Cuba, this is a good site for fast facts about the country as well as health information, customs regulations, and passport procedures.

Wildlife Conservation Society
Read about the Wildlife Conservation Society's projects in Latin America.


A Directory of Wetlands of International Importance. Published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) for the Ramsar Convention Bureau, 1990.  

Beer, J. V., and others. Flamingos. T. and A. D. Poyser, 1975. 

Cuba: a Country Study. Federal Research Division, Library of Congress. U.S. Government Printing Office, 2002.

Garrido, Orlando H., and Arturo Kirkconnell. Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba. Cornell University Press, 2000. 

Mittermeier, Russell A., Norman Myers, and Christina Goettsch Mittermeier. Hotspots: Earth's Biologically Richest and Most Endangered Terrestrial Ecoregions. CEMEX and Conservation International, 1999.

Nowak, Ronald M. Walker's Mammals of the World. Sixth Edition. Volume II. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 1999. 

Silva Lee, Alfonso. Natural Cuba Natural. Pangea, 1996.


NGS Resources
Peters, Phillip. "Havana Revival," National Geographic Traveler (January/February 2003), 22.

Baker, Christopher P. National Geographic Traveler: Cuba. National Geographic Books, 2003.

Wagenberg, Melissa. "Sierra Maestra, Cuba," National Geographic Adventure (March 2003), 108.

Benchley, Peter. "Cuba Reefs: A Last Caribbean Refuge," National Geographic (February 2002), 44-67.

Allen, Thomas B. "Cuba's Golden Past," National Geographic (July 2001), 74-91.

Newhouse, Elizabeth. Cuba. National Geographic Books, 1999.

Ward, Fred. "Inside Cuba Today," National Geographic (January 1977), 32-69.


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