On Saving the Cuban Crocodile from American Invasion

The Cuban crocodile, C. rhombifer (Getty Images)

At Hakai Magazine, Shanna Baker reports on the ongoing bid to preserve C. rhombifer, the breed of Cuban crocodile beloved of Fidel Castro, who was known to send living and embalmed versions of the animal to allies around the world. The Cuban croc is endangered, not only due to shrinking habitat, but also to hybridization as its gene pool gets polluted by natural encounters with the bigger, shyer American crocodile.

Beside a spit of land jutting into a swampy enclosure, a female crocodile breaks the waterline, the bony ridges on her back jagged like an electrocardiogram. Her eyes track six sweat-soaked men standing in a haphazard semicircle, gripping poles twice their own height, as mosquitos orbit their straw hats. Another man works quickly with a hoe, leveling the dried grasses of her nest and chewing up the earth until he finds her unborn brood, laid just three days ago. The crocodile thrashes and lunges forward, but two men raise their weapons, ready to deliver a hard thump to the snout if she approaches.

She sinks back as the man in the middle of the mob loads her few dozen eggs plus a second set from a nearby nest into a plastic pail, cushioning them between layers of dirt. At the top, he places four last eggs—the rejects—each the size of a small mango. They feel like unpolished marble and all bear a sizable dent. The tiny would-be Cuban crocodiles (Crocodylus rhombifer) inside are goners—the membranes are too damaged—but the others are destined for an incubation room, where air conditioners humming round the clock will hopefully hold them at a steady temperature. If all goes as planned, in 75 days or so, hatchlings will emerge and help move the needle on C. rhombifer’s prospects for survival.

Conserving the Cuban croc was one of Fidel Castro’s first priorities after he steamed into power in 1959. Just months into his rule, he ordered the creation of the Criadero de cocodrilos, Ciénaga de Zapata—or Zapata Swamp Captive Breeding Facility—a cluster of ponds, rows of concrete-block pens, and a couple of narrow one-story buildings split into modest offices and workspaces for staff two and a half hours south of Havana. Castro always had a predilection for wild spaces and things, says environmental historian Reinaldo Funes-Monzote of the University of Havana. Whether he cherished endemic species because they fit with his hypernationalistic sensibilities, or he related to their untamed energy, or he was just enlightened to the inherent value of wildlife is a guess, though crocodiles must have become a point of pride for him at some stage—he eventually developed a habit of gifting them, either living or embalmed, to foreign allies.

The Cuban is bolder and hunts during the day. It has a stubby snout, a reputation for jumping, and a tendency to walk with its belly high off the ground. The American is bigger, more apt to hide, searches for prey at night, sports dark bands on its back and sides, and has a long, pointed snout and extra webbing on its hind toes. The differences are as distinct as red from blue.

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