Guantanamo Bay teems with rich wildlife

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Washington, April 4 (ANI): Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, may be notorious for housing detainees, but few know that the region is a rich ecosystem, where plants and animals found only in Cuba thrive in virgin subtropical dry forests and swim in clear waters along relatively undisturbed coastline.

According to a report in National Geographic News, the area has giant Cuban boas, whose numbers and sizes are incredible.

The snakes are listed as near threatened on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

"We routinely find animals ten feet (three meters) long and larger. My correspondence with Cubans who are studying them indicates that such large snakes are extremely rare in mainland Cuba," said Toledo Zoo's Peter Tolson, who has years of experience researching wildlife at Guantanamo Bay.

The Cuban rock iguana, which the IUCN lists as vulnerable, also thrives-and reaches great sizes-on the base.

"The IUCN's iguana specialist group estimates that Guantanamo contains anywhere from 6 to 8 percent of the Cuban rock iguanas in Cuba," Tolson said.

This is a surprisingly large portion, given the U.S. base's small footprint.

"You can see on a map how small that place is compared to the rest of Cuba and you get an idea of what an important refuge it is," Tolson added.

Guantanamo is also home to the hutia, known to base personnel as the banana rat.

Some hutia species have been eaten to extinction around the Caribbean. But, Guantanamo actually has too many of the groundhog-like rodents, which are damaging the landscape and denuding trees and undergrowth, according to officials.

Guantanamo Bay also hosts a sparkling marine ecosystem, a heavily patrolled 9,000-acre (3,640-hectare) home to fish, coral, and other aquatic animals.

Sea turtles nest on Guantanamo beaches year-round, encouraged by turtle-friendly yellow lighting and restrictions on access to sensitive nesting areas.

According to Jennifer Gebelein of Miami's Florida International University studies Cuba's physical environment and says that some plant and tree species, like highly prized Cuban mahogany, benefit from limited human access at Guantanamo.

"From a (natural) state of maybe 80 to 90 percent forest, what you see now when you drive through Cuba is primarily pastureland and really wide open grasslands that have replaced a lot of the forests," she said. (ANI)

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