image Cuban Crocodiles Under Duress

Cuban crocodiles at the Criadaro Cocodrilo breeding farm near the Parque Nacional Cienega de Zapata.

Article by Katrina Ruggiero; Photos by Yulia Rock

In the last three decades,  the Cuban Crocodile population has fallen by 80 percent, and the Crocodylus Rhombifer, its formal name, has been categorized as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

One cause of the crocodiles’ decline is rising sea levels, which threaten the natural habitat. Cuban crocs prefer higher ground and fresh water, and salt water seeping into their habitat has displaced some crocs. In the area around the Parque Nacional Cienega de Zapata, much of the higher ground is being taken over by farms, further encroaching on the crocodiles.

Another threat is tourism. “Crocodile meat is considered ‘exotic,’ and tourists can eat it at local restaurants,” said Natalia Rossi, a crocodile expert at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. “On the ground estimates suggest that a pound of Cuban croc meat is worth as much as $9.50 a pound, which is highly profitable for local economic standards.”

While it is against the law to hunt crocodiles, the penalties are relatively small. “The law protecting crocodiles was put in place many years ago, but the problem is bad organization,” said Carlos Alvarez, who works at the Parque Nacional Cienega, a swamp of 1,600 square miles that is popular with birdwatchers for its extravagant numbers of species found there.

The fines for hunting the Cuban croc run from 50 Cuban pesos, the currency used by Cuban residents, to 100 CUCs, the more valuable currency used primarily in transactions with foreign visitors. Fifty pesos is less than $2; 100 CUCs is equal to $100.

“General fines are insignificant and for the 100 CUC fine it has to be a person with more than three events of poaching,” said Rossi.

Paladares, privately owned restaurants, have been known to serve crocodile, offering it as an off-the-menu option, and some of these have been shut down by the government, but how many is not clear.

Video exists, though not available publicly, that shows young Cubans hunting crocodiles in skiffs full of carcasses.

The poachers seem to benefit only from the croc’s meat. While its skin is valued in some fashion circles, “There is a process the skin has to go through and these people who are hunting them don’t understand how the process works,” said Esther Velis Diaz, director of international corporations for the Antonio Nuñez Jimenez Foundation for Man and Culture, which works on environmental programs.

A further threat to the Cuban croc is the aggressiveness of the more muscular American crocodile, which, as the two types interbreed, weakens the genetic purity of the native variety, Diaz said.

In an effort to preserve “pure” Cuban crocodiles, a crocodile farm adjacent to the Parque Nacional Cienega raises only the Cuban variety.

“The crocodile farm continues to be the most valuable reservoir of Cuban crocodiles after the wild population,” said Rossi. “They have more than 5,000 crocodiles.”

In an effort to preserve the indigenous variety, personnel at the Parque Nacional Cienega de Zapata dig out the croc eggs from the adjacent farm, separating them from the mothers to ensure that they are not damaged by other crocs, and hatch them out in safety.

After they are hatched, the workers reintroduce the young into the park preserve. On average the female Cuban croc can lay 30 to 40 eggs.

Since so many tourists ask for crocodile meat, the Parque Nacional has a deal with state-owned restaurants. Five percent of young crocs are killed for their meat and sold to the state-owned facilities, the only restaurants that can legally sell crocodile meat.

“Even though these areas are protected, that doesn’t mean that illegal activates don’t happen and we can’t do much about it,” said Esther Velis Diaz.  Some protected wildlife areas have guards, but Zapata does not.