Cuban scientists race to save one of the world’s rarest crocodiles

Cuban scientists race to save one of the world’s rarest crocodiles

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Shirtless and waist-deep in the dark waters of Cuba’s palm-speckled Zapata Swamp, researcher Etiam Perez releases a baby crocodile confiscated from illegal hunters back into the wild.

. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini
Perez, 43, watches a newly released Cuban crocodile swimming at the Zapata Swamp.

It is a small victory, he says, in a bigger battle. Cuban crocs, an endemic species found only here and in a swamp on Cuba's Isle of Youth, are critically endangered and have the smallest natural habitat left of any living crocodile species, scientists say.

"We are trying to bring them back from the edge of extinction," Perez told Reuters as the spotted reptile, mouth full of fine teeth, kicked its striped tail and disappeared.

. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini
A Cuban crocodile swims during its release into nature at the Zapata Swamp.

Illegal hunting and hybridization with American crocodiles - which muddles the species' genetics - have for decades threatened populations here. A warming climate, which alters the sex ratio of newborn crocs, poses a new threat.

And despite the fact that the Cuban government has protected virtually all of the vast swamp - widely considered to be the best preserved in the Caribbean - that may still not be enough, scientists say.

. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini
Cuban crocodiles are seen at a hatchery at Zapata Swamp.

"When you compare the Cuban crocodile with other species in the world, its house is very small," said Gustavo Sosa, a Cuban veterinarian at Zapata.

Cuban scientists estimate that around 4,000 Cuban crocodiles live in the wild. But because the area they prefer within the wetland is relatively small, a climate-related disaster - increasingly common now globally - could wipe out most of the population.

. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini
Cuban crocodiles recovered from a poacher, and given by the police to the director of the crocodile hatchery, rest inside a plastic bag before being released into nature at Zapata Swamp.

Those concerns decades ago prompted the Cuban government to underwrite a hatchery program that annually releases several hundred crocodiles into the wild. Researchers like Perez also liberate crocodiles confiscated from hunters as part of a program that has helped reduce poaching of the species.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which listed the species as critically endangered in 2008, says its assessment and population estimates need updating, but confirms long-standing concerns over the limited habitat of the species.

. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini
Sosa shows newly-hatched Cuban crocodiles to tourists at a hatchery at Zapata Swamp.

"With the hatchery we are trying to increase the historical range of the Cuban crocodile and of course increase the number of these individuals in the wild," Perez said.

The sale of crocodile meat in Cuba is tightly controlled by the state, and only those crocodiles with physical defects or hybrid genetics, for example, are allowed in restaurants. An illegal market, however, can still be found in some areas, particularly around the swamp.

. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini
A newly-hatched Cuban crocodile emerges from an egg at a hatchery at Zapata Swamp.

Fuel shortages, antiquated equipment and often inhospitable conditions are constant challenges in Cuba, a Caribbean island nation gripped by a dire economic crisis.

But at Zapata, those concerns feel distant as this year’s crop of freshly hatched crocs, still covered in mucus from their eggs, snap their jaws at pieces of fresh river fish, moving in unison as they discover their new world.

The newborns quickly become fierce and intimidating predators, scientists say, capable of reaching lengths of nearly five meters as adults. The Cuban crocodile, said veterinarian Sosa, is especially pugnacious, with little fear of humans.

"It is a very curious critter," said Sosa. "When you see one in nature...you know it is a Cuban crocodile because they come to you."

(Reporting by Nelson Gonzalez; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Picture editing and layout by Eve Watling; Text editing by Deepa Babington)

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Slideshow

Tourists visit a Cuban crocodile hatchery at Zapata Swamp.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Tourists visit a Cuban crocodile hatchery at Zapata Swamp.

Veterinary technician Enrique Vasallo releases newborn Cuban crocodiles into their cage at a hatchery at Zapata Swamp.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Veterinary technician Enrique Vasallo releases newborn Cuban crocodiles into their cage at a hatchery at Zapata Swamp.

Tourists watch Cuban crocodiles in their cage at a hatchery.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Tourists watch Cuban crocodiles in their cage at a hatchery.

A worker holds a Cuban crocodile.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A worker holds a Cuban crocodile.

A Cuban crocodile has its measurements checked.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A Cuban crocodile has its measurements checked.

A Cuban crocodile has its weight checked.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A Cuban crocodile has its weight checked.

Cuban crocodiles swim at a hatchery.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Cuban crocodiles swim at a hatchery.

A newly-hatched Cuban crocodile emerges from an egg onto a biologist’s hand.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A newly-hatched Cuban crocodile emerges from an egg onto a biologist’s hand.

Cuban crocodiles are checked by biologists prior to being released into nature.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Cuban crocodiles are checked by biologists prior to being released into nature.

Cuban crocodiles are carried inside a box by biologists prior to being released into nature.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Cuban crocodiles are carried inside a box by biologists prior to being released into nature.

Sosa washes newly-hatched Cuban crocodiles.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Sosa washes newly-hatched Cuban crocodiles.

A Cuban crocodile is held moments before being released into nature.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A Cuban crocodile is held moments before being released into nature.

A Cuban crocodile swims with fishes during its release into nature.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A Cuban crocodile swims with fishes during its release into nature.

A Cuban crocodile is held during its release into nature.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A Cuban crocodile is held during its release into nature.

Cuban crocodiles react as a bait hangs over them at a crocodile hatchery.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Cuban crocodiles react as a bait hangs over them at a crocodile hatchery.

A Cuban crocodile opens its jaws at a hatchery.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A Cuban crocodile opens its jaws at a hatchery.

Sosa poses with newly-hatched Cuban crocodiles as they are relocated, at a hatchery.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Sosa poses with newly-hatched Cuban crocodiles as they are relocated, at a hatchery.

A biologist poses with newly-hatched Cuban crocodiles as they are relocated.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A biologist poses with newly-hatched Cuban crocodiles as they are relocated.

A Cuban crocodile walks at the Zapata Swamp.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A Cuban crocodile walks at the Zapata Swamp.

A crocodile taxidermy is seen with a cigar resting in its mouth inside a shop at Zapata Swamp.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A crocodile taxidermy is seen with a cigar resting in its mouth inside a shop at Zapata Swamp.

A crocodile taxidermy stands in a restaurant at Zapata Swamp.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A crocodile taxidermy stands in a restaurant at Zapata Swamp.

A worker shows a necklace with a tooth belonging to a Cuban crocodile at a hatchery.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

A worker shows a necklace with a tooth belonging to a Cuban crocodile at a hatchery.

Cuban crocodile skulls are seen inside a worker's room at a hatchery at Zapata Swamp.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Cuban crocodile skulls are seen inside a worker's room at a hatchery at Zapata Swamp.

Cuban crocodile meat is prepared in a restaurant at Zapata Swamp.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Cuban crocodile meat is prepared in a restaurant at Zapata Swamp.

Cuban crocodile meat is ready to be served in a restaurant.
. Cienaga De Zapata, Cuba. Reuters/Alexandre Meneghini

Cuban crocodile meat is ready to be served in a restaurant.