The Refuge of the Pink Flamingo
By Dalia Acosta
Thousands of flamingos will reach Cuba's Máximo-Cagüey wetlands in April for their nesting season. Workers at this nature preserve have everything ready to welcome the birds.
CAMAGÜEY, Cuba, (Tierramérica).- Nine kilometers and a nearly impassable road separate the small and isolated Cuban community of Mola from the sign announcing the way to the most important pink flamingo refuge in the Caribbean region.
''From here you have to walk hours through that marsh, deep in mud, to get near the nesting site,'' Francisco Alvarez, a conservationist at the wildlife refuge at the mouth of the Máximo River, told Tierramérica.
More than 150,000 pink flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber ruber), also known as Caribbean flamingos, gather in this wetland, in northern Camagüey province, 500 km southeast of Havana. They arrive from other points on this and other islands of the Caribbean, and from Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula.
Their beautiful plumage ranges in color from salmon pink to flaming red, the result of the carotenoid pigments in their diet of invertebrates and algae. These flamingos can reach a height of 1.2 meters.
''They arrive in mid-April to build the nests. At the end of May the chicks hatch, and three days later the parents return to their homes of origin, leaving their offspring in the care of a group of 'nanny' flamingos,'' explains Alvarez.
The nature preserve's workers track the process and, in August, when the season comes to an end, they collect the weakest birds that have been left behind and set up nests for them in a ''quarantine'' area until they have recovered.
In the end, those birds that would not be able to survive on their own are sold to Cuban companies or to other countries, under authorization from the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES).
The drought of 2004, says Alvarez, caused several nests to fail, extended the season, and dried up the spring that provided water to the flamingos being raised in captivity. The solution was to carry water from the river, bucket by bucket.
The pink flamingo management plan of the government's National Flora and Fauna Protection Agency is ''exquisite'' in the opinion of Mayra González, director of the province's environmental department.
''Twenty years ago we had no idea what was happening in the marsh. Nobody knew. Now it is the best protected area that we have in terms of implementing management plans,'' she said.
In 2002, the Máximo-Cagüey marsh was added to the list of internationally important wetlands of the Ramsar Convention, named for the Iranian city where the treaty was signed. The Cuban wetland covers 22,000 hectares and serves as a resting area for migratory birds flying to and from North, Central and South America.
The area includes forests, rivers, swamps, canals, coves, and coastal lagoons. The characteristics of the soil and the material of the local vegetation provide the only options for the flamingos to build their nests.
Seen as an extremely fragile marine-coastal ecosystem, the wetland holds reproductive sites for migratory and resident birds alike, of species endemic to the Caribbean -- some are threatened, and all are ecologically important.
There one can find 'yaguasas' (similar to small ducks), snowy plovers, pelicans, ducks, cranes and, for the first time, in 2004, a stygian owl with two chicks. The nature preserve's staff keep track of each and every nest they find.
Some of the other fauna include relatively large populations of American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) and Antillian manatees (Trichechus manatus), both endangered species.
The refuge is included in the project for biodiversity protection in the Sabana-Camagüey ecosystem, under way since 1993 with backing from the United Nations Development Program and the Global Environment Facility.
''In addition to preserving the area, doing the work of forestry and reforestation, attending to the flamingos, ducks and yaguasas, we have to dedicate time to protection, to prevent hunting and fishing,'' explains Alvarez.
The protected area includes a classroom for environmental education and space for various activities aimed at raising environmental awareness in the Mola community, especially targeting people who have violated the conservation regulations.
In addition to the environmental impacts caused by nearby towns, the wetland is undergoing a salinization process resulting, in part, from water projects on the Máximo River, which is already contaminated.
Experts believe the contamination would reach the marsh once the waste treatment system of an aquiculture company is implemented. The firm is blamed for much of the river's environmental deterioration since the early 1990s.
''Here everything was sugarcane and livestock. Now we have this alternative that helps us a lot,'' says Raquel Véliz, a young woman who went from ''doing nothing'' to working at the wildlife refuge. ''I'm from here. Born and raised in Mola.''
More than half of the 44 workers at the refuge are her neighbors, and the 700 residents of the community, without means of transportation or communication, benefit from the conditions created in the protected area.
''A bus comes in once a week. So now we can take our sick people to the doctor and take care of the other needs of the community. Here everyone does a bit of everything,'' said Véliz.
* Dalia Acosta is an IPS correspondent.