Mapping Biodiversity in Cuba

Expedition Briefing

 

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The Research

Despite Cuba’s importance as a biodiversity hotspot, long-term political complexities with the U.S. and other nations stymied collaborative international research. This is a critical moment in history for this island nation, with the potential for significant economic development around the corner and the unique opportunity to help protect this island’s outstanding biodiversity (Boom 2011; Davalos 2004; Fritsch and McDowell 2003; Iturralde-Vinent and MacPhee 1999; Savage 1991).

The mountainous forests of Lomas de Banao Ecological Reserve (LBER) are home to species only found in the Caribbean—including the vulnerable Cuban Parakeet and the near threatened Cuban Amazon Parrot (Garrido et al. 2011; González et al. 2014; Cañizares-Morera et al. 2005; Cañizares-Morera and Berovides 2008). This region faces many conservation challenges, including habitat transformation in neighboring agricultural lands, illegal extraction of flora and fauna from protected areas (Muñoz 2014), and the presence of the amphibian chytrid fungus that threatens endemic frog populations in the nearby locality of Topes de Collantes (Díaz et al. 2007).

There is a great need to strengthen the management of LBER to better protect its biodiversity, better understand conservation threats, and integrate rural communities into natural resource protection schemes. By intensive monitoring of biodiversity with the help of citizen scientists, specifically birds, trees, and amphibians species that are indicators of habitat quality, scientists hope to gain a better understanding of the overall ecosystem during a pivotal moment for Cuba.

Research Aims

Researchers seek to merge scientific research, ecological teaching, and community outreach with the goal of establishing a mid- to long-term research and monitoring program in LBER to generate data and information critical to the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable management of the Banao River Basin. The overarching research question focuses on the extent of changes in species composition and abundances of indicator taxa through time at the LBER, and the linkages between these potential changes and increasing human impact in this area of Cuba.

In alignment with this question, researchers have three scientific objectives:

  1. Investigate the composition and structure of avian, amphibian, reptile and plant communities at the edge and core zones of the LBER.
  2. Support conservation interventions set by the Reserve to aid the recovery of endangered species
  3. Develop a community outreach program to implement with the rural communities of Banao, where targeted taxa survives and is well managed.

Project research hypotheses will guide the research and monitoring of critical species and conservation threats, as well as assist in the early detection of potential new threats. By directly involving community members in our research, our project will help strengthen the participation of local communities in the management of LBER, and contribute to the reduction of species extraction from these reserves.

How You Will Help

Led by the scientists and a team of local experts, citizen scientists will:

  • Hike along prescribed transects through the forest to document bird, reptile, and amphibian species through sightings and audio recordings
  • Record temperature and relative humidity at monitoring stations
  • Hike to designated plot locations to survey flower and tree abundance and composition
  • While hiking transects, record signs of human disturbance (e.g. logging, parrot nest destruction)
  • Input data into datasets

Volunteers may also have the opportunity to:

  • Learn to use statistical analysis to test project scientific research hypotheses
  • Present on survey results at the end of expedition
  • Participate in ongoing conservation efforts including the construction and placement of artificial nests for Cuban parrots
  • Plant nurseries located in protected areas to aid reforestation efforts, including the planting of mangroves and critical forest species

Life in the Field

Fieldwork will take place at Lomas de Banao Ecological Reserve (LBER). After two initial days of training, teams will work together as a group each day to conduct bird surveys in the early mornings, measure trees and survey reptiles in the afternoon, and look for amphibians in the evenings. Everyone will work on all surveys, but we will rotate schedules so each person focuses on one or two taxa per day (e.g., group 1 will carry out bird and plant surveys on day 2, then they will carry out reptile and amphibian surveys on day 3). The team will hike through the mountain and forest every day to conduct research tasks. We will have short lectures before lunch or in the evenings, and have daily debriefings to review surveys and compile data in the late afternoons before dinner. Teams will have short talks in the evenings (about 20 minutes each) about the reserve, the community, target species, and staff research history.

POLICIES

Smoking is not allowed inside the accommodations.

DAILY ACTIVITIES

Weather and research needs can lead to changes in the daily schedule. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding. In addition, there will be breaks between surveys and sometimes waiting times before going to the next survey.

ITINERARY
  • Day 1: Arrival to the field station in Jarico, in the lowlands of the Lomas de Banao Ecological Reserve (LBER). Introductions and orientation. Short afternoon hike. You will have time to rest, adjust, and get comfortable.
  • Day 2: Training, brief lectures on methods and target species, and a review of field guides. In the first half of the day, you will practice surveying, bird recognition and using recorders. After lunch at the field station and a short rest, you will learn about reptiles and amphibians and be trained on data entry.
  • Days 3–5: Fieldwork based at the field station in Jarico, which involves hiking several nearby transects. In the afternoons/evenings you will do amphibian work.
  • Day 6: The team will pack their luggage and hike approximately four hours up the mountain, through the forest, to the second field site for the remainder of the team. For those who prefer not to hike, we will have mules available to move up to the second field site.
  • Days 7-9: Hike various transects at the second field site near la Sabina field station, in the highlands of the Lomas de Banao Ecological Reserve (LBER). On Day 9, you will hike back down the mountain to Jarico.
  • Day 10: Team wrap-up and review of achievements, completion of outstanding data entry and departure.

Accommodations and Food

Each team will stay at two different field stations. For the first half of your time in the field, you will stay at Cabanas in Jarico. The cabanas are located in the lowlands of the Lomas de Banao Ecological Reserve (LBER), in the middle of a hotspot for parrot nesting—you may see them around the station. For the second half of your time in the field, you will stay at La Sabina, a more remote field station in a mountainous cloud forest area of the reserve at a high elevation (650 meters above sea level). There is a beautiful view of the Caribbean Sea from the mountain top when the view is clear.

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.

SLEEPING

At Jarico, rooms will be shared by two or three people. At La Sabina, rooms will be shared by three people. All rooms will be separated by gender. Couples rooms can be accommodated depending on team makeup and size. Single rooms are difficult to accommodate because the capacity at both accommodations is limited. Single rooms are not available on fully booked teams. There are no mosquito nets available, but volunteers can bring their own mosquito nets if they wish and staff can help you hang them. The type with one center hook at the top is best.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgement. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.

BATHROOMS

Jarico: There are showers, toilets and hot water available.

La Sabina: There are showers and toilets available, but no hot water.

Both locations have one shared bathroom per shared room.

ELECTRICITY

At Jarico, electricity is stable and constant. At La Sabina electricity works with solar panels, so can be intermittent. All teams stay in both accommodations during each team, so it is possible that each team could experience some intermittent electricity during the second half of the expedition. Both sites have refrigeration.

The majority of outlets in Cuba are 110-volt current with standard U.S.-style two- or three-pronged outlets. However, some outlets are rated 220 volts, particularly in hotels that cater to European clientele.

PERSONAL COMMUNICATIONS

There is no Internet available at either site. There is cellular service at both sites, but in some field locations, it may be spotty. PIs and staff will have cell phones and regular phone access, as well as VHF radios for emergency communications.

FACILITIES AND AMENITIES

The sites are remote, but we encourage volunteers to bring binoculars and enjoy the nature around you.

DISTANCE TO THE FIELD SITE

Lomas de Banao Ecological Reserve (LBER) is 73 miles from the town of Santa Clara, which is the largest town in the area. While teams are doing fieldwork in Lomas de Banao Ecological Reserve (LBER), all research sites are reached by hiking. The hike between the two accommodations in LBER, from Jarico to La Sabina, is about four hours up the mountain (7.5 miles). Mules will be available primarily for transporting field equipment and luggage, but can also be used to ride should the hike prove difficult for some participants. The mules will also be used for emergencies. The team will hike back down the mountain at the end of the team one day before departure.

FOOD AND WATER

All meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) will be typical Cuban fare prepared by a local cook and eaten at the accommodations. The availability of food products changes daily in Cuba and sometimes there are shortages and certain foods will not be available. In addition, there is limited use of spices in Cuban cuisine, so you are welcomed to bring your spicy sauce or preferred spices if you wish to add them to your meals.

The following are examples of foods you may find in the field. Variety depends on availability. We appreciate your flexibility.

TYPICAL MEALS
  • Breakfast: Eggs, toast, cheese, plantains, fruit, fruit juices, coffee
  • Lunch: Rice, beans, plantains, pork, chicken, vegetables, soup, fresh fruits
  • Dinner: Chicken, pork, fish, vegetables, rice, beans, pasta
  • Dessert: Flan, fruit
  • Beverages: Fresh juice, water, sodas, coffee
SPECIAL DIETARY REQUIREMENTS

Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your volunteer forms.

We will be able to accommodate vegans and vegetarians, but not gluten-free diets. Food variety and availability in Cuba can be limited and can change unexpectedly day to day. We can accommodate lactose free and nut allergy diets.

Project Conditions

Cuba is a hotspot for biodiversity, with 17% of its lands and 25% of its marine platforms protected. The average annual temperature is 79° F (26° C), and the average precipitation is 39 in (978 mm), with most rain occurring during May and June. The field site at La Sabina can experience cooler temperatures and more wind at higher elevation. Lomas de Banao Ecological Reserve (LBER) is comprised of low, karstic hills in the municipalities of Sancti Spiritus, Fomento and Trinidad, and includes the uppermost part of the Banao and Higuanojo river basins. The landscape is one of canyons, valleys, and sinkholes. LBER supports 72% (77 species) of Cuba’s breeding resident birds.

GENERAL CONDITIONS

For weather and region-specific information, please visit Wunderground.com and search for your project location.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures at all times.
  • Be able to effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is different from your own.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Enjoy being outdoors all day in all types of weather and in the potential presence of wild animals and insects.
  • Be able to get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team
  • Endure tropical (hot, humid and rainy) work conditions.
  • Hike on hilly and/or steep slopes in densely wooded forest on uneven, muddy and rocky terrain for three to six miles per day, many days in a row.
  • Be comfortable hiking and conducting fieldwork at night.
  • Be willing to walk in/through the shallow rivers in the valley as often as instructed to conduct general herpetological surveys.
  • Get down low to the ground to search for frogs, lizards, and plants for up to six hours a day (not continuous).
  • Be comfortable around mules, and/or riding mules in the event you need assistance

Health and Safety

EMERGENCIES IN THE FIELD

The project will have mobile phones and VHF radios for communication while conducting field work.

Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.

IMMUNIZATIONS & TRAVEL VACCINATIONS

Please be sure your routine immunizations are up-to-date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or region where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Project Risks and Precautions

Transportation

We may encounter poor road conditions including landslides. Only qualified, experienced drivers will transport volunteers in project vehicles; we ensure project vehicles are well maintained. Seat belts must be worn at all times. Volunteers are not permitted to drive. Driving after dark will be avoided, except in cases of emergency.

Hiking

Almost all research activities on this project involve hiking. Some of the hikes are up to 10 miles long. The terrain is mountainous, uneven and can be muddy. It can be slippery, so good shoes are necessary. Both rubber boots and hiking boots are required for all participants. The hike from Jarico to La Sabina is about four hours up the mountains (8 hours round trip). If requested, participants could ride mules to La Sabina. All fieldwork will involve walking, up to 10 miles/day (16 km), possibly uphill in rainforest covering, sand, rough terrain, or high altitude; on and off trails; carrying equipment weighing up to 10 lbs (5kg) on and off trails. River crossings are part of the hike.

Animals

There will be mules present on this project that will be used to transport luggage and field equipment. They may also be used to transport people should the field research prove too difficult or someone sustains an injury. Helmets must be worn when riding a mule and will be provided for volunteers. Snakes are present in the field research locations. Volunteers should remain designated work areas and listen to field staff instructions for avoiding snakes and bites. There are no poisonous snakes in Cuba, but if you have a phobia, you could be assigned more hours with bird surveys and data processing, during which you are less likely to encounter a snake.

Insects and disease

Mosquitoes are present in Cuba and at the research locations and can carry diseases such as chikungunya, dengue and Zika virus. Volunteers will be reminded to wear protective clothing, such as long sleeves and long pants, and to wear insect repellent. Volunteers with bee sting allergies should carry two Epi-Pens with them and be sure to describe their allergy/reaction on their medical forms.

Climate/ Weather

Sun exposure and heat exposure are possible on this expedition. Volunteers will be reminded to use sunscreen, wear protective clothing, and maintain hydration by drinking plenty of water. There is also the possibility of rain and hurricanes. Both reserves experience intense rainfall during the rainy season (May–October). Hurricane season is June to November, when landslides, mudslides, flooding may occur. Research sites are located inland away from the coastline. Field staff will monitor local weather and plan activities accordingly. If local authorities or field staff deem it necessary to evacuate the location, follow all instructions. Because of the high humidity, people who use a hearing aid device may find it doesn’t work properly. Consider purchasing a hearing aid dehumidifier. You must be able to stay outside in the rain for extended periods of time.

Personal Security

We advise volunteers to be vigilant with personal belongings while in Havana to avoid any potential thievery.

Swimming and/or water crossing

Research activities may require volunteers to cross rivers and streams. Teams will practice thorough water crossing safety procedures, such as using spotters, crossing at low points in the river, and using ropes or harnesses if necessary, and only cross in designated areas. Recreational activities may include swimming in waterfall pools, and possibly the Caribbean Sea.

Distance from Medical Care

Depending on where the team is when medical care is required, it may take up to 4–5 hours to reach care—even longer if you are on a transect near la Sabina. The closest clinics are in Sancti Spiritus (30 minutes by car), Trinidad (50 minutes by car) and Santa Clara (60 minutes by car), but departing the field may require a long hike or mule ride to access the road.

Travel Planning

RENDEZVOUS LOCATION: Hotel Paseo Habana, Havana, Cuba

* Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.

ABOUT YOUR DESTINATION

Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.

COUNTRY AND PROJECT ENTRY REQUIREMENTS

Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers cancelling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website: www.travisa.com.

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.

Cuban Entry Card

A Cuban Entry Card is required to enter Cuba. Typically, entry cards can be purchased at the airport when you check in for your flight, but be sure to double check with your airline. The cost of the entry card ranges from 50 USD. to 100 USD, depending on the airline you are travelling with. Some airlines allow you to purchase the entry card in advance online. You will be able to purchase your ticket online under the Humanitarian Projects category of authorized travel to Cuba. Travel restrictions to Cuba from the United States have been changing throughout the past few years. This information is accurate from the time of printing this expedition briefing. Please double check Cuba travel requirements before traveling, as requirements are subject to change.

In order to enter Cuba, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.

Resources

ARTICLES
BOOKS
  • “Cuba Travel Guide” by the Lonely Planet
  • “A Field Guide to the Birds of Cuba” by Orlando H. Garrido, Arturo Kirkconnell
  • “Endemic Birds of Cuba: A Comprehensive Field Guide. Including West Indian endemics residing in Cuba” by Nils Navarro
LITERATURE CITED
  • Boom B (2011) The Case for Enhanced Environmental Cooperation Between the Republic of Cuba and the United States of America. 2011. A Tinker Foundation White Paper. Updated as: Biodiversity without Borders: Advancing U.S.-Cuba Cooperation through Environmental Research, Science and Diplomacy.http://www.sciencediplomacy.org/article/2012/biodiversity-without-borders.
  • Cañizares-Morera M, Berovides V, González BVP, Suz CLR (2008) Situación actual de las poblaciones del periquito cubano o catey Aratinga euops (Aves: Psittacidae) en el centro de Cuba. La Ceiba, Honduras 22-23 de noviembre 2005: 49.
  • Davalos LM (2004) Phylogeny and biogeography of Caribbean mammals. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 81: 373-394.
  • Díaz LM, Cádiz A, Chong A, Silva A (2007) First report of chytridiomycosis in a dying toad (Anura: Bufonidae) from Cuba: a new conservation challenge for the island. EcoHealth 4: 172-175.
  • Fritsch PW, McDowell TD (2003) Biogeography and phylogeny of Caribbean plants—introduction. Systematic botany 28: 376-377.
  • Garrido OH, Kirkconnell A, Compañy R (2011) Aves de Cuba: Comstock Publishing Associates; Cornell University Press.
  • González VR, Schettino LR, Mancina CA, Iturriaga M (2014) Amphibians of Cuba: Checklist and Geographic Distributions: Division of Amphibians & Reptiles, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Inst.
  • Iturralde-Vinent MA, MacPhee RD (1999) Paleogeography of the Caribbean region: implications for Cenozoic biogeography: American Museum of Natural History.
  • Muñoz AH (2014) Loros de Cuba y su conservación, Lulu Press, Inc.
  • Savage JM (1991) Biogeography of the West Indies. Past, Present and Future. Systematic Biology 40: 110-111.

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