National Geographic has published an article describing how Cuba's political and geographical isolation of the last five decades have had a remarkable but unintentional benefit on the island's flora and fauna. Read on and find out how this Caribbean island's unique environment means it is home to over 3,000 endemic plant species, and how 80% of the animals are just not found elsewhere on the planet.
How globalisation is changing the Caribbean
In an article by National Geographic, ecological writer Katarina Zimmer writes how the Caribbean islands are being invaded by foreign plants and animals brought on large ships or via aeroplane, often simply by accident.
Although bringing in more diverse and changing flora and fauna doesn't immediately seem catastrophic, it is having a detrimental effect on the local plants and animals, and in many cases, these invader species are threatening to oust the native species entirely.
Author Meghan Brown, an ecologist specialising in invasive species at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York, has looked at the distribution of newer invader species across the 45 Caribbean islands, finding that in general, the larger the island, the more invaders it tended to have.
However, despite Cuba being one of the larger islands, Meghan's team of American and Cuban scientists found that Cuba had relatively few invasive plant species than other, far smaller islands. Its intruder counts were on par with Puerto Rico's, a tenth of Cuba's size. But why is this?
An outcast island proving an ecological paradise
As the article goes on to explain, after the 1959 revolution, when Fidel Castro took power, the country's connections with the outside world receded, in part because of a U.S. trade embargo.
This isolation was magnified in 1991 after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cuba's closest trading partner.
Cuba's trade and tourism all but collapsed on a global scale, and the island was forced to go it alone. It's only recently that tourism has been making a comeback. However, despite the hardships for the Cuban people under Castro's regime, the island's isolation also protected the island from invasive species, turning it into an ecological "Garden of Eden".
Now, only 13% of Cuba's plant species are not endemic. By contrast, around 30% of plant species in Puerto Rico and Grand Cayman, and nearly 20% of those in Jamaica and on the island of Hispaniola, aren't native there.
"Although a number of factors probably contribute to Cuba's invasion deficit, the country's post-revolution economy definitely plays a strong role." - Meghan Brown, ecologist and author.
The human impact on the Caribbean islands' environment
Rafael Borroto-Paez, an invasive species biologist at Cuba's Tropical Geography Institute in Havana agrees. Speaking to National Geographic, Borroto-Páez states that Cuba's unusual isolation has probably helped shelter its native ecosystems.
Crucially, Brown's research points to tourism as a powerful driver of invasive plant introductions around the Caribbean. Across 20 islands for which both trade and tourism data were available, invasion numbers tended to correlate more closely with the number of tourists than with trade data.
"Islands with heavy tourism traffic, like Grand Cayman or Saint Thomas, have hundreds more invasive species than we'd expect for their area. Cuba has a limited tourism industry by Caribbean standards. In particular it doesn't host many cruise ships, on which invasive plants hitch a ride." - Meghan Brown, ecologist and author.
It's thought that these ecological intruders are brought on the soles of the unwitting tourists' shoes - an unintentional, but a potentially harmful invasion.
What does the future hold for Cuba's natural habitat?
Due to a number of different factors, there are many species of plant and animal life in Cuba that simply cannot be found elsewhere on the planet. If Cuba is to be Earth's last resort to such a wealth of protected life, it's vital we all play our part in helping to keep it that way.
In the National Geographic's article, Julissa Rojas-Sandoval, plant ecologist at the University of Connecticut suggests that nearly 40% of invasive plants on Caribbean islands are ornamental species - the tourism industry bringing over ornamental flowers deliberately to landscape hotels and holiday homes, creating a "pleasing tropical atmosphere".
Her research underlines an urgent need to control the arrival of destructive foreign species into Caribbean ecosystems in order to preserve the native species.
As Cuba's tourism industry is expected to undergo a boom over the coming years, it's hoped that the policymakers will focus on protecting the island of Cuba from "invasives", in order to protect the exceptional biodiversity of this fascinating island.