Rising to the Challenge of Conserving Haiti’s Unique Species

by Yessenia Soto, Rainforest Alliance

The Massif de la Hotte supports much of Haiti's remaining forest cover. Photo: Sam Turvey/ Zoological Society London.

The Massif de la Hotte supports much of Haiti’s remaining forest cover. Photo: Sam Turvey/ Zoological Society London.

Haiti may be a small country, but its forests hold a treasure trove of unique biodiversity. The Massif de la Hotte, a mountain range in southwestern Haiti that lies within the Macaya Biosphere Reserve, is one of 268 key biodiversity areas for threatened species in the Caribbean and the world’s most important area in terms of site-endemic and critically endangered species, according to the Alliance for Zero Extinction, a coalition of biodiversity conservation groups.

Home to 42 globally threatened mammal, bird, reptile, and amphibian species, Haiti is the only place in world where 13 critically endangered frog species are known to exist.

The Hispaniolan giant tree frog (Osteopilus vastus) is one of many globally threatened amphibians supported by the forests of Massif de la Hotte. Photo: Sam Turvey/ Zoological Society London.

The Hispaniolan giant tree frog (Osteopilus vastus) is one of many globally threatened amphibians supported by the forests of Massif de la Hotte. Photo: Sam Turvey/ Zoological Society London.

A major conservation challenge is that Haiti retains only 3% of its original forests, which are being lost at a rate of 10% every five years, according to David Wege, Caribbean program manager for BirdLife International.

The main threats to Haiti’s forests stem from local community members, who need to cut down trees to make charcoal for cooking fires or clear land for agriculture to grow food for their families. These needs have caused extreme levels of habitat destruction and fragmentation, reducing ecosystem resilience, ecological integrity, and the genetic pool of the area’s species.

With support from the Darwin Initiative, a United Kingdom-based funding program, BirdLife International has been working in Haiti since 2010 on a project called Building a Future for Haiti’s Unique Vertebrates, which prioritizes critical habitats on the Massif de la Hotte in order to ensure a sustainable future for the species that depend on them. “We have the greatest number of species in critical danger of extinction than anywhere in the world here. Conserving this site is vital for preventing the extinction of those species,” explains Wege.

The first part of the project has focused on identifying priority habitats. With help from the Zoological Society of London and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, biologists have made ​​expeditions on foot and, in some cases, by helicopter, to the Massif de la Hotte’s forested areas to locate those habitats and record the species in them. The information is key, Wege said, because it will serve as a scientific baseline to determine specific conservation needs and develop plans for habitat restoration and species conservation.

The hutia is an arboreal guinea pig-like mammal. It is endangered and survives in the Massif de la Hotte. Photo: Jose Nunez-Mino/ Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

The hutia is an arboreal guinea pig-like mammal. It is endangered and survives in the Massif de la Hotte. Photo: Jose Nunez-Mino/ Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

The expeditions have led to the identification of the largest and most important areas for endangered species conservation, as well as maps of those areas, as Haiti hasn’t completely mapped its conservation areas. In many cases, experts have found species that hadn’t previously been recorded there.

At the same time, BirdLife is working to strengthen the capacity of its local partner, Audubon Haiti. According to Wege, trained staff is a very limited resource; after the 2010 earthquake that devastated Port au Prince, the few trained people available stopped working with NGOs to take higher-paying jobs with international aid agencies.

With the goal of helping Haitians do the work themselves, the project has sponsored courses and workshops in protecting and monitoring vertebrates and their habitats, general biology, planning, conservation management, and communications. The project encourages staff from local partner organizations to participate in the expeditions and learn the necessary techniques and protocols, with the goal of eventually providing formal academic training. The project has also established a network of experts and conservationists and is encouraging collaboration among the NGOs involved.

Another of the project’s pillars is its work with communities to provide sustainable livelihood alternatives that reduce dependence on natural resources, mainly wood for charcoal and construction and the great pressure that it places on fragile habitats.

“Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas. The vision for conservation here should be one that promotes the protection of habitats and species while also protecting communities,” Wege emphasizes.

This became a greater challenge following the 2010 earthquake, which destroyed the homes of more than one and half million people in the capital, many of whom moved to rural areas, including the area around the Massif de la Hotte.

Project coordinators meeting community members in the Massif de la Hotte. Photo: Sam Turvey/ Zoological Society London.

Project coordinators meeting community members in the Massif de la Hotte. Photo: Sam Turvey/ Zoological Society London.

One of the project’s initiatives is to foster agreements with local residents who commit to reducing their impact on the forest in return for education for their children. According to Wege, the response has been positive because education is a great motivation for rural families, who want their children to study so that they can one day get jobs in the city.

The project’s next phase calls for large-scale reforestation projects that will involve communities to prevent soil erosion and protect them from natural disasters such as floods.

Wege notes that the project’s most important result to date has been the scientific information that it has compiled. BirdLife has used the resulting comprehensive data to provide recommendations and contribute to developing plans for Massif de la Hotte and other protected areas.

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