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Report at a glance
Dates of field work
8–15 September 2002
Republic of Cuba, Matanzas Province, municipios (comparable to counties)
of Ciénaga de Zapata, Jagüey Grande, Unión de Reyes, and Pedro Betancourt.
The Zapata wetland-and-forest complex occupies the entire southern end of the
province, measuring 175 km in length from west to east, between Punta Gorda
and Jagua. Its maximal width is 58 km, north to south, from the town of
Torriente to Cayo Miguel, with an average width of 14-16 km.
The rapid biological inventory team surveyed six sites within the Zapata Peninsula:
Bermeja (swamp forests), Peralta (swamp forests and marsh grasslands), Pálpite
(tidal-swamp forests), the Hatiguanico River (marsh grasslands and mangrove
swamps), Punta Perdíz (semideciduous forests), and Caleta Sábalo (swamp forests
and semideciduous forests).
Vascular plants, insects (ground beetles [family Carabidae], ants, dragonflies),
mollusks, amphibians and reptiles, birds, and mammals
Highlight of results
The rapid inventory team identified important opportunities for conservation
in the Zapata Peninsula, where two vegetation types stand out at the highest
priority: (1) lowland forests (the most extensive in the West Indies) and (2) grassdominated
wetlands (both western and eastern sectors). The latter are among the
largest and most nearly intact of such habitats in the world. These ecosystems
are a refuge for a rich and diverse biota, with high levels of endemism, primarily
in the vertebrates. During eight days in the field, our team found geographically
restricted species and new records for the locality. Below is a brief summary of
the results for the areas and organisms studied.
Plants: Although we focused on the most widespread vegetation types (see Sites
Surveyed, above), the Zapata region harbors 17 recognized formations, including the
unique Marsh Spring Vegetation Complex (Complejo de Vegetación de Manantial de
Ciénaga) among the forest islands called petenes. Marsh grasslands (Fig. 2H),
reminiscent of the sawgrass fields of the Florida Everglades (USA), are maintained
by fire and are the sole habitat for some endemic birds and fishes, the endangered
Cuban crocodile, and a notable population of the declining West Indian manatee.
Mangrove swamps along rivers and the coast are crucial nurseries for much of the
region’s marine life. Upland forests are home to most of the region’s endemic bird
species, as well as most of its reptiles. Both swamp forest (Fig. 2C), seasonally or
permanently flooded, and semideciduous forest (Fig. 2E) have been heavily
disturbed in some areas, both by human activity and by hurricanes and wildfires.
We recorded 305 species of vascular plants, from an estimated 1,000 in the
Zapata region. Among them were several tree species of ecological or economic
significance, including mahogany and sabal palm. Previous studies have estimated
that 13% of Zapata’s plant species are found only in Cuba.
Insects: Our insect surveys covered only ground beetles (Carabidae), ants,
and dragonflies, and all must be considered preliminary. The present inventory
of carabids is the first of its type published for Zapata Swamp. We recorded
54 species of these beetles, of which 4 are endemic to Cuba and 1 is a new species
of Ardistomis. We suspect that many more species will be found at Zapata when
more habitats and sites (especially in the western part of the peninsula) have
been inventoried. Zapata’s ant fauna is dominated by widespread and introduced
species. We recorded 17 of the 30 species expected to occur in the region,
including 1 species endemic to Cuba and a native leafcutting ant new for Zapata.
As Cuba’s most extensive wetland, Zapata Swamp is a site of great importance for
dragonfly conservation. We recorded 18 of the 50 species predicted for the region.
Mollusks: Land snails dominate the mollusk fauna of Cuba. Most of the country’s
1,300 species are endemic. Zapata has few species for an area of its size. We
recorded 5 land snails, including a new Zapata record. We also noted 7 species
of freshwater mollusks, including 2 new Zapata records. The most abundant of
the freshwater species was Pomacea palludosa.
Amphibians and reptiles: We registered 14 of the 16 amphibian species
predicted to occur in the Zapata Peninsula, exceeding the previous species
list by 4. One-quarter of Cuba’s 58 species of amphibians live in Zapata Swamp,
representing all the families found in the country. Zapata’s amphibians show
the typically high degree of endemism found in Cuba (13 of the 14 species
we recorded are restricted to Cuba). Of the 43 reptile species estimated for
the region, we registered 41— an increase of 5 over the previous species count.
Endemism is only moderate among Zapata’s reptiles. We recorded the lizard
Sphaerodactylus richardi (1 of the 2 reptile species restricted to the peninsula)
as well as 4 reptile species and 1 subspecies never before observed in Zapata.
Birds: The Zapata Peninsula is the richest region in the country for birds endemic
to Cuba, waterbirds, and migrant landbirds. We recorded 117 species of the 258
previously observed in the peninsula. We observed 2 of the 3 birds found only in
Zapata (Zapata Wren [Fig. 5A] and the endemic subspecies of Zapata Sparrow,
but not the nearly extinct Zapata Rail). In addition to these birds, the marshes are
home to the Cuban endemic Red-shouldered Blackbird, as well as the threatened
Sandhill Crane and West Indian Whistling-Duck. Zapata’s forests are equally
significant for birds. Bermeja is considered the most important nesting area for
endemic birds in Cuba—14 species breed in its forests. Of the 30 threatened
species in Cuba, 16 nest in Zapata. During the inventory we observed 6 species
of threatened Cuban endemics, as well as sole or extremely rare records for
3 migrant landbirds.
Mammals: Mammalian diversity in the Zapata region, as in Cuba, is low.
Bats are richer in species than other groups. The peninsula’s 3 species of hutias
are representatives of a group of large-bodied rodents restricted to the Greater
Antilles. One of these hutias, Mesocapromys enanus, is known in modern
times only from Zapata. Of the region’s 15 mammal species (both native and
introduced), we recorded the relatively common native hutia Capromys pilorides
and the introduced black rat, house mouse, and small Indian mongoose.
In part because of our short time in the field, our work did not include a
rapid social inventory. Human population density in Zapata Swamp is low—the
extensive marshes limit access over a wide area. Nevertheless, the human
communities of the peninsula depend on the natural resources provided by the
swamp and surrounding forests. Inhabitants of the buffer zone subsist mainly
through small-scale agriculture, exploitation of forests (lumber and charcoal), and
fishing. On a much smaller scale they use the land and waters for silviculture,
livestock production, sport hunting, apiculture, and tourism, the last of which is
not yet producing economic incentives for conservation by local residents.
The primary threats to the biological diversity and natural resources of
the Zapata Peninsula are (1) damage to the water table, marshes, and swamps;
(2) destruction or degradation of upland forests; and (3) invasive species.
Excessive nutrient runoff, chemical contamination by agriculture upstream, and
the drainage and diversion of waterways are concerns to be monitored. Any new
construction of roads and canals must be planned carefully to minimize
fragmentation of plant and wildlife habitat. Both selective logging of large timber
species and clearcutting for firewood and charcoal exacerbate hurricane damage
and leave forests vulnerable to devastation by fire. Melaleuca, an Australian tree
that has penetrated the marshes, seems the most dangerous of the invasive
species now present in Zapata. Introduced species of mammals (including the
small Indian mongoose) and nonnative fish species also may pose problems if
their populations increase.
Other threats to the conservation of Zapata’s wild species and communities
include (1) fires at unnatural frequencies that may lead to changes in vegetation,
(2) desiccation and salinization of soils, (3) free-ranging livestock and
feral mammals, (4) damage to sabal and royal palms, (5) hunting of threatened
species, (6) uncontrolled tourism, and (7) limitations on human resources for
conservation (for example, public education, staff training, and funds).
Four core areas—Zapata Swamp National Park, the Zapata Cave-Lake System
(Sistema Espeleolacustre de Zapata), and Bermeja and Los Sábalos Wildlife
Refuges—protect 434,546 hectares. These protected areas are entrusted to
four agencies: the National Center for Protected Areas (Centro Nacional de
Áreas Protegidas) through the Estación de la Ciénaga de Zapata; the Ministry of
Science, Technology, and the Environment of Zapata Swamp (Ministerio de Ciencia,
Tecnología, y Medio Ambiente de Ciénaga de Zapata); and the Protected Areas Unit
of Matanzas Province’s Municipal Agricultural Agency (Unidad de Áreas Protegidas
de la Empresa Municipal Agropecuaria). Zapata Swamp also is a UNESCO Man
and the Biosphere Reserve and a Ramsar site (an internationally important
wetland). Most of the protected land, however, lies in the swamp itself; forests
remain vulnerable to unmanaged human use.
Principal recommendations for protection and management
Discussions with staff from the above agencies have led to the following
- 01 Increase the effectiveness of the Biosphere Reserve as a management
unit by expanding the intensity and extent of conservation action to the entire
Zapata Peninsula. Focus initial efforts on strengthening protection and
management outside the national park.
- 02 Zone the entire peninsula for appropriate land uses. Zoning will decrease
pressures on ecosystems throughout the peninsula and will facilitate
management, even outside formally protected areas.
- 03 Manage the local extraction of wood, especially in the forests at Bermeja,
so that the ecosystem can tolerate subsistence use. Develop alternative fuel
sources. Intensify efforts to restore degraded forests.
- 04 Control invasive species, focusing on species that cause significant
- 05 Reduce or eliminate hunting of species overharvested for commercial trade.
Introduce management of species harvested for subsistence.
- 06 Experiment with the management of fire frequency in marshes, swamps,
- 07 Evaluate the threats from pollution, channelization, and drainage to Zapata’s
wetlands. Develop protocols to monitor and manage these potential threats.
- 08 Strengthen local capacity for conservation through public education, local
and regional management plans, regulation of tourism, agency collaboration,
and an infusion of resources for conservation staff.
- 09 Develop long-term financial resources to support the protection and
management of the entire peninsula.
Long-term conservation benefits
- 01 A globally outstanding conservation area that includes (1) one of the world’s
largest and most nearly intact marsh ecosystems; (2) the largest remaining
expanse of lowland forest in Cuba, if not in the Caribbean; and (3) the largest
cave-lake system in Cuba.
- 02 Protection for significant populations of more than 80% of Cuba’s
endemic birds, as well as habitat for endemic amphibians, reptiles, mammals,
- 03 Natural resources--wood, food (including marine nurseries), and water--
on which local human communities depend.