Savanna on a Caribbean island Ranch: The Cuban government is promoting the country's environmental treasures -- even non-native ones -- and scientists are concerned about the impact.

Sun Journal

August 19, 1998|By Brian Simpson | Brian Simpson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ARTEMISA, Cuba -- Pablo Sanchez Guzman, clad in a tawny orange oilskin jacket, jeans and black cowboy hat, leads a small group of visitors on horseback down a red clay road. A steamy fog rises from the forest floor and hazes the tangle of tree limbs, bushes and vines.

The visitors have traveled to Rancho Azucarero to experience Africa without going there. They come to this state-owned, horse-breeding ranch to see zebras, gnus and antelopes running free across the savanna. They are on safari -- Cuban style.

Sanchez raises his right arm and calls out, "Antilopes!" Fifty yards away, a few dozen antelopes scatter, their white bellies flickering as they disappear into the brush.

While the Cuban government is wooing tourists to this strange mix of African savanna and Cuban socialism, scientists here and in the United States are more concerned about the environmental impact caused by non-native animals on this Caribbean island.

Since Soviet subsidies were cut in the early 1990s, the Cuban government has turned to tourism to power its stalled economy. Last year, 1.2 million tourists visited the country, according to the Cuban tourism ministry, and 2 million visitors are projected for the year 2000.

Seeking to augment the traditional beach and city tourism, the Cuban government is promoting the country's environmental treasures -- even those not native to Cuba. Through word of mouth or travel-agency tip, Rancho Azucarero, a 40-mile drive from Havana, has drawn visitors ranging from Spaniards and embargo-breaking Americans to the North Korean ambassador.

On a recent afternoon, Ana Rosa Garcia, the 32-year-old environmental specialist who manages tourism at the ranch, sits at a plastic table on the third floor of a concrete building that overlooks a mile-long racetrack. A trophy-mounted antelope head stares out from a yellow wall, its pearly eyes made from plastic balls taken from roll-on deodorants.

The building, with fading paint and nonflushing toilets, needs renovating. "We need investment to make the building nicer," Garcia says. Discussions are under way with U.S. investors about developing a soccer field and a motel on the ranch.

Just how Rancho Azucarero became a place where the gnus and the antelope roam is another chapter in Cuba's dramatic modern history. After the 1959 revolution, the state seized several privately owned ranches in the area and consolidated them into the 3,400-acre Rancho Azucarero, which is overseen by the state's Enterprise for Flora and Fauna.

One of the original ranches bred English horses. The state has continued that business, and sells horses that fetch a minimum of $80,000 each.

In the 1970s, the government decided to import exotic animals from politically friendly countries in Africa. "They wanted to protect not only the flora and fauna that were here," Garcia says, "but also the flora and fauna that could live here."

The imported antelope and deer adapted particularly well to the new environment. More than 1,000 antelopes and 200 deer roam the ranch, as well as two gnus and three zebras, but no elephants or giraffes.

"Before, the idea was to use the farm for conservation and breeding because the countryside here had the environment to support this," Garcia says. "About three and a half years ago, tourism began. Rancho Azucarero is very tranquil and safe. The tourists really like this place. They feel the tranquillity."

One tourist who signed the visitor book on Christmas Day 1997 was Kim Kil Hwan, the North Korean ambassador to Cuba, but tranquillity, apparently, was not his experience. In the visitors' book he wrote: "We wish you great successes in your fight for the defense of the flag of socialism, frustrated by maneuvers of the blockade of the North American imperialism. We are firmly united around comrade Fidel Castro, commander and chief of the Cuban people!"

The message was written upside down.

Not everyone is inspired to socialist solidarity by the ranch.

"Not all of us are in accord with this idea," says Daysi Vilamajo, chief of the Landscape Ecology Department at Cuba's National Center for Biodiversity. "We don't know the impact of these animals on our environment. We don't know what the repercussions will be. The good thing is that it is finished and they won't continue to import animals."

Miguel Vales Garcia, director of the biodiversity center, notes that the National Center for Biological Security, created in 1995, prohibits the import of plants and animals until it certifies that their introduction would not cause a problem to the environment.

"It would not be possible now to bring African animals here because of the national center," Vales says, adding that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) would prohibit the import of the animals as well.

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