Ceinaga de Zapata, or Zapata Swamp is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve on the tentative list for World Heritage status, located on the southern coast of Cuba. It measures over 6,000 square kilometers and is the largest protected area in the Caribbean. It boasts world renowned bird watching and fishing opportunities, and is relatively easily accessible from Havana and the resort locations along Varadero. The eastern edge of the swamp borders the Bay of Pigs, home to many unique dive and snorkel sites, including caves, cenotes (sinkholes) and sunken American landing ships from the ill-fated 1961 invasion. The notoriety of this location coupled with ease of access will surely result in a tourism boom as the embargo with the United States is systematically lifted. Management of this park involves a constant effort from multiple government agencies to restrict tourist access to sensitive areas, protect and repopulate the habitats of endangered endemic species, and combat invasive species spreading across the swamp and its borders.
Cienaga de Zapata uses a unique and locally initiated plan to control visitor access to the park. First, anyone entering Zapata must be accompanied by a guide hired within the management offices. If there are no guides available at any given time, no one else may enter the park. Additionally, the entire region is divided into smaller areas of regulation. Each of these areas is designated with a strict maximum number of visitors per day, per activity. For example, certain trails may allow a maximum of a dozen birdwatchers per day, and the shallows around Salinas are separated into sections that allow only a handful of fishermen to access large areas over the course of a day. These numbers are currently kept by the park management offices, and shared with Cuban tourism agencies, which are tasked with enforcing the limits and not overbooking trips to each area. This is an extremely ambitious plan that would certainly limit the damage caused by visitors and over-trafficking in popular areas of Zapata, but may require massive amounts of resources dedicated to enforcement. It also may anger tourists who arrive in large groups, or who think that they can plan a day-trip on arrival to the park. More information regarding the per-day visitation limits and booking procedures will be made available here as it is released by park officials, in the meantime visitors can contact Cubanacan with additional questions.
Cienaga de Zapata is a unique and massive habitat for a variety of migratory and local species of birds, reptiles, fish, and mammals, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth. Environmental degradation and habitat loss, combined with an relatively small original population size and range, have led to many of these animals being placed on various endangered species lists. These include the world's smallest bird, the Bee Hummingbird, the Cuban Crocodile and West Indian Manatee, as well as the Cuban Hutia, Zapata Rail, Wren, and Sparrow, and the prehistoric "living fossil" Cuban Gar. Each of these species and more have designated protected areas, reintroduction centers, and study zones scattered throughout Zapata.
Manatees are defended in the western portions of the park, where it is too expensive and remote for local fishermen to access. This spares them the propeller encounters that have reduced populations so significantly in other parts of the country and world. The gar has a breeding center and protection facility in the northern portion of the park, which works to maintain populations of the fish despite habitat loss to aggressive catfish. The most infamous and visited facility by far though is the Cuban Crocodile Farm, which tourists will pass on their way to Playa Larga. This facility is just that, a farm, as 90% of the animals raised here are bred for food and leather. The remaining crocodiles are reintroduced to the wild, to join native populations spread throughout the swamp. The crocodile farm has received scrutiny lately due to questionable conditions and breeding oversight. For example, there are currently no procedures in place to limit inbreeding within the limited population size of the farm. This concern has been outweighed by the fear of Cuban Crocodiles being bred out of existence by American Crocodiles encroaching on their habitat from the western reaches of Zapata. Resources and personnel are spread thin trying to maintain the multitude of unique and irreplaceable species within the park, and would benefit greatly from a cooperation with Universities and environmental organizations within the US, which have successfully worked with the protection and rehabilitation of similar species.
Officials at Zapata Swamp are currently combating three main invasive species: Lionfish, Catfish, and Melaleuca Trees. Lionfish are a warm ocean reef fish currently wreaking havoc in the Caribbean. They originate in the Indo-Pacific and have very few predators in the Atlantic. This has allowed them to spread unchecked, and decimate native fish populations. The spread of lionfish has reached the Bay of Pigs on the border of Cienaga de Zapata, and have become an environmental risk for biodiversity in the Bay. Park officials have organized local groups of fishermen to hunt and eradicate them, and to-date have managed to significantly reduce sightings by divers in the area, reportedly down from dozens of sightings in a single dive to only a handful. This effort would benefit greatly from resources, technology, and information currently being used in the United States by organizations such as REEF to control the populations of these fish along the coast of Florida.
Catfish have managed to infiltrate the swamps of Zapata and their voracious appetites are currently depleting native populations of fish and reptiles at an alarming rate. Local officials have again organized large volunteer groups of fishermen from surrounding villages to pull these fish out of the swamp, but the task is an overwhelming one. So far they have managed to reduce the overall size of the catfish being captured and surveyed, but they continue to spread throughout the massive network of waterways in the area. Park management has developed a more aggressive program of sectioning off defensible areas of the park, eradicating the fish, reintroducing native species, then preventing catfish from reentering the area. This method has allowed them to create catfish-free spawning grounds for native species to use safely, but it is a slow and resource-intensive process of management. This region would benefit greatly from a partnership with NOAA, currently working to reduce the effects of a catfish invasion in the waters surrounding the Chesapeake Bay.
Melaleuca trees, native to Australia, are possibly the biggest threat to the future of Zapata Swamp, since the endgame for the spread of this particular species would see the region lose the classification and characteristics of a swamp entirely. This tree uses massive amounts of water, to the extent that it has been used to intentionally dry out swampland to make areas suitable for building or logging, and wherever it has spread through the park the habitat is no longer suitable for native species. It was brought to the region intentionally and illegally as an ornamental, and has since spread completely out of control. To make matters worse, stands of these trees are extremely flammable, and their proximity to local villages can be hazardous. Park officials are desperately trying to keep the spread of this plant contained, but they are notoriously aggressive and difficult to eradicate. This is possibly the task with which the region could use the most outside assistance and resources as the large-scale industrial tools necessary for clear-cutting and logging are very difficult to come by in Cuba. The US and Australia are currently working on a plan to destroy melaleuca trees using a type of weevil that keeps them under control in their native habitat.
*Content provided by Richard Cobban, photographs provided by Richard Cobban, Santino Defendis, Doug Lytle, Michael DeGaetano, and Brian Krawczyk