KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
As relations between the U.S. and Cuba thaw, the island could get a wave of tourists. They'll go for the beaches and the cabarets, but they also might find a lost world of wildlife. It's a world with hundreds of plants and animals that live nowhere else. It's also a vital stop-over for birds migrating from North America. As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, biologists are eager to explore and protect green Cuba.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: One of the things that makes Cuba unique is the sound of its music, the syncopated rhythm of the changui, for example. There's no other music quite like it. There are other sounds though, that are uniquely Cuban and rarely ever heard. For example, the song of the yellow-browed woodpecker called Fernandina's Flicker.
EDUARDO INIGO-ELIAS: A native, an endemic of the savannas of Cuba who are rapidly disappearing.
JOYCE: Eduardo Inigo-Elias is an ornithologist with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology New York. Here's another of his favorite crooners, the Cuban vireo, a green songbird with a big voice.
JOYCE: Inigo-Elias says Cuba has about 750 species of birds and one quarter are found nowhere else on Earth. But the native birds are only half the story. There are also the North American birds that visit the island every year, from backyard warblers to big raptors like the osprey. As Cornell lab ornithologist Greg Budney explains, they need Cuba to survive.
GREG BUDNEY: There are literally millions of birds, migratory birds, that are making use of Cuba as a stopping point as they cross the Caribbean.
JOYCE: They rest and regroup. They eat. And that's why biologists want to know more about the state of Cuba's environment.
INIGO-ELIAS: We have a gap in Cuba. We have a gap in the Caribbean that is huge. And for us it's so important as a scientist to know where these birds are. What are the survival rates in the environment in Cuba? What are the trends that are occurring there?
JOYCE: But it's been hard to find out. Not many U.S. researchers have gone. Inigo-Elias and Budney are among a few that have. Even when they get there, it's tough doing fieldwork. Cuban scientists welcome them, but...
INIGO-ELIAS: They don't have money to buy gas, to be able to move or they don't have the trucks to go to the field.
JOYCE: And Americans wandering around Cuba can arouse suspicion. Budney recalls a nighttime trip to spot a rare bird in a forest, unfortunately in an area where authorities suspected an impending drug drop by narco-traffickers.
BUDNEY: So they were patrolling the highway looking for suspicious characters, and there we were, shining a 2 million candlepower lamp through the southern coast of Cuba.
JOYCE: A midnight phone call to the minister of environment ensued. The team was briefly detained, then authorities realized they were just lost birders. But there could be a lot more American scientists wondering in Cuban forests soon. Doug Rader is a marine biologist with the Environmental Defense Fund who's been to Cuba over 30 times. He says he's getting a lot of phone calls from U.S. colleagues lately.
DOUG RADER: The normalizing of relationships will unleash a tide of scientists champing at the bit to get back in.
JOYCE: And they're not just birders by any means. Cuba has got it all - unique plants, amphibians, reptiles. The Cuban archipelago is also a nursery for fish, like snapper and giant grouper. They spawn in Cuba's numerous coral reefs. One reason for all the diversity is that it's the biggest island in the Caribbean. It's got lots of room and lots of different habitats, which is a recipe for the evolution of lots of species. And economic sanctions by the U.S. slowed development that otherwise might have mowed down forests and mangroves. The result - a biological treasure trove.
RADER: There are peaks that are more than 6,000 feet high, plunging deeply into the sea that goes 20,000 feet deep. There are cloud forests that house an incredible array of painted snails and lizards and birds.
JOYCE: Scientists who know Cuba say the government does have strong environmental laws. It's already protected lots of forests and coastal zones. But newly opened doors to the U.S. could mean more pressure to create wealth - golf courses, hotels, highways, and the lush greenhouse that is Cuba's wilderness hangs in the balance. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: An earlier Web version of this story suggested that Cuba is home to 750 species of birds. That number should have been 371. Also, the accompanying radio story mislabels one bird song. The call in the story was not from a Cuban Vireo but instead from a Cuban Solitaire. You can hear the Cuban Vireo here.]
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