Thursday, March 27, 2008

Haiti's Desperate Wildlife

I temporarily break my self-imposed silence (which I am extending to April 10th, when my thesis final draft is due, by the way) to share some conservation stories relating to my honor's thesis. I am working on the phylogeography of endemic Hispaniolan birds, in part to identify unique evolutionary populations to support critical conservation work on the island. I gave a brief overview of my work in a five-part series here.

The conservation situation on the Haitian side of Hispaniola is so desperate, writing my thesis has been very depressing. Haiti's forest cover has been reduced to approximately 1%. The only remaining primary habitat is restricted to two forest reserves, which suffer from illegal logging, squatting, and farming. To illustrate the extant of deforestation in Haiti, one needs only look at this image of the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I don't think you need me to draw in the border:

(Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, used here)

There are over 30 endemic species of birds on Hispaniola, and many endemic subspecies. The numbers with other taxa I am not familiar with, but Hispaniola is definitely a center of endemism for just about everything from frogs to butterflies to orchids and just about everything else. The above image I found in this Seed article, In defense of development. The title may seem off-putting, but the author makes the very important point that the root of this environmental destruction is a direct result of Haiti being the poorest, most densely populated and politically unstable country in the western Hemisphere. No conservation efforts can succeed without addressing the social issues plaguing Haiti as well.

One of the main areas remaining in Haiti is the Macaya Biosphere Reserve, protecting highland habitat in the Massif de la Hotte at the end of the southwestern peninsula in Haiti. This is a center of endemism within Hispaniola, likely due to its isolation from the mainland by high seas in the past several million years, and includes one of the species I work on, the Gray-crowned Palm-Tanager. In my research for my thesis I uncovered some blog posts on another Hispaniola endemic in the Macaya Reserve, an incredibly unique mammal called the Solenodon. You can read about a group called EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct, Globally Endangered) as they examine the current status and conservation of the Solenodon in Haiti.

Finally, please give these three first-hand accounts from my own team a read. First, a shorter article from my advisor Andrea Townsend on her expedition to the Massif de la Hotte. What happens at the reserve after she left is eye-opening. Second, Jason Townsend's illustrated account of our group's work in The Living Bird. And third, a report from Chris Rimmer. I haven't been to Hispaniola myself, but the overwhelming feeling from these reports is that time is simply running out for Hispaniolan endemics. We need to act now save them.


  1. This is all such a great reason for taking a break! Thanks for sharing this with us and I completely agree with you on this!

  2. Thanks.

    I only wish I could tell you what to do to help.

  3. the unfortunate think is that Haiti is not the only place that forests are being destroyed. I is occuring in many places in Latin and South America and Africa and S.E. Asian and need I go on? The question is how can it be stopped so that it does not hurt the resident population?

  4. Rick:

    Good comments. Environmental destruction is occurring around the world, I'm just trying to highlight one desperate case. There are literally only two small patches of habitat left, and they are rapidly being depleted by illegal logging and farming. I would have no qualms about slamming the doors on those two reserves and kicking out the squatters. It is the only option left to protect Haiti's wildlife, because there is absolutely no other habitat for them to turn to! However, such an approach in the long run and in other situations is not the answer. I highly agree with the Seed article linked above, the true conservation solutions only come through addressing the economic and social burdens of the resident people. Protecting land is just the first step.

    ~ Nick

  5. Thanks for highlighting this issue, good luck with your studies. Its shocking to see the extent of environmental degradation

  6. hola tu sabes como se vio afectado la biodiversidad en haiti gracias....

  7. Hi there Nick - it sounds like the work you are doing is right up my alley. What University are you working with and you do you know if any of these projects are still ongoing? I'm interested in starting a PhD.

    Thanks - Melissa

  8. Melissa - are you referring to conservation work or phylogeography? What is your background in biology?