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A fishing boat and a handful of newborns. Photographs by Roberto Soberón.

by Margaret Simpson Maurin-Stunkard, ’60, Ph.D. ’68

On the far side of the Jobabo River, the March sun surges over the mangrove stands.

Gone are the pelicans swooping through the silent dawn, the egrets tiptoeing across rosy tidal ponds, the white ibis probing delicately with its long curved beak.

Down by the dock, where the river thrusts into the bay, the little boat is being loaded for the morning run to the crocodile nesting beaches: probes for detecting the underground nests, calipers, spring scales of varying sizes, measuring tape for calculating the distance of the nests from and above the highest tide line, salinity gauge—and the inevitable thermos of steaming, aromatic, slightly-sweetened Cuban coffee.

We are the first Earthwatch team to join this long-running research project aimed at every particular of the American crocodile. Two days earlier we had left Havana—that old dowager of a city, worn and crumpled in spots, but still achingly lovely—on the 14-hour overnight trek by van, truck and boat to this tiny outpost in the Birama mangrove swamp, part of the Monte Cabaniguán Wildlife Refuge. Stretched along the southeastern coast of Cuba, the swamp is part of a vast estuary, a web of rivers and tidal creeks, marshes and coastal lagoons that converge, merge and part like the threads of an immense and intricate tapestry. Here, over the next couple of weeks, we will devote our manpower (and I my womanpower: there are 14 guys and me, alone on this spit of beach) to helping decipher the secrets of the American crocodile.

Biologically and behaviorally, crocodiles are more closely related to birds than to lizards: they share a heart and outer ear canal that are similarly structured, as well as a muscular gizzard; both build nests and tend to their young. Two indigenous species inhabit this isle. The American crocodile (crocodylus acutus) is of a temperate disposition and—though protected since 1959—remains exceedingly wary of humans. The Cuban crocodile, on the other hand, who lurks in the great Ciénaga de Zapata and a few other areas, is fearsomely aggressive and strikes without provocation. Blessedly, we will not be running into—or from—those quarrelsome creatures, although they, too, are the objects of our researchers’ affection.

In 1969, Fidel Castro established a conservation program that has placed more than 39 million acres—13.6 percent of the island—under protection. The MCWR is open only to researchers and the local fishermen who supply the station with fresh water, ice and fish, while keeping an eye out for miscreants. Our hosts have had to request a special dispensation for us to work here. We are privileged in every respect.

Our weather-bitten little craft, an old rescue boat itself in need of assistance, coughs and sputters as we head across the bay to the more proximate of the nesting beaches. The Cubans joke, tease and laugh; I have rarely encountered such a cheerful, warm, good-natured people. The thermos of coffee appears and a finger’s worth is poured into each small cup. Binoculars glued to our eyes, we search for the telltale protuberances—jutting eyes and the tip of a snout—that give away the females lolling in the shimmering waters off the coast. They are waiting for dark, when they will heave their great bodies up through the mangroves to the strip of sand where, as their forebears have for millions of years, they each will excavate a nest and drop a clutch of eggs. We follow their tracks and the hollowed path in the grasses left by their passage. With only five exiguous nesting beaches to serve a growing population, competition is severe, and choice areas are so crowded that many nests are lost as dominant females chase away younger or smaller ones. We find eggs strewn about, unintentionally unearthed by a female excavating her own nest too close to a neighbor’s.

The staff has set about searching for nests. The noon hour is ripe and full, only the steady swish-swish of the probes scratching the silence as they plumb the sandy soil. Resistance indicates the sand hasn’t been disturbed: when the probe slips in, the tip is inspected for signs that it has penetrated an egg, and if so, the nest is staked and perhaps opened, in which case the top of each egg is carefully marked, to be replaced in the same position. A sample of six is measured, weighed and inspected for age. The presence of mucus indicates they were laid last night: a dark band partially spanning the egg signifies it is 3-5 days old, and when the circle is complete, a full week has elapsed. On occasion a dull red smudge marks the death of an embryo. As we store our instruments, a half dozen pairs of eyes offshore observe our movements, awaiting the hour when they will lumber ashore. The females that have already laid return every night to tend the nest.


A tidal creek flanked by mangroves. Photo by Roberto Soberón.

Start of project

The western sky takes on the hue of apricots as a teenage iguana nibbles on a slice of banana. Fingers wrapped around cool cans of beer, we are gathered on the verandah with Roberto Soberón, one of two Cuban principal investigators (PI) who work with the Department of Flora y Fauna. Quiet and modest in manner, with a Clintonesque ability to make his interlocutor feel that no one else exists at that moment, Roberto never ceases to amaze us with the breadth and depth of his knowledge. Endowed with a prodigious memory and endlessly curious, he can discourse exhaustively on any subject we broach, from the Greeks to existentialism (“We studied world literature for two years in school—we had a lot of homework!”), music of all genres and periods, astronomy, art.

“What opened my eyes to the importance of conservation,” he says, “was reading Silent Spring as a teenager. I enjoyed nature, but the book made me realize I had a responsibility; conservation became my mission.” His command of the language is flawless. His first job in Flora y Fauna was to help draw up management plans for the protected areas.

“In 1987 we started to study crocodile reproduction. We began with a number of questions: ‘How large was the population, and what was its structure in terms of age and sex? Where were they nesting and what factors influenced nest success or failure? What was their diet and were there seasonal variations? How did they influence other populations, like nesting birds and iguanas?’ This was a big natural lab. Our purpose was to gather all of the information needed to design a long-term management program for the conservation of this endangered species. We are zeroing in on the answers to most of these questions. We know that nesting areas are dynamic in response to climatic factors. We know why some nests hatch and some don’t. But we still have a lot to learn.”


Roberto Soberón counts a clutch of eggs. Photo by Margaret Maurin.

Ancient nesting beach

At lunchtime, amid fragrant bowls of black beans and rice, we learn that we will be heading up the river to La Jijira, named for its eponymous spiny, spiky cactus—an ancient upland nesting beach still in vogue among the females, although almost none of the eggs now hatch. Shortly after four, we are thrumming against the tide. Herons and egrets, roused by the raucous sputter of the motor, crisscross ahead, wings a-glimmer, as a large iguana hunches on a mangrove branch.

Presently, we draw up along the bank, where a narrow, shallow channel snakes into the mangroves. A persistent drought, along with other mysterious factors, has lowered the water level significantly throughout the coastal area. Switching to the leaner, flat-bottomed board, we are poled a short distance to the spot where we disembark. As we step out and promptly sink in to our ankles, we are assailed by the pungent scent of decay. This is the forest primeval—dense, dank, more ancient by far than the crocodilians they shelter today. At each step, I have to plunge my hands into the mire to grab the strap of my Tevas, at risk of being sucked into this hungry maw.

Suddenly we emerge into the light, onto an upland plateau of golden grasses, white mangroves, buttonwood and spindly cactus, an ecological marvel only steps removed from the gloomy world of the swamp. This area has risen and fallen and risen again over the decades, and as a nesting site, its fate has followed suit, the periodic flooding of the river depositing layer upon layer of clayey soil that—unbeknownst to the mother crocs—causes their nests to drown when the rains sweep in. The vast lagoon is largely dry, its bed coated with a salty, rust-colored crust. We find and mark a number of nests, and as the sun plunges behind the trees, begin our descent into the underworld.

Along the channel where the boat awaits us, the water has sunk further, exposing an area we will have to cross. One step, then another, and suddenly I am being sucked in…ankle, mid-calf…as I shift my weight, desperately trying to extricate one leg after the other. I sink in deeper. Now, mired almost to my knees, I no longer have the strength to extract either leg. Behind me, Jack is sinking even faster. We are doomed….


A nesting beach. Photo by Roberto Soberón.

“Do you need help?” Dave, from Earthwatch, is perched on the pneumatophores, the spiky breathing tubes of the black mangroves. I vaguely remember hauling out my front leg by grasping a tree, then Dave disinterring my other limb, and I am hustled down to the boat where Malcolm, another volunteer, waits.

With superhuman effort, Camilo and Jorge, two young staff members, pole us through the ooze to the vessel anchored in the river. How will they ferry everyone out with the waters still falling? Malcolm and I wait. Ten, 20 minutes trickle by. Night seeps through the trees…the entrance to the passage slips into the shadows…30 minutes, the only sound the slap of the river against the hull. What is happening?

At last! A slight motion at the channel entrance as the small boat inches painfully into view: the three volunteers seated on the narrow bench like pashas, and everyone else—the three researchers, rotund Toby the crocodile “master,” Jorge and Camilo—chest-deep in the mire, struggling to maintain their footing as they push and haul the craft through the mud-choked passage towards the lustral waters of the river.

A battered fishing boat docks at our little pier. Manuel (Manolito) Alonso, the other Cuban PI (the third is John Thorbjarnason, from the Wildlife Conservation Society, who came aboard in 2000) saunters out for a chat. A former biology teacher and school principal, Manolito is part Lebanese, sweet-souled, affable, funny, and endlessly knowledgeable about the mores of both crocodiles and iguanas. He spends much of his time in the Reserve, training young people from the nearby village, educating the population, particularly the fishermen, in the importance of conservation. Both he and Roberto, now in their mid-50s, are completing their Ph.D. dissertations.

“When I first began to work here, in the early 1990s, there were very few crocodiles to be seen,” Manolito relates in Spanish. “Recently, I counted more than a hundred youngsters in the lagoon. That was a banner day. Crocodiles are very complex creatures. They are the king of the swamp, the top predator. They are also great engineers, digging galleries, widening the estuaries and lagoons, maintaining the creeks open, and the land healthy. Crocodiles are a keystone species, essential to keeping the bird population healthy and loosening the sand for the iguanas’ nests.”


The author holds a 5-month-old crocodile. Photo by Roberto Soberón.

The singing of the hatchlings

June. Hatching time. The females monitor their nests daily, helping their offspring emerge, ferrying them in their mouths down to the creeks, and remaining with them for several months. But we also have a role to play. Early each morning, we check the nests that were transferred to the biological station with their thermometers. These keep a continuous record of the nest temperature, which has been found to correlate with the sex of the creatures. For us Crocodile-Moms, checking means applying a few smart smacks over the emplacement of the nest, alert to what the Cubans call the “singing” of the hatchlings. If we hear them vocalize, we dig out the sand to find the babies in various stages of deshabille, and like their very own moms, we help them crack the shell and slowly uncoil their tiny bodies. They emerge ready to tackle the world, and their diminutive teeth are razor-sharp, as I discover when my finger intersects a snout. We place them in a pail to recover overnight from the trauma of emerging into the light before putting them through what Manolito calls “the Inquisition”—measuring, weighing, counting scales, tagging, and—the worst—sexing.

My room overlooking the river, with its double bed, lies across from the storage area where the pails of hatchlings repose. One midnight I am roused from sleep by an unaccustomed sound that appears to be emanating from beneath my bed. Iguana? Rat? Snake? But wait…the mystery-creature is singing…it can only be a hatchling—but whence? And how?

The little fellow sang all night of life and love, in its squeaky new-born voice. (More likely it sang of clambering into my bed to wrap some meat around its toothies!) In the morning, a thorough search of the house yielded not a trace. The hatchling had evidently managed to escape from the pail by shinnying up a stick left by mistake within reach. That night it took its place once more under my bed, and sang of hide-and-seek, perhaps.


Hatchlings. Photos by Margaret Maurin.

And then I heard it no more. It left in search of water, and the little pond behind the station was probably where it was headed. Unfortunately, there were no hatchlings in that pond, and no creeks nearby where hatchling sport among the mangrove roots, and no Mom to adopt all comers, only the swift-flowing river, and the daunting bay. But it was a smart, clever, determined and sassy little creature, and I like to think that, despite all the odds arrayed against it (a lonely 7 percent of hatchlings make it to adulthood), it managed to survive.

In memory’s eye I see them still. “Look, Manolito, a black-eyed baby,” I exclaim. “He’s beautiful!”

“He’s blind,” says Manolito. “His pupils don’t contract.”

Toby will take him home, along with other sightless or tailless infants, to be raised in his backyard.

We return to La Jijira to dig up the nests that haven’t hatched, and dispose of the putrid, foul-smelling eggs. Suddenly someone exclaims: a single hatchling has been found alive, buried under the soil among his defunct siblings—a miracle baby.

Manolito has caught three youngsters, all 3-year-old females, and they lie with electric-taped eyes and snout, bound with a cord, on the verandah. Crouching, I run my fingers along the scaled underbelly, smooth and cool, the skin on the legs and feet unexpectedly soft. I can see the pulse throbbing in her neck. Several fishermen stop by to watch the proceedings and chat with us. They have never seen Americans before, and one brings me a gift—a piece of pan dulce.

On a brilliant morning we meander up a tidal creek, into the hinterlands, among increasing numbers of shore birds: sumptuous roseate spoonbills, flocks of flamingoes. stepping with the studied grace of ballet dancers. As we round a bend, a tremendous splash alerts us to the plunge of a female tanning on a sliver of sand. When we reach the lagoon, the Cubans spot a target, and we too leap in as they spread their net. At last, Manolito emerges with a 3-year-old in his arms, tied and taped, and she is immediately processed in the boat. On occasion, after a half-hour or more spent progressively tightening the noose, the ever-wily victim escapes.

November. We glide through the night to snatch some little crocs—this June’s infants— in a nearby creek. Moonlight trickles through the tangled branches of the mangroves as our headlamps pick out two tiny pearls gleaming along the bank. Julio, a former fisherman who now works with the researchers, revs the motor, and snap! a tiny creature hangs wriggling like a four-legged toothy worm, in the grip of the tongs. As we work, we pause to pass around a bottle of fiery, fragrant, Cuban rum.

Tomorrow we will all be gone. The wind off the river has settled; in the pools exposed by the ebbing tide, a little blue heron probes for tidbits, as an emerald lizard shinnies up the verandah pillar, casting a beady eye on me when I stir. Roberto is talking. “Conservation is what gives meaning to my life,” he says. “Human beings cannot live apart from nature, because it provides for their physical and spiritual health. We live on a planet we cannot escape, and if we destroy it we destroy ourselves. The destiny of humanity is linked to the destiny of the planet.” In this sacred place, beyond time and space, we are at one with the eternally flowing waters, with the great cycle of life, death and regeneration to which we are intimately attuned, thanks to the eggs we have nurtured, the hatchlings we have birthed, and the knowledge that will help preserve a key prehistoric species.

We are truly a part of everything and everything is a part of us.

Margaret Simpson Maurin Stunkard ’60, Ph.D. ’68, taught in the Bryn Mawr
French department from1963–1983. Her interest and involvement in Third World issues, particularly as they relate to conservation, stems from a 1988 master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in International Development and Appropriate Technology.

 

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