OFFICIAL VOICE OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CUBA CENTRAL COMMITTEE
The Imperial Amazon parrot, or Sisserou, Dominica's national bird. Photo: Sergio Gómez

Human beings are not the only victims of natural disasters. Amidst the damage caused by Hurricane Maria, that changed Dominica's landscape forever, a group of specialists are focused on recovering the island's greatest treasure: its rich biodiversity.

"According to assessments we have conducted thus far, we can say that all of the country's biodiversity has been impacted, both the forests and wildlife," an expert with the country's Forestry Division, Steven Durán, told Granma.

Durán is in charge of research and monitoring of the nation's natural preserves, which attract hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, as well as educating Dominica's 72,000 residents about environmental protection.

Gusts of wind up to 300 kilometers an hour stripped entire forests, leaving trunks bare, as dry as if they had been sprayed with herbicide. The color green disappeared from the island.

While damage is widespread, Durán is most concerned about two species of endemic parrots: the Red-necked Amazon (Amazona arausiaca) and the Imperial Amazon (Amazona imperialis), also known as thesisserou.

Thesisserou, Dominica's national bird, is represented by a red circle on the country's flag, that also features the colors white, yellow, black, and green.

Since the hurricane, red neck parrots have been sighted outside of their usual natural habitat, even in areas close to cities. Normally, these birds live in mountain forests at 500 meters above sea level.

Hurricane Maria's winds stripped entire forests, leaving bare trunks. Photo: Sergio Gómez

"The birds are changing their habits because of the hurricane. Their habitat was totally destroyed and there is no food," states Francisco Maffei, who works in Flora and Fauna Protection and Conservation at Dominica's Ministry of Agriculture.

One of the main threats to the endangered species is poaching, although, over the past few years educational efforts with the population have produced greater understanding of the need to preserve this endemic species, explains Maffei, who was trained in the Cuban province of Pinar del Río.

The situation of the imperial parrot is of even greater concern. Not a single one has been spotted in the wild since the hurricane.

"There is hope, and we believe that some specimens could have survived," Durán states, "but everything indicates that the majority died, given the devastation."

Something similar occurred in 1979, when Hurricane David, also a category 5 storm, struck the island. The populations of both parrot species were reduced to around 200 birds, but Maria was even stronger, the specialist noted.

Dominica has a Parrot Conservation Research Center, located within the Botanical Garden, in the capital city of Roseau.

Edmond Mackentire works directly with the birds. Every morning, he takes them food, changes their water, and passes some time with them, saying, "The human contact calms them."

Before the hurricane, about a dozen parrots were kept at the Center. After the disaster, another seven were brought to the aviary in very poor condition. One died and another lost a wing.

It may be that these few individuals will be responsible for repopulating the entire island with the national bird, if Mother Nature cannot do so on its own.

REBUILDING THE GARDEN

The Roseau Botanical Garden represents a small scale example of the devastation across the island.

Trees over 30 meters high were uprooted. Greenhouses for seedlings were blown away by the wind. The bullfrog hatchery was left inaccessible, and no one has been able to determine in what condition the animals are.

Construction of the Botanical Garden began in the 19th century, when the island was a British colony. It went on to become one of the most complete and elegant in the Caribbean.

Hurricane David, however, toppled centuries-old trees shortly after the country obtained its independence. Local authorities took on its reconstruction.

Heinson Paul has worked at the garden for more than 40 years, and clearly recalls the damage caused by David.

"At that time, we had much bigger and more ancient trees," he stated, "Maria came upon much younger forests."

The park's more than 70 hectares are planted with species endemic to the Caribbean, many of them very valuable economically. The majority of trees were lost during the storm and the rest left with extensive damage to their branches and foliage.

Paul believes that one or two years will be enough for the island's customary green to reappear within the park and the country's forests, but a full recuperation will take decades.

CUBAN HELP

As part of the aid Cuba has provided Dominica in the wake of Hurricane Maria, a ship arrived mid-October with a donation of 300 tons of much needed items, two brigades of linemen, a group of young diplomats, and ten forestry workers.

"The forestry brigade includes nine chainsaw operators and a team leader," reported Osiris Martínez Oropesa, group coordinator and specialist for the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture's Agro-forestry section.

The first task of the Cuban specialists is cleaning up the Roseau Botanical Garden. They are also expected to work in some of Dominica's most important forest preserves, of great ecological and economic value to the country.

"These are the areas in which the government has requested help, to start with," Martínez said, "The damage is great and widespread. In addition to time, the recovery of plant life requires significant human and material resources."

The forestry workers come from enterprises in La Palma and Macurije, in the province of Pinar del Río, and have experience with damage caused by powerful hurricanes.

Chainsaw operator René Ravelo Delgado stated that the destruction Maria caused in Dominica is even greater than what he saw in Pinar, in the wake of Hurricanes Ike and Gustav, in 2008.

His work now consists of cutting up fallen trees and clearing roads, with the goal of making tourist visits to areas of ecological interest possible.

"The short term priority is cleaning up the natural preserves as soon as possible," Durán said, "In the long run, other, more ambitious efforts will be needed."

He went on to note that international collaboration will be key to recuperating the island's biodiversity, "Although we know it will never be the same."

In the Botanical Garden, where the Cubans are working, Hurricane David toppled a baobab tree, which had been named Goliath. It fell onto a school bus that was crushed like a can of soda. Authorities have preserved the scene just as it occurred, so that visitors can imagine the scope of the 1979 disaster.

The baobab is venerated by many African peoples, who arriving in the Americas identified it with the kapok. From the roots of the fallen tree, decades ago, a new trunk sprouted, which withstood the winds of Maria, like a living monument to the capacity of this Caribbean island to rise again and again in the face of nature's blows.