What The Potential Risks and Rewards for Cuba? Birds of Re-establishing Ties With The United States Are

Parrot chicks in bra cups, tortoises in parachute pants, and the search for the world? most elusive woodpecker: How U.S. moves to re-open relations with Cuba could affect bird research, conservation and the fight against wildlife trafficking.

Flickr: Havana ?Cuba by Marika Bortolami is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Despite long-standing limits on travel between the two countries, Cuba has long been a source for illegal bird trafficking into the United States. Now that the U.S. has opened 12 pathways for American citizens to visit Cuba, travel between the two nations is expected to increase substantially in the coming years.

The changes announced by President Obama last month will allow Americans traveling under the 12 categories to do so under “general licenses?rather than having to apply for specific permits from the U.S. Department of Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control, which has enforced the trade embargo against Cuba for decades.

Increased opportunities for travel and exchanges could bring about new opportunities for birding tours, as well as research funding and collaboration. Improved diplomatic relations could result in new freedom of movement for American conservationists to bird habitats within Cuba. However, the increase of travelers back and forth between the U.S. and Cuba will also provide new opportunities for wildlife traffickers to smuggle Cuban bird species into the U.S. It may even create a greater market for already coveted Cuban species.

Bird Smuggling From Cuba Is Nothing New
If the past is any indication, a brief history of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) interdictions of bird smuggling from Cuba sketch a picture of what the future might hold.

In December 1999, the Coast Guard stopped a man off the Florida coast and boarded his sailboat, where they found a cage full of birds, seashells and boxes of Cuban cigars. Although the man distracted the officers and released the birds to get rid of the evidence, a FWS agent recovered 21 feathers from the bottom of the cage, which were identified as belonging to Cuban melodious finches (grassquits). Although he was indicted on a number of federal charges, including the Trading with Enemies Act for smuggling the finches, he was sentenced to only 4?months in prison, a year in probation, and forfeiture of his boat.

Increased opportunities for travel and exchanges [in Cuba] could bring about new opportunities for birding tours, as well as research funding and collaboration.

In April 2000 an undercover agent caught a smuggler of Cuban Amazon parrots, an endangered species listed in CITES treaty Appendix I. The smuggler tried to sell the agent two baby Cuban Amazons, and admitted making trips back and forth to Cuba to bring in up to seven parrots at a time, depending on demand.

In 2002, a Cuban national arriving from Havana was stopped by inspectors at Miami International Airport because of “suspicious bulges visible beneath the lower part of his trousers.?Although 44 finches were recovered taped to the man? legs, 12 of the birds had died. In addition to jail time prior to trial, the smuggler was sentenced to six months house arrest.

Inspectors in Miami in 2005 confiscated two cigarette boxes from a passenger arriving from Cuba containing two Cuban finches, a CITES Appendix II bird, and two yellow-faced grassquits. In 2006, agents seized six Cuban grassquits concealed in an attempted smuggler? underwear.

Parrots and other birds are not the only Cuban animals in danger of being trafficked into the United States. In 2008, over three months, nearly 300 sea turtle eggs and about 20 pounds of sea turtle meat were seized from smugglers arriving from Cuba, Panama, and other countries.

According to FWS, international air travelers are a prime conduit for illegally trafficked animals. Some of the incidents involving smuggling by air passengers included the discovery of a suitcase full of live birds from Russia, a woman with a Cuban parrot chick stowed in each bra cup, and a man with 45 red-footed tortoises hidden in his parachute pants!

Cuban Grassquit Male by WarblerLady is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The Possibility Of Meager Penalties Are Insufficient To Deter Would-Be Traffickers
One difficulty seems to be that although the law may provide for harsh penalties, those actually meted out, particularly for first-time offenders, are not usually severe enough to deter future would-be smugglers. One elderly defendant, arrested in Miami International Airport in October 2012, was carrying 16 Cuban bullfinches which, according to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, “were found concealed in pockets sewn into the interior of the pants he was wearing and in a plastic cylinder in a pants pocket.?Although he faced a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison, 3 years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $250,000 and pleaded guilty, the Department of Justice reported the smuggler was sentenced to only two years of probation, 120 days of house arrest and no fine.

In addition to the impact of trafficking on some Cuban endangered and protected species, bird smuggling also poses a potential health risk to U.S. bird and human populations. Smugglers are not only dodging fines and import fees and bringing species that are potentially threatened, they are also ignoring required quarantine periods for exotic animals. According to a statement from the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, “The purpose of the quarantine regulations are, in part, to protect both commercial and wild species of avians in the United States from possible exposure to diseases such as Newcastle? and other maladies against which they would have no natural immunity. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Cuba is considered a high-risk source country for high pathogenic avian influenza and exotic Newcastle? disease.?

New Opportunities For Conservation & The Search For “The Grail Bird?lt;/strong>
Despite posing potential complications for law enforcement efforts to combat wildlife trafficking, the re-opening of relations with Cuba could benefit conservation and research efforts in the country. Cuba is (or perhaps was), for example, the home of the ivory-billed woodpecker, a species so rare it has been called the “The Grail Bird,?which once found in the mountains of Cuba and the southern forests of the United States. Although researchers claim to have documented a single North American ivory bill in Arkansas in 2004, there has not been a confirmed sighting of the Cuban ivory bill since the 1980s.

Cuban and North-American ivory bills were long thought to be the same species or very closely related species, because of their physical resemblance in all but size (the Cuban ivory bill is slightly smaller). However, recent DNA research suggests that they should be considered different species. The imperial woodpecker once found in Mexico, and also thought to be extinct, was also genetically tested in the study. The researchers explained: “Our discovery of three genetically divergent lineages of northern Campephilus that each may be a different species increases the already urgent need for rediscovery and conservation of this critical branch of the woodpecker tree.?

Ornithologists have expressed hope for ivory-bill conservation in Cuba. The results of the DNA study could support these efforts. The researchers described, “Our results will also provide an important DNA barcoding resource that could facilitate the discovery of living ivory-billed and imperial woodpeckers by identification of shed materials, such as feathers and faeces sampled from the wild.?

New Possibilities For Collaboration To Protect Cuba? Biodiversity
As the New York Times has reported, obstacles to collaboration have long frustrated researchers from both countries. The lack of Internet penetration in Cuba, U.S. and state prohibitions on the use of funds for travel to Cuba, U.S. port restrictions on vessels, even research ships, that have been in Cuban waters, all pose challenges to research and conservation efforts. At a meeting in Canc??Mexico in 2007, conservationists, lawyers, and other environmental experts discussed what the future could hold for Cuba? diverse habitats if America relaxed or ended the embargo. One Cuban expert estimated at the time that when the embargo ended, tourism could as much as double in the span of a year.

As the changes announced by President Obama do not amount to an end to the embargo, and only constitute the beginning of a re-opening of relations with Cuba, we can expect that tourism will not increase at quite this astronomical rate. However, policymakers should weave principles of environmental conservation and wildlife trafficking enforcement into the legal and diplomatic framework they develop in the coming years. Conservation-minded travelers can do their part to foster this groundwork by helping to cement a culture of respect for Cuba? stunning biodiversity.

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Birds · Lifestyle