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Biosphere, Fauna and Flora in Cuba Naturaleza
Cuba Naturaleza Biodiversity

Ciénaga de Zapata, one of the largest wetlands in the Caribbean Islands

Ciénaga de Zapata is one of the largest and best preserved wetlands in the Caribbean Islands, with the largest area of swamps and tidal pools in Cuba and large areas of forest. All the area has been declared a multi-use protected area by Cuban legislation (Executive Committee of the Council of Ministers, January 1995) and as a Biosphere Reserve (UNESCO January 2000). Its core is five strictly protected areas, including a national park. It is recognized as a phytogeographic area because of its unique flora. Among the fauna are a diversity of species of birds, primarily migratory species, and local endemic species, which have a limited distribution within the area. There are 19 communities with a total population of 9390 persons in the wetland. The main economic activity is forestry, tourism and fishing.

The region of Ciénaga de Zapata was discovered by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the West Indies. It is located in Matanzas province, municipalities of Ciénaga de Zapata, Jagüey Grande, Unión de Reyes and Pedro Betancourt, this wetland occupies the entire extreme southern portion of Matanzas province. Its length is 175 kilometres from west to east, between Punta Gorda and Jagua, with a maximum width of 58 kilometres north to south between the town of Torriente and Cayo Miguel. The average width is 14 to 16 kilometres.

Wetland Ciénaga de ZapataWetland Ciénaga de Zapata
North latitude 22° 01’ 12” – 22° 40’ 17”
East longitude 80° 35’ 17” – 82° 09’ 30”
Altitude: 0 to 10 metres above sea level
Area: 452,000 hectares

Ciénaga de Zapata is the largest and most complete karstic drainage system in Cuba, the Cuenca de Zapata. Several hydrological phenomena in this wetland have led to the existence of unique ecosystems, such as the vegetative association of the Ciénaga spring, described for only this wetland and a system of surface drainage characterized by the existence of several rivers, lagoons, swamps, channels and artificial canals of medium to small flow with an important hydrological function.

Its flora is represented by about 1000 species with 13 per cent endemism gathered in 16 vegetative associations. However, its importance for the conservation of genetic and ecological diversity is greater because of the large areas of natural vegetation in good conservation status and because of the heavy forest cover of special importance for the island Caribbean.

The fauna is characterized by a diversity of birds, primarily resident or migratory waterfowl and by the extent of the important local and national endemic species. Endangered species such as the gallinuela de San Tomás (Cyanolimnas cerverai), the Cuban Boa (Epicrates angulifer), the Antillean manatee (Trichechus manatus manatus) and the jutía enana (Mesocapromys nanus), as well as others considered endangered or vulnerable, such as the Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer), the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus), the ferminia (Ferminia cerverai), the cabrito de la ciénaga (Torreornis inexpectata), the Cuban sandhill crane (Grus canadensis nesiotes) and others with their only population or at least important populations in this wetland.

In contrast with the land vertebrates with many species, there are not many species of freshwater vertebrates in the region. Nonetheless, there are larger and more stable populations of one of the most outstanding endemic species in Cuba, the Cuban Gar (Atractosteus tristoechus) (Lepidosteidae), a key species in the ecologic relations of the Cuban wetlands where it is found, considered a living fossil threatened with extinction.

This is the only site in Cuba where the eight genera of endemic birds are found and where 23 of the 26 species of endemic birds to Cuba have been recorded. In addition, there are more than four species of endemic local plants.

This region has been relatively little affected by man given the low degree of economic assimilation of its ecosystems (with the exception of the forest and forest products although not everywhere) and the presence of large areas of mangroves, flooded savannahs and grasslands. This characteristic makes this wetland an important refuge for conservation of biodiversity in Cuba and the Caribbean. A large number of migratory birds (most of them aquatic) from North America spend the winter months here, forming dense and large communities. Occasionally, rare or atypical species to the Caribbean are reported, such as the cisne blanco (Cygnus columbianus).

Cuba Naturaleza Biodiversity

© 2023 Nigel Hunt