Natural Cuba

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Western knight anole © Alfonso Silva Lee

Crocs and Cuckoos in the Culture


Continental countries—except anomalous Australia, which is an isolated continent and of a single government—only rarely have plants or animals that are unique. They normally also occur in bordering territories. France, for example, shares a great number of its plants and critters with Spain, Italy and Germany; those of Tanzania are common to the ones living in Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique. As a consequence, the biological personalities of those countries are somewhat or much diluted.

In most continental lands there are at least a few large animals: deer, bears, rhinoceros, eagles, condors, monkeys or tapirs. It is obvious that these creatures—which have their bodies covered with hair or feathers, and are warm-blooded like us—would receive a great amount of human attention. Their size is comparable or larger than ours, and their abilities, which are readily observable with our senses, are admired, feared or envied.

Most of these animals are also appreciated for some practical purpose. We consume their edible parts and turn their skin into leather; we give a decorative or ritual use to their feathers, teeth or antlers; and we consider that parts of their bodies have medicinal of aphrodisiacal properties. It is not surprising, then, that since time immemorial different peoples around the world have woven scores of myths and legends around these larger animals. They are all charisma.

In Cuba’s terrestrial fauna, however, as in the neighboring Antillean islands, there are today no native animals worthy of roasting, milking, or shearing, nor capable of pulling a plow or carrying people on their backs. None possess virtues of special sensory impact, or of transcendent economic benefit. Not a single bird is entirely red, yellow or blue; not one mammal has humanoid anatomy, the strength of a lion, or the swiftness of a cat. The largest among the indigenous terrestrial mammals are a few species of hutias, all of them brownish, nocturnal, and with the looks of an oversized and overfed rat. Among the birds that inhabit our mountains and sabanas, the largest are some hawks and cuckoos, most of which are brown and rather smallish.

Cuban boa © Alfonso Silva Lee

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