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The world has been fascinated by the Galapagos Islands ever since Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking book on evolutionary theory, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. But the fragile ecosystems of this extraordinarily unique archipelago have been in danger even longer, dating back to the 17th and 18 centuries, when whalers and pirates began depleting the whale and tortoise population.
Fortunately, the Charles Darwin Foundation has been actively working since 1959 to conserve this unique ecological treasure. The privately-funded NGO has helped to save the Galapagos Tortoise, helped create the Galapagos Marine Reserve, eradicated invasive animals that were endangering endemic species, and advised the Ecuadorian government on how to protect Galapagos National Park for future generations.
International Expeditions recently spoke with Charles Darwin Foundation Executive Director Swen Lorenz, covering the history and evolution of the organization, its conservation successes, and the challenges it faces with increased tourism to the islands.
Let's start off talking about the Foundation's background.
The Charles Darwin Foundation is scientific advisor to the Government of Ecuador when it comes to conservation of the Galapagos Islands. Operating the Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz Island, we have 150 scientists working with us to create the knowledge necessary to protect this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
CDF has been holding that role since 1959, with all our work being privately funded through donations. CDF was founded the same year the Galapagos National Park was established. Its founding was the result of a collaboration between the IUCN, UNESCO, the Ecuadorian Government, and a number of individuals.
Can you discuss the Foundation's most important projects?
Among our most successful projects is the breeding of giant tortoises, which started in the 1960s. These animals, which have given Galapagos their name, were on the brink of extinction. Today, the population is at around 50,000 animals and not a single giant tortoise species is facing the risk of extinction. Visitors can see them in large numbers in the wild, just as Charles Darwin did when he arrived in Galapagos.
We researched the baseline data necessary to create the Galapagos Marine Reserve, the world's 4th largest. We have trained more than 2,000 Ecuadorian students. We’ve eradicated invasive species that harmed local biodiversity, which – in the case of the rampant goat population – involved the largest eradication project ever undertaken. And all that is privately funded, without any financial support from the government.
What makes the Galapagos Islands such a unique attraction?
What few people realize is that Galapagos was the first place to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. That says a lot! This is a treasure that needs to be preserved for mankind.
Anyone who has ever visited will understand why it should be kept intact for future generations: You can wander around animals that have no fear of man, who will simply ignore you. Experiencing pristine, untamed nature is an experience most visitors describe as life-changing.
The Galapagos Islands are also a microcosm of the social, political, economic and ecological changes occurring throughout the world. As such they not only teach us about where things have come from, but they can also show us a path into the future.
Striking a balance between the needs of humans and the natural world is particularly important in the Galapagos Islands because of their fragile ecosystems. At the same time, the relatively small, contained nature of the archipelago means that solutions are within our grasp. And these solutions can serve as models for the rest of the world!
There are some critics who suggest that tourism to pristine ecosystems such as the Galapagos is harmful. How would you respond?
The Galapagos Islands do get a fair amount of press, and one common theme is that tourism is hurting the islands. I feel this needs to be put into context. It was the great Sir David Attenborough who said that, without tourism, the Galapagos wouldn't even exist anymore. Tourism provides a powerful incentive to preserve these islands.
Of course there are problems with tourism, and there remain many questions that need to be looked into. Increasing visitor numbers do bring additional challenges.
I would like to see the tourism industry evolve in a way that sees stronger engagement of Galapagos visitors in getting their support for funding conservation solutions. If a larger number of visitors make a contribution to CDF or other entities, we can work to find suitable solutions to the islands' problems. Tourism can be a problem, but it can also be part of the solution.
What restrictions are there to ensure that Galapagos ecotourism is responsibly managed?
There are great regulations in place, such as the system developed by the Galapagos National Park to manage the visitor sites that cruise ships can go to. I salute every tourist who books through the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association and its member comapnies (like IE) as this leads to funding coming our way, which we invest into science for conservation.
There is a real shared responsibility among all players to work together to improve the existing systems further. There is only one Galapagos, and we need to pull together. Our organization’s view is, “Visit, but please visit responsibly.”
Can you talk about the role the Charles Darwin Foundation plays in educating visitors about the Galapagos and responsible wildlife management?
The CDF operates the Charles Darwin Research Station, one of the top visitor sites on the island of Santa Cruz. We’ve been doing a lot to improve the quality of visitor experience there, including creating a trail for visitors to walk around, plenty of interpretation material, and installing a statue of Darwin as a young man.
We also have by far the most often visited social media channel of the Galapagos, which we use to inform and educate the public, both in English and Spanish. Follow us on www.facebook.com/darwinfoundation and www.twitter.com/darwinfound. Further investments along those lines are planned, and we are currently discussing this with the Government of Ecuador.
The CDF has very ambitious plans in the pipeline. I’d like to have the entire world aware of what is being achieved in Galapagos, not just those lucky ones who get to visit the Galapagos.
What goals do you have for the future of the Charles Darwin Foundation?
To achieve financial sustainability. For more than 50 years, the organization has lived hand-in-mouth. At times its survival was in question. I’ve been building up the foundation's ability to earn more income, and if we continue on this path for a few more years the Charles Darwin Foundation will become financially sustainable. This will significantly improve the way we can provide science for the conservation of the Galapagos Islands.
How to Responsibly Tour the Galapagos Islands
Inspired to explore the famed Galapagos Islands? International Expeditions offers year-round Galapagos cruises along with land-based options in the islands. Check out IE's incredible Galapagos tours and start planning.
How to Help Fund Projects like CDF
International Expeditions was a founding member of IGTOA, a non-profit group dedicated to funding projects to combat invasive species and illegal activities within the Galapagos National Park, and promoting ecological education. Read here for more on Galapagos Islands conservation projects.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 21 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution to Rolling Stone. He is the co-founder of ecotourism website Green Global Travel and creative services agency Green Travel Media.
Ninety-eight percent. That's the number you’ll read or hear about as you prepare for tracking gorillas in Uganda. In 2012, after four years of research, geneticists from the U.K.'s Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute published a study declaring a 98% overlap between the human and gorilla genomes. "Most of our genes are very similar, or even identical to, the gorilla version of the same gene," said a researcher.
One look into the eyes of a gorilla in its natural habitat and you instinctively know this to be true. There’s something uncanny about the core resemblances that’s both deeply unsettling and profoundly reassuring.
But the options for observing a gorilla in its native environment are limited. This is especially the case for the critically endangered mountain gorilla, only 880 of which survive in the wild today, all of them hemmed into either the Virunga highlands or about 20 miles to the north, in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
It’s the 400+ gorillas in Bwindi that have drawn the most attention lately, and with good reason. Home to approximately half the world's population of mountain gorillas, Bwindi also boasts a large number of "habituated" gorilla groups – those that, through careful, repeated exposure to humans, continue to behave normally even when people are nearby. These are some of the gorillas that travelers from around the world come to observe.
Mountain gorilla protections that allow for both growing populations and carefully managed tracking are relatively new, but old enough to have proven their worth.
Until 1902, when German army Captain Friedrich Robert von Beringe presented the bones and skin of an ape he shot to document their existence, mountain gorillas were unknown in the Western world. They had lived unmolested by human diseases, traps or weapons for centuries. The misty highlands of east-central Africa were theirs, as yet unthreatened by expanding farms.
Slowly but surely, poaching, baby gorilla abductions, human and animal diseases, war and unrest, and the degradation or loss of habitat to rapidly growing human communities impacted the health of these uniquely large primates.
In the late 1980s, mountain gorilla numbers began to rebound, thanks in large part to Dian Fossey's 18-year study of them and her creation of conservation practices that have since been pursued with vigor by the national park authorities in Rwanda, Congo and Uganda, as well as the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, the International Gorilla Conservation Programme and their partners.
Habitat and wildlife conservation efforts continue to yield positive results today, despite high human population densities and severe poverty throughout the region.
Rules of Engagement
In Bwindi, travelers gather every morning to hike into the jungle and gawk at their genetic cousins. But before plunging into the woods, a careful introduction by park staff makes clear some of the most important rules of thumb.
Primary among them is the need to keep at least seven meters from any ape to prevent the transmission of diseases. With so much genetic material in common, gorillas are known to be susceptible to human pathogens. In 1988, six mountain gorillas in Rwanda perished from a disease that looked a lot like measles. With the lives of 65 others at stake, veterinarians used dart guns to vaccinate them with a human serum. It worked. Careful enforcement of the seven-meter rule has minimized the impact of other diseases, as has constant monitoring.
During the pre-trek introduction, emphasis is placed on the controlled nature of the experience. Though your tracker/guide may machete a path through the dense underbrush, mountain gorilla habitat is fragile. It can absorb only so many human footprints. Also, the habituation of and respect for mountain gorilla groups are not taken lightly. In Bwindi, 10 different gorilla groups can be visited, but only for one hour per day and only by groups of eight people or less.
Even in their secure habitats at Bwindi, gorillas follow their own whims. Sometimes they’re easily reached, right at the forest’s edge. At others they’re deep in the woods, requiring several hours of trekking up and down steep, muddy slopes thick with primeval growth. But trackers know where they are, and visitors are 95% certain to meet the gorillas of Uganda. Of course, there’s much to admire along the way, including more primates and myriad endemic bird and butterfly species.
When you reach your gorilla group, you never know who will be visible or active. The dominant silverback may be snoozing out of sight, or bore a hole into your soul with his determined black-eyed gaze. The secondary blackback might lurk nearby, hidden but heedful, or perch purposefully right before you. The moms might take a moment to feed the youngsters, who otherwise tumble mischievously in the tangle of branches overhead.
Whatever the case, your unforgettable hour with these gentle-but-wild in-laws will pass in a flash. And the overwhelming desire to stay longer will give way to the persistent reminder from your guides that you’re a visitor and should not overstay your welcome.
The costs of maintaining gorilla-centered wildlife and ecological safeguards are significant. Responsibly managed conservation requires pressure at local and international levels, and involves research and education as much as it does protection and law enforcement.
As a high-value activity capable of generating significant revenue, tourism has been tapped to offset this heavy financial burden. At present, the hefty fees charged for tracking gorillas in Uganda cover the cost of park management, pay into community-development trust funds benefiting localities in the buffer zones surrounding parks, and contribute to the overall budget of the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
So, as expensive as a gorilla-tracking permit may seem, it’s more than just an expensive ticket to view animals in the wild. It is a contribution to the preservation of an imperiled habitat and its critically endangered inhabitants. As a thrilling added bonus, you’re invited to briefly witness the world you are helping to protect for future generations of human and primates alike.
How to Responsibly Track Gorillas
International Expeditions offers ecologically sensitive, small-group Uganda tours which feature the opportunity to track mountain gorillas and chimpanzees.
How can your next trip leave your destination a little better off than before you arrived? Check out IE's 10 Simple Green Travel Tips!
Ethan Gelber is a professional writer who has agitated tirelessly for responsible/sustainable travel practices and quality in publishing and destination marketing. He started The Travel Word blog, and is co-founder of the travel content curation site Outbounding.
Juan Venado Island (located near Las Penitas, Nicaragua) is a very special place. Here, you’re more likely to find sea turtles relaxing on the beaches than the sun-seeking tourists seen on almost every other strip of sand in the region. In fact, the beach – known locally as Playa Tamarindo – is considered one of the most important sea turtle nesting sites found anywhere on the Pacific Coast.
From a traveler’s perspective, it's a great place to watch nature take form and evolve. From an ecological perspective, it's a beacon of hope for a broad variety of flora and fauna, including (but not limited to) the sea turtles that nest here.
About Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve
Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve is situated 21km west of the city of León. The island is uninhabited by humans, but visitors can enter via the nearby coastal village of Las Penitas. The nature reserve is protected as a part of the Nicaraguan National Parks system, but an NGO has been brought in to oversee the care of this delicate piece of land.
Juan Venado Island is a sliver of land, measuring around 22 km long, but with an average width of just 0.5 km. On the eastern side, an estuary carves through a large swath of mangrove forest, while the Pacific side of the island is highlighted by a long strip of pristine beach. However, the nature reserve also extends farther into the mainland and includes a protected marine reserve as well.
The island is home to a number of wildlife species. The swampy mangrove ecosystem provides sanctuary for a broad variety of birds, including pelicans, egrets, herons and terns. In the waters, there are cayman and the occasional crocodile. But it's the sea turtles that have made Juan Venado Island the top tourist attraction in Las Penitas.
The Sea Turtles of Juan Venado Island
Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve is one of the most important turtle sanctuaries anywhere along the Pacific Ocean, with four types of turtles coming here to nest.
The most commonly sighted sea turtle on Juan Venado is the Olive Ridley, which can grow up to 75cm long and weigh as much as 50kg. Both Hawksbill and Leatherback turtles – each of which are designated as critically endangered species – also come to these beaches to nest. Green Sea Turtles occasionally find their way to the beach as well, but they’re the most rarely seen of the four species.
Typically, nesting season starts in August and ends in December, with the busiest months being in September and October. The eggs are buried by their mother and take approximately two months to hatch.
Once the babies crack through the shell, they're not done: They’ll have up to 50cm of sand to dig out of before they reach the surface, which can take 4-5 days. One of the things that makes Juan Venado Island so special is that you can actually be there to witness the young turtles’ first steps on the beach, and watch it scamper into the confines of the sea.
Threats to the Sea Turtles of Juan Venado Reserve
Of course, one of the biggest reasons for the dwindling population of sea turtles in the world is human-related. It's hard enough for a baby sea turtle to survive in the ocean without human interference (only an estimated 1 in 500 baby sea turtles live to adulthood). Not only do sea turtles have to contend with people descending on nearly every beach in the Las Penitas region, but they are also often captured and sold as pets. Moreover, in Nicaragua, turtle eggs are still harvested for food.
When visiting the sea turtles of Juan Venado Island, please give them the respect and privacy they deserve to help ensure the survival of these beautiful animals.
Tips for Observing Nesting Sea Turtles Responsibly
If you're out on Playa Tamarindo viewing the eggs being laid or babies hatching, it's extremely important to remember that you are a spectator in the phenomenon, and not a participant. There are some guidelines that should be followed to protect the animals from becoming distressed and allow nature to take place… well, naturally.
- Keep your distance from the animals. Always give them a personal space of at least 3 or 4 meters.
- Never, under any circumstances, should you touch the animals.
- Stay as quiet as possible. It gives the animal peace and keeps them from seeing you as a threat.
- It's understandable that you may want to capture the moment. But using flash photography or even a flashlight is a big no-no, as it can cause distress.
- Finally, never get in between the nesting mother and the water.
Discover NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER'S Nicaragua Tour of a Lifetime
Ready to explore Nicaragua and Juan Venado? Come see why National Geographic Traveler named International Expeditions' Nicaragua tour one of the world's best escorted tours.
Amazon cruise Expedition Leader Angel checks-in from the Peruvian Amazon with updates on this week's exciting wildlife sightings.
We were a little delayed by rain this morning, but had a great time exploring Atun Poza, a huge lake in the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve. Our small group was very close to us three different troops of Squirrel Monkeys. One troop was mixed with Brown Capuchin Monkeys!
Later on we came across Monk Saki Monkeys. One of them was so busy eating fruits that we didn't scare him away...he posed for our photos. Near the same spot we we also found a Three Toed Sloth in very low an a cecropia tree.
Also found lots of birds: Orange Winged Parrot, Dusky Headed Parakeet, Red Throated Caracara, Tui Parakeet, Festive Parrot, Black Collared Hawk, Black Capped Donacobious and others.
Aboard La Estrella Amazonica this afternoon, guests joined one of our chefs for a cooking lesson.
On the blackwater El Dorado River, we found one most interesting birds we have in the Amazon: The pre-historic looking Hoatzin. While some of our guests were swimming in the river, the rest of us saw Blue-and-Yellow Macaws flying above. We capped off our day in a fishing hot spot. Even though it's not the season for fishing, we really caught a lot, including Piranhas, Paku (fruit eating Piranha), Sabalo and Tetra fish. What do you think of my catch?
It wasn’t until 1910 that the outside world first discovered Komodo dragons. For millions of years these ancient reptiles had ruled supreme on their Indonesian islands. Without any natural predators, they dominated the ecosystem, and their survival was virtually guaranteed.
The Komodo dragons are a relic of a time when enormous reptiles lived all across this region of the world, from Indonesia down to Australia. Most were wiped out over the years, but this species somehow survived. For scientists, they are now a critical piece of evidence of evolution.
Where to Find Komodo Dragons
The majority of the world’s remaining Komodo dragons are found on two small islands– Komodo Island and Rinca Island– which are all accessible within two hours by boat from the nearest major town of Labuan Bajo, on Flores.
There are less than 5,000 of the species left in total, but they’re easily spotted up close by visitors on both these islands. Their only protection is a local ranger with a stick, who will keep an eye out for any animals getting too close. These ancient animals have free reign over the land: They generally won’t attack humans, but it has happened in the past.
Komodo dragons are vicious and lazy predators. Unlike most reptiles, they often hunt in packs and will surround an animal before attacking it. Sometimes they will bring down their prey with one bite but, if larger animals get away, it doesn’t mean the hunt is over. The saliva of the Komodo dragon contains bacteria that will eventually kill the animal it has bitten. The ancient predators can smell blood from up to 10 kilometers away, and will just track their target for days until it dies.
Life on Komodo and Rinca Island
For being home to such a dangerous species, Komodo and Rinca Islands give off a sense of calm. The blue waters around them are still and the sun shines brightly for most of the year. Birds in the trees tweet happily, perhaps unaware of the monsters below. The Komodo dragons spend most of the day lazing in the sun, conserving their energy. Wild water buffalo, deer, horses and pigs graze on the land while macaques play near the shoreline.
On Rinca Island, the star attractions generally gather on one side, where the rangers can easily keep an eye on them. On the other side, visitors arrive by boat to enjoy the beautiful pristine waters and beaches. One, known as Pink Beach, has become famous in its own right for the color of its sand. Red coral in the water has become mixed with the grains of sand to give off a hue that glimmers in the sunlight.
The Wildlife of Indonesia
Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago, with more than 17,000 islands stretching across an area about 5,000 kilometers wide. This isolated chain has cultivated one of the richest levels of diversity on the planet, both for fauna and indigenous cultures. The general sense of harmony between the two is one of the reasons so many types of animals have been able to flourish for so long in their own small ecosystems.
Like Komodo dragons, many of the animals found in Indonesia are endemic to very small regions within the country, cut off by water from the rest of the archipelago. These species include the Orangutans in Kalimantan, the Javan Rhinoceros on the western tip of Java, the Drongos of Sumatra, and the Tamarau on Celebes.
Some of these species are endangered (the Javan Rhino in particular), and measures have been put in place to protect them. However, human intervention in the natural world poses a threat to many of the country’s animals.
Bali Barat National Park
Indonesia has 50 national parks across the archipelago, covering land and sea areas. Even on the popular tourist island of Bali, you can still find untouched and protected wilderness. While large hotel developments and nightlife strips have expanded on the island’s southern tip, 158 square kilometers of land in the northwest has been protected as Bali Barat National Park.
The park’s landscapes are a mixture of monsoon forest, mangrove forest, rainforest, savannah and even marine areas. The main aim of Bali Barat is to protect the Bali Starling, one of the most endangered birds in the world. But it’s not the only attraction here: There are more than 150 species of birds found within the park’s perimeter.
Fortunately, Indonesia has not seen the same level of tourism that nearby neighbors such as Thailand have. In general, tourism development has been focused on a small number of areas that have grown rapidly in the past few decades. This means there are still large parts of the country that remain relatively untouched, with natural habitats and native flora and fauna still accessible for travelers.
Some were protected by circumstance, such as the Komodo dragons. Some have been protected more recently by regulation, like the Javan rhinoceros and the Bali Starling. Unfortunately, animals like the Orangutan are still under threat as their land is encroached upon by farmers looking for an income from palm oil.
Explore Indonesia's Wildlife Hotspots
For eco-minded travelers, there is a whole world of fauna to discover across the Indonesian archipelago that takes visitors on a journey through diverse landscapes and millions of years of evolution. Internaitonal Expeditions' Bali to Komodo tour features ranger-led nature walks, snorkeling and more.
As a broadcast journalist, Michael Turtle worked for 10 years in the Australian media. He now runs the award-winning travel blog, Time Travel Turtle, which focuses on culture, history and people.
Photos by Michael Turtle courtesy of Time Travel Turtle.
Amazon River cruise Expedition leader Freddy Avalos checks-in from the heart of the Peruvian rainforest with an update on wildlife sightings.
What a week of wildlife we've exeperienced! After brief morning rains, we had a great afternoon excursion. There were many fork-tailed flycatchers around us, greater anis, white-winged parakeets and yellow-headed blackbirds. We were lucky to spot an Amazonian umbrellabird in the Yarapa River. Traveling into a narrow creek, we found a long-billed woodcreeper.
Our photos from Sapuena Creek are fabulous. Clear sky and good light really set off this photo of a male orange-winged parrot. Other sightings included red-bellied macaw and chesnut-fronted macaw. The rain even held off until we reached La Estrella in the Ucayali River! After a little rain, we made our way to the Sapote River. BINGO! We were lucky to see a yellow-crowned brush-tailed rat and tamandua anteater.
On more excursions along the banks of the Ucayali, we spotted a colorful caiman lizard resting on the top of a bush (he posed so long that everyone got lots of good photos for their scrapbook). The monkeys were also out to play this morning, with our small group seeing both monk saki monkeys and saddle-backed tamarin.
It was tough getting deep into the Pacaya-Samiria Reserve this week because watery plants clogged the creeks and streams we usually explore. Fortunatley, our naturalists Usiel and Julio found the way to our destination! While in a lake, we found this male ferruginous owl. These are the smallest owls we have in the Amazon rainforest and our only diurnal owl. Also, we found a black-tailed trogon. In fact, guests were actually looking at a white-eared jacamar and the trogon was just opposite, so guests had the chance to see it well!
In Flor de Castaña Creek we had a great interaction with a family who was harvesting yuca (manioc esculenta). We bought some from them and we cooked at dinner...guests loved it! Many travelers don't know that we buy a lot of the fruits consumed on the trip from villages and families we encounter along the way. So our naturalist and the kitchen staff took time to do a display of native fruits and have a tasting with Amazon guests.
The island of Cuba is colorful and diverse, so it will come as no surprise to learn that its variety of bird species is much the same. Birdwatchers in Cuba will find endemic, Caribbean endemic and more common North American birds all over the island. But the most popular places for to find many birds of Cuba are the wooded areas of the Guanahacabibes peninsula, the Zapata peninsula and to the far southeast.
Here are a few examples of Cuba’s beautiful birds that you might see while traveling to Cuba:
Bee Hummingbird: The Bee Hummingbird, Cuba’s endemic hummingbird species, is commonly known as the smallest bird in the world, weighing up to around 1.8 grams and measuring 5 or 6cm in length. Breeding males have a stunning upper plumage of red-pink and blue, which sheds after breeding season. Females have an upper plumage of green/blue, and her lower part is white/grey. Outside of breeding season the two look similar, but outer tail feathers are white-tipped on females and blue/black-tipped on males. Distribution of this hummingbird in Cuba is a little patchy, but sightings have occurred on the Guanahacabibes Peninsula, Zapata Swamp, and to the very far east of the island.
Cuban Grassquit: One of the country’s more exotic-looking endemic birds, the Cuban Grassquit is a must-see when you search for birds in Cuba. Males are identified by their black masked faces and bright yellow collars, with grey crowns and lower plumage and a darker yellow upper plumage. Females are similar, but not quite as brightly colored. The Grassquit can be found all across Cuba, although it is thought that numbers have been dropping in recent years. Head to Cuba’s eastern, dry regions for the highest chance of a sighting.
Cuban Parrot: The Cuban Parrot is characterized by its green body, white upper face, red lower face and neck, and blue on its primary wing feathers. These parrots are large, growing up to 33cm long in adulthood. Not only can it be found in Cuba, but also other Caribbean spots such as the Bahamas and Cayman Islands. This parrot can be most commonly found in Cuba on the Zapata peninsula, but also dotted around south central and western areas. The species is thought to be in decline, but stable, with around 10,000 pairs left in Cuba.
Cuban Parakeet: The endemic Cuban Parakeet can be identified by its green color, with a smattering of red feathers on the bend of its wings. It is also the only parakeet found on the island of Cuba. Its population is in decline, known to have dropped below 5,000. As a result, this species is classified as Vulnerable. The Parakeet’s population is scattered across the island, most commonly found in the Zapata Peninsula, Trinidad Mountains and the Sierra de Najasa.
Cuban Pygmy Owl: This pygmy owl is another of Cuba’s endemic species. But, unlike a few of the other local birds, Cuban Pygmy Owls are found all over the island. These tiny birds, whose feathers are a mixture of grey, brown and white and which grow up to 16cm in height in adulthood, can be seen in various kinds of woodland and forest areas in Cuba. The population is stable, so this is a fairly likely spotting if you’re looking for birds in Cuba.
Cuban Bare-legged Screech Owl: This small owl, endemic to Cuba, can be identified by its brown, grey and white plumage, which is dark on top and light underneath, with some streaks of brown. It has large, dark eyes and differs from most owl species with its long, bare legs. This owl inhabits wooded areas and can be found all over the island of Cuba. But, as they are nocturnal, your best bet for seeing one during the day is looking out for holes in the trees, where the owls commonly roost.
Cuban Emerald: Despite having “Cuban” in its name, the Emerald Hummingbird is actually native to both this island and a number of spots in the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. The male of this species is black with iridescent green/blue on top, while the females are much the same but with a grey-brown belly. Sightings of the Cuban Emerald Hummingbird have been known to occur all over Cuba. As they are solitary creatures, you are like to only see one at a time.
Gundlach’s Hawk: This medium-sized hawk is one of Cuba’s endemic species and is classified as Endangered, with roughly 150-200 pairs remaining. There are now only five areas in the country where you can see Gundlach’s Hawk, including the northeast regions of Zapata National Park, the wooded areas to the west of Santiago de Cuba, and north of Guantanamo. But even in these parts sighting are rare. The hawk is characterized, when adult, by its grey-blue upper and white lower plumages, with a black cap and a rust color around its legs. It almost exclusively feeds on other birds, including chickens, which is why it is sometimes considered a pest by locals in Cuba.
Cuban Oriole: Until recently, this Oriole was part of the Greater Antillian Oriole species. But it has since been given its own classification and is now considered one of Cuba’s endemic birds. Adult Cuban Orioles are nearly all black except for bright yellow patches on the side of the neck and at the base of its tail, and they grow up to around 20cm long. The Cuban Oriole inhabits forest areas and parks, often near palms, and are a common sighting.
Cuban Trogon: As Cuba’s national bird, the Cuban Trogon is a must-see. This medium-sized bird can be found all over Cuba in dry or moist forests, and is identified by its blue upper plumage, white breast, and red feathers in the lower part of its body around the legs. These colors correspond to those of the Cuban flag, which is why it was named the national bird pf Cuba. Its nickname with the locals is Tocororo because of its “toco-toco-tocoro-tocoro” call.
Antillian Palm Swift: With a population that spreads out over Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, the Antillian Palm-Swift is a common bird in Cuba. It can be identified by its arching wings, forked tail and black and white colorings. These swifts can normally be found in lowlands and wet grasslands, feeding on insects. They are quite well-adapted to humans, so you shouldn’t find them too shy or inconspicuous, which is a blessing considering how beautiful they are when seen swooping through the skies.
Cuban Tody: Another of Cuba’s endemic bird species, the Cuban Tody is widely found all across the island and its barrier islands. This tiny bird, which only grows up to 11cm in adulthood, is characterized by its wonderful bright colors– green on top, white underneath, with blue hints around and under the wings and a vivid red streak on its beak and neck. The Cuban Tody is an avid hunter, found burrowing for insects for most of the day.
La Sagra’s Flycatcher: With a population that spreads across Cuba, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos and even the US, La Sagra’s Flycatcher is not exactly elusive in this part of the world. Still, it’s one of Cuba’s most charming common birds, with a white breast and brown-beige upper body, striped in part down the wings. This flycatcher is found in forests and woodlands, where it’s easiest for it to nest.
Cuban Green Woodpecker: The Cuban Green Woodpecker is one of a few species of woodpeckers with similar traits and colorings. But this is one of only two endemic to the island. This medium-sized bird is streaked with color– a green upper plumage and green stripes behind the eyes, white underneath, black stripes lining the tips of the wings and tail, and a red streak down its head and neck. They can be commonly found all over Cuba in forest regions, usually alone or in a very small group.
Fernandina's Flicker: The second of Cuba’s endemic woodpecker species, this bird’s signature striped brown/black and yellow feathers are well worth looking out for when birdwatching in Cuba. This species is far rarer than Cuba’s other woodpecker (it’s classified as Vulnerable, with fewer than 900 remaining), with fragmented populations in a handful of places on the island. They’re most commonly found in the Zapata Swamp area, usually sighted in palms, around the edges of woodlands, or feeding on the ground.
Summer Tanager and Scarlet Tanager: These two species are both common North America songbirds, but always a joy to see due to their bright red plumage. The Summer Tanager is medium-sized and males are mostly red, with a few black streaks in its wings. The Scarlet Tanager is also medium-sized, and in the summer breeding season males have a scarlet body with black wings and tail. The females of both species are a dull yellow, making them a little harder to spot, especially as these species usually inhabit high forest canopy.
Greater Antillian Grackle: This medium-sized, jet black bird with yellow eyes is endemic to the Antilles, found on Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Its population is stable and considered common in this region, and sightings have also occurred on the Cayman Islands. The Great Antillian Grackle is known to be noisy and confident, and they’re often found scurrying across the ground looking for insects to feed on.
Cuban Pewee: Although it may not look as impressive as the more colorful birds of Cuba, the Cuban Pewee is nonetheless charming. This small bird– with dark grey upper plumage, white under plumage, a tufted crest and a tiny white crescent behind the eyes– is commonly found in Cuba and the Bahamas, although rare sightings have been known to occur in the US. The Cuban Pewee habitats forests and swamp areas and feeds on insects: It’s sometimes known to capture prey in the air with a brisk snap of the bill.
Loggerhead Kingbird: The medium-sized Loggerhead Kingbird is found across the West Indies, in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, to name a few. There have also been a few rare sightings of this bird in Florida, in particular the Florida Keys. It can be identified by its white chest and neck, black/grey upper plumage with lines of white around the wing feathers, and black crown and beak. In Cuba, it can be found in forest, lowland, mangroves and swamp edges.
Cuban Vireo: The Cuban Vireo is another of the country’s endemic species, commonly found all over the island. The tops of its head and back are a dull grey, while its lower plumage blends into a light yellow, and stripes of white and darker grey line its wings and tail. They inhabit various forest areas in Cuba, including dry and moist lowland forest, mostly at a low altitude, but some can be found in the high forest regions on the island.
Red-legged Thrush: This small thrush is endemic to the Caribbean region, and can be found in Cuba, the Bahamas, Dominican Republic and Haiti. As the name suggests, it is characterized by its red legs, blue/grey upper plumage and a red ring around its eyes. There are a number of different variations in terms of color, but these features are common. Some also have a red beak, for example. The Red-legged Thrush is usually found in forested areas on the ground, where it likes to walk or run while looking for food.
Yellow-headed Warbler: As the name suggests, this bird can be identified by its bright yellow head. The rest of its feathers are grey on top and light grey/white on the bottom. This is another of Cuba’s endemic species. While it is not endangered, its population is limited to Cuba’s western regions, from the Gunanahacabibes Peninsula to Zapata, stretching slightly down to Cienfuegos and over the Isle de la Juventud. The Yellow-headed Warbler inhabits all kinds of forest regions, as well as semi-arid landscapes.
Ready to See the Birds of Cuba?
Join Cuban birders and naturalists on International Expeditions' Complete Cuba adventure to experience the "green side" of this island while connecting with the warm, generous people of Cuba.
British travel writer Emma Higgins has been traveling for three years and has lived in Spain, Canada and Thailand, collecting tales along the way and sharing them on her blog, Gotta Keep Movin'.
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As the largest island in the Caribbean, Cuba is packed with some of the most distinct cultural and natural wonders to be found in the region. Here’s International Expeditions' guide for making the most of your time in Havana.
Hit the Streets (Especially at Night!)
Cubans congregate outdoors, and on a pleasant evening, there’s no better place to mingle with the locals than one of the many lively pedestrian boulevards. Havana’s Calle Obispo, Malecón and Paseo del Prado are popular places for burgeoning musicians to gather and strum guitar, young families to bring their children, and travelers and natives alike to browse the eclectic museums, shops and cafes that line the roads.
Channel Papa Hemingway
Lovers of literature will want to pay homage to Ernest Hemingway, and there’s no shortage of opportunities to channel your inner “Papa.” Start at Hotel Ambos Mundos, home-base while writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. Take a peek at Room 511 before sipping a mojito at the hotel’s rooftop terrace. From there, it’s a short stroll to the Floridita, where Hemingway was known to sample a daiquiri (or several). Just outside of Havana is Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s former home, which has preserved almost as it was on the day of his death.
Dance to the Music
Music is a staple of life in Cuba. From the ever-present blare of a trumpet and Spanish guitar in the atmospheric squares to jazz, salsa, Afro-Cuban beats and the famed Buena Vista Social Club, your time in Cuba will move to a different beat. Dance-and-performing-arts centers are a great chance to meet performers and learn about rhumba and folkloric dance forms, but don’t be afraid to grab a partner and dance in the streets if the rhythm moves you!
Turn Down the Right Alley
Havana boasts a surprise at every turn, and El Callejon de Hamel is no exception. This funky alleyway is an open-air museum of vibrant murals created by Salvador Gonzales Escalona depicting Afro-Cuban culture and religion, further proof that an art appreciation class can happen anywhere! On Sundays, this is the epicenter of a street party honoring the deities of Santeria. Entire neighborhoods in Havana have been used as canvas, so ask your guide to see some of the local street art.
Sample the Fare. Support a New Economy.
Looking for exciting cuisine options AND a way to support private industry while traveling in Cuba? Family-run paladares are perfect for chatting with Cuba’s new breed of entrepreneurs while savoring creatively crafted foods using fresh, local ingredients in a festive atmosphere. Some of our favorites include Paladar Dona Eutimia, just off Cathedral Square, and Il Divino, where you can step outside to visit the restaurant’s garden after lunch.
Discover a Time Machine
The ubiquitous classic cars, Art Deco architecture, iconic cocktails and hand-rolled artisanal cigars — along with the slower-paced Caribbean lifestyle — are hallmarks of every photo and story of travel to Cuba. And you should take advantage of your time in-country to enjoy the time machine! Classic car buffs will relish seeing the pre-1960 American automobiles present in Cuba — with an estimated 60,000 of them still driving the island’s roads today. One International Expeditions group even met-up with Amigos de Fangio, a Havana classic car club, for drinks. If you want to “drink-up” some history, visit the Rum Museum in Old Havana or enjoy a cocktail at the historic Hotel Nacional’s Bay View Bar, which has hosted everyone from royalty to Annette Benning and Danny Glover since opening in 1930. Don’t forget: New rules for American travelers allow you to bring back $100 worth of Cuban cigars and rum!
Go There Now!
Want to experience Havana and the other wonders of Cuba before the inevitable changes that increased tourism are bound to bring? International Expeditions offers three Cuba travel options – plus options for bespoke travel that still adheres to the people-to-people rules for travel. Through meaningful daily interactions and free-ranging discussions, our Complete Cuba, Classic Art & Culture and NEW Cuba Cruise programs offer you a way to connect with the warm, generous people of Cuba.
Growing up in Nicoya, Costa Rica as the son of a botanist and anthropologist, Jonathan Sequeira comes by his love of nature honestly. After heading off to Sri Lanka to get his PhD in Alternative Medicine, he headed back to his native country, where he balances life as a naturalist guide with breeding poison dart frogs and growing medicinal plants on his property in Sarapiqui. Here, we catch up with IE’s beloved expedition leader to learn more about his passion for plants, animals and people.
Tell me about your childhood in Costa Rica.
I was born in the town of Nicoya in 1966. My father was a botanist and anthropologist, and my mother grew up in the countryside and was a nature lover. In 1977, I heard concerns about deforestation in my province. Somebody from the Cousteau crew said, “If we keep cutting the forest, by the year 2000 Guanacaste will be a desert.” I knew at that moment that I wanted to be involved in the conservation of nature.
You went to Sri Lanka to get a PhD in Alternative Medicine, specifically the use of medicinal plants from the rainforest. What drew you to that field of study?
My study of medicinal plants was probably influenced by my father, who did some work for different universities. The Open International University for Complementary Medicine in Sri Lanka allowed me to continue my studies in Costa Rica, as it focused on plants from the rainforest. I was inspired by how plants found a way to defend themselves by developing compounds that stop predation. Through understanding the potential medicinal properties of those substances, we can find a way to improve our quality of life.
What are some interesting examples of medicinal plants in Costa Rica?
1) Almendro, or Beach almond (Terminalia catappa) - This non-native ornamental tree has fruits that are one of the most important sources of food for the scarlet macaw. The leaves are astringent and therefore antidiarrheal; they have antimicrobial and antifungal agents; and some substances found on the leaves have effects on HIV replication.
2) Carao, or Sandal (Cassia grandis Fabaceae) - This medium-sized tree is known for the honey-like liquid from the large bean-shaped fruit, which can be used to treat anemia. For best results, it shouldn’t be mixed with milk.
3) Papaya (Carica papaya) - The sap of the unripe fruit is used as a meat tenderizer, because of its papain enzyme. A test on an injection of the enzyme into the spine to dissipate pains of the intervertebral disc had a 60% success rate, and a minimum risk of allergy. But the FDA is not approving the use of products with papain until more research has been done.
4) Indio Desnudo, or Naked Indian (Bursera simarouba) - This common tree secretes a natural resin that can be used to stop blood flow from wounds. The sap can also be used as an antidote for poison-wood. You can also use it in a tea for rheumatism or in a bath for back pain, and a poultice of crushed leaves can soothe bee and wasp stings.
How did you wind up becoming a naturalist guide?
Being a naturalist guide is a way to teach how important it is to preserve nature, and my love for nature have been part of my life since I was a child. I started guiding in Guayabo National Monument as a volunteer. It was there that I started learning about plants and birds, as well as the archeology of the area. After that I went to Corcovado National Park to work in a biological station call Marenco, where representatives of International Expeditions first contacted me. Later on, I started working for them.
You have a farm in Sarapiqui, where you breed Poison Dart Frogs. Can you talk about the environmental challenges facing amphibians around the world, and what their struggle tells us about the planet?
In 1988, during my first visit to Monteverde, I was lucky to see and photograph Bufo periglenes and Atelopus sp, a toad and frog species that later went extinct. Later on I learned about the illegal international traffic of frogs to supply a market in some countries in Europe. I tried to breed frogs in captivity to supply that market and send the price of those frogs down to the point of stopping the illegal trade. But I could not get permission from the government to manipulate specimens of endangered species. So what I am doing right now is keeping a piece of land in the rainforest, where I protect frog habitat. It is like my own little reserve, with monkeys frogs, birds, etc.
What do you hope IE guests will take away from their Costa Rica tours in terms of knowledge and experience?
I see guiding like converting people into a new religion. It’s a great pleasure when people tell me, “I will go home inspired and appreciating nature, being more alert about what we have in our backyards at home.” Hearing that they will teach their children, and that this experience has changed their life… these kinds of comments make me enjoy my work even more. It’s my goal for all our guests!
Travel to Costa Rica with Jonathan!
Join IE's Master Naturalist in Costa Rica. International Expeditions has offered small-group Costa Rica tours for 35 years. Choose between naturalist-guided adventures encompanssing the natural and cultural history of Costa Rica, or enjoy our bespoke journeys, ideal for families.
Amazon River cruise Expedition leader Freddy Avalos is reporting from our small-group excursions this week.
We’ve had wonderful weather in the Amazon Basin this week! The whole day on the lake was so beautiful, perfectly reflecting the trees. Our nighttime excursion on the Ucayali River allowed our small group to do some stargazing. The clear sky made it possible to see the Milky Way.
One of our travelers this week in an expert in bats. Working with the other naturalists, we found a group of long nose bats. The guest was able to do an impromptu talk about Amazonian bats.
This has been a great week to see babies! Twice we saw monk saki monkeys with babies, as well as hoatzins during our picnic breakfast in the Sapote River. Breakfast was exciting! In addition to the monkeys, we observed hook-billed kites flying over us, snail kite, lineated woodpecker, kiskadees, turquoise tanager and red-throated caracara.
While we were piranha fishing in El Dorado Creek, we spotted this three-toed sloth. She was just hanging down sleeping. I estimate that she is only about one year old, and just left by her parents. So so cute! Everyone was able to take many pictures
A whole family of night or owl monkeys was checking out our group in Yanallpa Creek. This is the same creek where we saw saddle-backed tamarin with some babies.
This Amazon cruise isn’t over yet! Excited to see what we find tonight. - Freddy