Published in 2013 in Bissea, “The top 50 most threatened plants of Cuba” has inspired conservation actions across Cuba. It has been a call for conservationists, local communities, and stakeholders, gathered by the common interest of protecting the unique flora of Cuba.
The “Top 50” were all Critically Endangered plants (except for Dendrocereus nudiflorus). Some were almost considered extinct, like the Royal Oak with only 3 individuals in the wild until another 4 plants were found between 2017 and 2018. However, the awareness raised by this publication and other media focused on Cuban Biodiversity Conservation made a huge difference for many of those plants. This is their story, seven years later.
A national campaign was launched to look for the Royal oak (Ekmanianthe longiflora), who once grew across Cuba. Every province of Cuba was reached with a TV spot and posters. Members of local communities contacted Planta!, reporting possible trees of the endangered species. Despite some misidentifications, the effort to find and protect the Royal oak grew all over the Island.
The team of Planta! found several new Royal oaks at Sierra del Grillo and El Palenque. Moreover, 75 small plants propagated in nurseries were planted in their natural habitats in 2019. The Royal oak keeps growing from seeds at conservation nurseries, and the team learns from every field experience that contributes to the recovery of the species.
The Cuban magnolia of Topes de Collantes (Magnolia cubensis subsp. acunae) has been under conservation efforts for the last ten years. New individuals have been found, and the population size has triplicated due to thousands of plants reintroduced. Many of these plants are now adults, currently blooming and producing seeds.
The natural habitat for this magnolia is also recovering. Over 550 hectares of forest have benefited from the magnolia conservation efforts due to the reintroduction of plants and the substitution of invasive species by native ones. However, one of the most significant outcomes of this project is that preserving the magnolia at Topes is a task that actively involves the community, farmers, tourism facilities, and technicians of the protected area. Everybody makes their part, and the magnolia blooms with increased hope. Conservation actions in the area have expanded to other local endangered species like Podocarpus angustifolius and Tabebuia sauvallei.
The tree-like cactus of Cuba, Leptocereus nudiflorus (previously named Dendrocereus nudiflorus), was the only Top 50 species not listed as Critically Endangered at the time. It was included due to the severity of habitat loss the species endures in Western Cuba and its population reduction along the Island. Three years later, it was listed as Critically Endangered in the Red List of the Cuban flora, also edited by Planta!
So far, hundreds of Leptocereus nudiflorus have been planted in their natural habitats, mostly in Eastern Cuba. The population has doubled its size, with 1.144 reintroduced individuals. Additionally, over 700 new individuals were found after monitoring every locality where this cactus grows (read Project Dendrocereus nudiflorus).
At Baitiqurí (Guantánamo -Eastern Cuba), the propagation of the tree-like cactus in local nurseries has promoted the conservation of other native threatened species like the Cuban caoba (Swietenia mahagoni) and the Guayacán (Guaiacum officinale) among others. It is like planting one seed and watch an entire forest grow.
The team of Planta! has prioritized other top 50 plants, like Harpalyce macrocarpa, Rhodogeron coronopifolius and Leptocereus scopulophilus, and the outcomes of these projects are equally promising. (related news 10-15). Another species, Begonia cowellii, lost for 30 years, was found in 2014 by plant fans and has been propagated by specialists of the Botanical Garden of Cupaynicú (Granma). Species like Coccothrinax borhidiana, Maxonia apiifolia, Copernicia fallaensis, and Ekmanianthe longiflora have been prioritized in the conservation programs of the Botanical Gardens of Matanzas, Sancti Spíritus, Cupaynicú, and Cienfuegos respectively.
As mentioned in the book, the species were a small sample of Cuba’s most threatened plants. Unfortunately, about 18% of the Cuban flora is Critically Endangered. The “Top 50” plants were carefully chosen to drawn attention towards a diversity of habitats, ecosystems, and regions in need of conservation. To preserve endangered species in the long-term, we must act on the threats they face in their habitats, those that put them at risk of extinction. After years of conservation actions on some of the Top 50 plants, more than one declining habitat has started to recover, benefiting many species of plants and animals within their ecosystems. From this perspective, we could say that the Top 50 species were trusted with a specific task, one beyond their preservation. They were the last hope of other Critically Endangered species. They were meant to shine, like living emeralds.
by Diana Rodríguez
The meeting “Conservation of Biological Diversity in Cuba” has been celebrated since 2012. Organized every year by the Cuban Society of Botany, Planta!, and the Cuban Society of Zoology, the event offers a multidisciplinary opportunity to share Cuban Biodiversity conservation experiences.