The Tiburon Peninsula (named after the Spanish word for shark) stretches out from southern Haiti westward towards Cuba. The word ‘Haiti’ means ‘mountain’ in Taino, the language spoken by the pre-Columbian inhabitants of Hispaniola and the neighbouring Greater Antilles (hence the name of the mountainous Los Haitises National Park in the neighbouring Dominican Republic), and the western part of the peninsula is dominated by the Massif de la Hotte, one of the most remote and biologically significant areas of Hispaniola. The American entomologist P. J. Darlington wrote in 1935 that ‘it is in the La Hotte region, of all Haiti, that there is to-day the best chance of finding novel forms of life, and it is undoubtedly there that natural conditions will persist longest.’ Early explorers were confronted with impenetrable vegetation and almost constant rainfall, and discovered many endemic species – the peninsula constituted a separate island until around nine million years ago, and is home to a large number of animals and plants found nowhere else on Hispaniola. This endemism is also reflected in the region’s mammal fauna. Subfossil mammal remains from cave sites in the Massif de la Hotte have been described as a new genus and species of large rodent (Rhizoplagiodontia lemkei) that was apparently restricted to this region. The solenodons of southern Haiti and the Sierra de Bahoruco region of the southern Dominican Republic are much smaller than animals from the northern part of the island, and have recently been placed in their own distinct subspecies, Solenodon paradoxus woodi.
However, Haiti also has the unfortunate distinction of having experienced amongst the worst levels of environmental damage of any country in the world. Two centuries of failed land reforms, repressive regimes and extreme poverty have led to the destruction of around 99% of the country’s original forest cover, leading to huge amounts of erosion, landslides and consequent flooding. The country is now experiencing a massive-scale ecological disaster to match its continuing political instability. The unique fauna and flora of the Massif de la Hotte has not escaped this destruction. Even early explorers’ accounts tell of accelerating deforestation as a result of rapid population growth in the region, and increased colonisation by peasant farmers in the 1940s and 1950s led to the penetration of even remote mountain regions.
This massive-scale human impact has had a huge effect on the region’s native land mammals, the solenodon and the Hispaniolan hutia (Plagiodontia aedium). These species are threatened not only by the accelerating destruction of their remaining forest habitat, but also from heavy predation by abundant introduced feral dogs and cats, mongooses and rats. They are also opportunistically exploited for food by local farmers, who hunt them with dogs, smoke them out of their burrows, and kill them with sticks and roots whenever they are seen. Neither species is protected by any conservation legislation in Haiti. However, no-one is sure what the main threats to these species are: they may be able to survive in areas converted to agriculture and pastoralism, but further research is urgently required before useful conservation recommendations can be developed. Although the hutia may still have a relatively wide distribution in the Tiburon Peninsula, the last solenodon surveys carried out in Haiti suggested that the species was restricted to the northeastern region of the Massif de la Hotte, in a 8-10 km radius from the town of Duchity (including Catiche and Plaine Martin to the south, Raymond and Cadet to the southwest, and Durand to the north). This region has dense human populations and highly disturbed remnant forest patches, and there is no evidence that the species survives in the neighbouring Park National Pic Macaya or any other protected areas in the country.
The last solenodon and hutia surveys were carried out in Haiti almost twenty years ago. The researchers who conducted this fieldwork wrote that the future looks bleak for Haiti’s native land mammals, and that the solenodon in particular was apparently ‘doomed to extinction within the next twenty years’. Time is clearly running out for this remarkable animal, a tragedy made worse by the possibility that the Haitian population, already recognised as part of a distinct southern Hispaniolan subspecies, may also be evolutionarily distinct from populations in the Dominican Republic. Urgent conservation action is required – and given the length of time that has elapsed since the last mammal fieldwork was carried out in Haiti, the first step is to find out whether any solenodons are still left in the Massif de la Hotte. This is the EDGE team’s main priority. We will start work in the Duchity region next month – watch this space to see what we find!