A native of Cuba has flown home from Rome – ahead of Pope Benedict’s visit to the island this week – on a journey that one Vatican-based archbishop said symbolises “respect for nature and friendship between nations”. Designated by Rome’s zoo, the Bioparco di Roma, as an ambassador for the environment and of “peace and solidarity”, the special envoy was a two-year-old crocodylus rhombifer, a rare Cuban crocodile that had been illegally smuggled out of its homeland.
Given the vast amount of flora- and fauna-smuggling that occurs around the world, the little reptile’s return was a pleasure to behold – and a small victory for biodiversity. Traffic, the international network that monitors wildlife trade, estimates that smuggling involves hundreds of millions of individual animals and plants from tens of thousands of species. That’s far too many lost from ecosystems, whether they are taken for food, for their beauty or uniqueness, for religious purposes, for use in traditional medicines (as in China and much of Asia) or for other reasons.
According to a Vatican Radio report, a woman visiting Cuba found the crocodile – listed on the IUCN Red List as “critically endangered” – in the wild and took it back to Italy with her. The authorities discovered it and placed the croc, just 40 centimetres long, in the care of the zoo-keepers in Rome.
In January, zoo representatives took the animal with them when they attended a general papal audience at which the zoo’s 100th anniversary was marked. Benedict (who has spoken frequently in defence of nature) was “bemused” by it, according to Agence France-Presse.
After zoo officials obtained the permits needed for the reptile’s trip back to Cuba, “the pope’s crocodile” (as it quickly became known) was given a festive send-off, at which the Vatican’s former diplomatic representative to Cuba bestowed a blessing, Cuban diplomats smiled broadly and children waved Italian, Cuban and Vatican flags. The croc, the BBC noted, then departed in style: in a wooden box inside a black limousine.
Now in Cuba’s National Zoo in Havana, where it is adjusting to a new diet and the island’s tropical climate, “the pope’s crocodile” is to be re-introduced into its native habitat. According to the IUCN, that is currently restricted to two relatively small areas of Cuba: the 360-square-kilometre Zapata Swamp in Matanzas province and the 35-square-kilometre Lanier Swamp on the nearby Isla de la Juventud – the Isle of Youth.
By pressing ahead with plans to develop the river basin, the two countries are inviting calamity