Boca de Guamá, the most popular tourist center in the swampland of Ciénaga de Zapata in the western Cuban province of Matanzas, is home to an important crocodile breeding farm.
The Ciénaga de Zapata is the largest and best-preserved wetland in the Caribbean islands, and is a Biosphere Reserve and Ramsar site. In this picturesque setting about 160 km southeast of Havana, experts oversee the breeding of two species in enclosed and semi-natural conditions: the Cocodrylus rhombifer, or Cuban crocodile, endemic to the island, and the Cocodrylus acutus, or American crocodile.
The farm began operating in 1960 to preserve these species, which had become endangered due to indiscriminate hunting, and to provide employment for local residents. The Cuban crocodile is specifically endemic to Zapata and to the Ciénaga de Lanier, a swamp on the second-largest island in the Cuban archipelago, Isla de la Juventud. The American crocodile inhabits the main island's southern coast and parts of its northern coast. At the crocodile farm, these species reproduce in captivity and their numbers are growing every year.
All of this has made it possible to continue having pure strains of the largest of Cuba's reptiles, enabling experts to continue learning more about them.
According to scientific literature, these crocodiles can live to be 80 to 100 years old. They are carnivores, feeding on insects, molluscs, birds and fish. Their mating season begins in December and ends in April, and they spawn once a year.
Etiam Pérez, a biologist and worker at the farm, told the Prensa Latina news agency that he personally knew of a crocodile that reached its 65th birthday.
“The females lay an average of 30 eggs, and the birth rate varies between 66 and 70 percent,” he said. Ten percent of newborns die during the first year, Pérez noted.
“We are trying to maintain an appropriate density of crocodiles (on the farm)—which has a capacity of about 5,000— and increase the number of enclosures and breeding areas,” he said.
Currently, the farm has 4,000 crocodiles, which are kept in groups according to age and size to reduce stress and improve their quality of life.
When crocodiles die on the farm, their carcasses are used in taxidermy, Pérez said. “We are conducting research on the role of hybridization in the evolution of these species,” he said.
Crocodile skins are used for commercial purposes and are in high demand on the world market for making purses, shoes and other costly items. The reptiles' meat, bones, teeth and fat also are used for a variety of purposes.
The farm's management plans to use the captive population to repopulate parts of the Ciénaga de Zapata where crocodile numbers have shrunk, and the farm carries out public information campaigns against illegal hunting. Through its efforts, the farm has helped raise awareness about the environmental importance of crocodiles among locals and tourists alike, Pérez said.