With the loss of natural habitat to logging, agriculture and increased urbanization around the world comes the loss of species. Some fall victim to the pet trade, while others are hunted for meat or hides. But when conservation efforts to re-establish a population in the wild fail, should we just let nature takes its course?
The conservationists in Cuba have come up against this morally dividing question with the Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer). After 56 years of conservation efforts to save the endangered species, there has been mixed results. January saw 100 captive bred individuals being released into the wild, only to have genetic analyses revealing crossbreeding with the American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus). The American crocodile is an non-native species that thrives in Cuba due to its resilient genes. Its genetics allows it to be tolerant of saltwater, and can therefore take advantage of more resources and out-compete the smaller Cuban croc.
With the hybridisation of the Cuban and American croc occurring naturally in the wild, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep its bloodline pure. Even with advanced scientific methods reaching Cuba (such as genetic research tools), this can only help monitor the problem – not solve it. Within a couple of years, the pure bloodline could be permanently tainted by a different species’ genome. A similar problem is faced here in Ireland, with Red deer in Killarney National Park interbreeding with Sika deer. Efforts are being made to reduce the hybridisation of the two species, as it is claimed that the Red deer of Killarney National park are of cultural and scientific value.
This cross breeding could lead to a Cuban crocodile with stronger genetics, making it more able to adapt to its current surroundings (which has been heavily shaped by human activity). It could help increase population numbers, which would have knock on effects to its food web and associated ecology. This is evolution in action, and who is to say it wouldn’t occur in the absence of humans?
So what should be done? Should the Cuban crocodile be left to naturally hybridise, and therefore diminishing its own genome ? Or should conservation efforts be made tirelessly to maintain the Cuban crocs species’ identity?
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