Illinois College officials will lead a delegation of experts from U.S.-based organizations into Cuba to help establish a network of specialists from both countries who will work together to conserve the region’s unique biodiversity.
Representatives from the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Naples (Florida) Orchid Society will take part in the delegation, and Illinois College faculty and students will continue ongoing research projects aimed at conserving endangered orchids and bats. Another key purpose of the trip, Illinois College’s seventh trip to Cuba in the past five years, is to sign additional partnership agreements with leading institutions in western Cuba.
Illinois College modern languages professor Steven Gardner, one of the delegation’s co-leaders, said, “The warming of relations between the U.S. and Cuba has resulted in a rise in the number of U.S. citizens visiting the island. There is now concern that this will lead to the degradation of natural habitats in that country – considered by many to be the most significant in the Caribbean region.” By connecting the U.S. delegates to counterparts in Cuba in advance of increased tourism, the group hopes to develop more effective ways to safeguard these precious natural resources.
According to Illinois College biology professor Lawrence Zettler, the other delegation co-leader, “The genesis of this trip was greatly facilitated by the recent signing of an MOU (memorandum of understanding) between Illinois College and the University of Pinar del Rio in Cuba. This agreement was signed in Cuba in January 2016 by President Barbara Farley, and her counterpart, Dr. Yorki Hernandez, at the University of Pinar del Rio. Illinois College was the first U.S. institution of higher education to sign an MOU with this Cuban university.”
Gardner said an exchange program is being planned between faculty at both institutions, and he hopes it will bring Cuban faculty members to Illinois College as early as next year. While in Cuba, Illinois College Provost Catharine O’Connell will meet with University of Pinar del Rio officials to discuss plans for the exchange program.
A portion of the trip will provide hands-on research opportunities for the delegation. “My colleague, Dr. Bryan Arnold, and I are excited to resume research with bats and Ghost Orchids at Guanahacabibes National Park on the western tip of the island,” Zettler said. “Illinois College students Eve Bahler, Adam Herdman, Allie McNamara, Connor Melton and J.D. Roesch will be collecting scientific data with Dr. Arnold and me, alongside our Cuban colleagues, Dr. Ernesto Mujica (Soroa Orchid Garden) and Dr. José Manuel de la Cruz Mora (Natural History Museum of Tranquilino Sandalio de Noda). The information collected will be compared with data obtained in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge during the past two years.”
This ongoing collaboration will eventually allow for more effective conservation measures to be implemented for species in peril shared by both countries. Greg Mueller, chief scientist and vice president of science at Chicago Botanic Garden, will visit Soroa Orchid Garden to discuss formal agreements between the two institutions. He will be hosted by Soroa’s director, José Bocourt, and Elaine Gonzalez, director of research. Zettler said the U.S. officials are keenly interested in establishing reciprocal exchanges of specialists and plant material with Soroa Orchid Garden, which would lead to living plant displays in both countries that may be viewed by the general public for educational purposes.
Also joining the delegation will be two representatives of the Naples Orchid Society, Kit Kitchen-Maran and La Raw Maran. Zettler said, “Both Kit and La Raw have played key roles engaging Naples Orchid Society members in fundraising activities for orchid conservation in south Florida, including internships for 12 Illinois College students during the past five years. The Society has also funded Dr. Mujica’s research trips to monitor Ghost Orchid populations in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.”
Completing the trip will be freelance photographer Larry Richardson, retired wildlife biologist at the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.