Haiti, the small Caribbean country that shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, has less than 1 percent of its original forests left, putting the country "on the verge of a potential ecological collapse," says West Sechrest, CEO and chief scientist for Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC), in a statement.
The GWC, along with Rainforest Trust, Temple University, Haiti National Trust and local NGO Société Audubon Haiti (SAH), have acquired more than 1,200 acres around Haiti's Grand Bois mountain, the groups announced this week. The area is home to 68 vertebrate species, including many that are facing extinction.
"We knew that we needed to take action to protect the country's staggering diversity of unique and threatened species, many of which are found only in Haiti," Sechrest says. "Global Wildlife Conservation has partnered with Haiti National Trust to directly protect, manage and restore this high-priority conservation site in an effort to begin to turn the tide of centuries of unregulated environmental destruction."
Professor S. Blair Hedges from Temple University and Haitian businessman Philippe Bayard, CEO of Sunrise Airways and president of Société Audubon Haiti, began working together nine years ago in an effort to raise awareness about Haiti's loss of wildlife and wilderness. The Haitian government took notice of Hedges' and Bayard's efforts and declared Grand Bois a national park in 2015. Then, in November 2018, Hedges and his team identified Grand Bois, along with a few other locations, as a biodiversity hotspot in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They determined this by conducting helicopter surveys of Haiti's remaining forests.
The national park designation helped create some protections, but the Haitian government has limited resources to adequately keep the park safe. Hedges and Bayard sought private funding to secure more land and to help pay for park management. They found the GWC and Rainforest Trust as willing partners to further protect Grand Bois.
"Sadly, conservation efforts in Haiti were not producing convincing results and therefore the current system of protected areas is not working. Something different was truly needed," Bayard says in a statement from Temple University.
Following two years of instability in the government, the coalition managed to complete the land purchase Jan. 18.
The Grand Bois mountain is part of Haiti's Massif de la Hotte mountain range, a key conservation region in the country and one of the most important habitats for amphibians in the world. Over the course of seven years, Hedges and Bayard conducted two expeditions through Grand Bois and documented 68 individual vertebrate species, including 19 critically endangered amphibians.
These amphibians include the Tiburon stream frog (pictured above), which had gone unseen by researchers for 40 years. This frog is a "unique lost species," according to the GWC, that made an evolutionary reversal to aquatic living after its ancestors had adapted to a terrestrial forest life.
In addition to locating a believed-to-be-lost species, conservationists also discovered three new species. Included in that group is the leaf frog pictured above. It measures a mere 1 centimeter long as an adult!
Researchers expect this unnamed species and its two newly discovered cohorts will make the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as critically endangered once they have been formally described.
Grand Bois and its mountain range are suffering fates similar to other environments in Haiti. The forests are cut for building materials, slash-and-burn agriculture and charcoal production. According to the GWC, at least 50 percent of Bois' original forest remains intact at elevations above 3,281 feet (1,000 meters). Local communities have supported initiatives to keep the mountain protected from further development since nearby peaks have experienced landslides and a reduction in clean water following deforestation.
"It is a jewel of biodiversity with about one half of the original forest intact above 1,000 meters of elevation," Hedges says. "Its more than 1,200 acres holds at least 68 species of vertebrates, including some found nowhere else in the world, and plants and animals previously thought to be extinct."
To extend their conservation reach beyond Grand Bois, Hedges and Bayard formed the Haiti National Trust, a nonprofit charity dedicated to protecting the environment and wildlife of Haiti and ensuring it is there for future generations. This includes the formation of additional private reserves in the future.