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Science & Technology

Scientists Move To Establish Wildlife Preserve At Guantanamo Bay

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Guantanamo is best known as the high-security military prison where the United States has held suspected terrorists for years. But Guantanamo Bay Naval Base is far larger - 45 square miles - and a century older than the detention center. And over that time, it's created a refuge for tropical wildlife. Murray Carpenter has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF OWL HOOTING)

MURRAY CARPENTER, BYLINE: A Cuban pygmy owl hoots from a low shrub on a cactus-studded hill overlooking a small town beside a deep blue Caribbean bay. Its calls are punctuated by gunfire from a nearby target range.

(SOUNDBITE OF OWL HOOTING, GUNSHOT)

CARPENTER: It's one of many odd juxtapositions at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, or Gitmo. The military base is best known for the controversial detention center where suspected terrorists have been imprisoned for years, many without charges. But the detention camp occupies just a small portion of the land. Much of the 45-square-mile base remains undeveloped. And because wildlife is protected and hunting prohibited, Gitmo has become a de facto wildlife preserve. Nobody knows this better than Peter Tolson. On a hot morning, Tolson is standing in a grassy ravine, waving a six-tined antenna back and forth and listening in for beeps on his radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO STATIC)

CARPENTER: He's trying to find one of his snakes. Tolson has been tracking 28 Cuban boas in an effort to understand their life cycles.

PETER TOLSON: We're looking for Daisy, and we don't have a signal from her. But that may mean that she's in a hole, in a bunker or orientated in a specific way that the signal can't get out to reach the antenna. Hard to say what she's doing right now.

CARPENTER: The boas, which can reach 15 feet, occur only on Cuba. Outside the fence line they are often killed, but on the base they are protected. As he trudges up a hill looking for snakes, a curious Cuban tody, a small endemic bird, chitters from the shrub.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CHIRPING)

CARPENTER: Tolson became intrigued by the boas when stationed at Guantanamo as a young Marine in 1968. And it set the trajectory for his career. For nearly five decades, he studied Cuban boas and their cousins on other Caribbean islands while working for the Toledo Zoo. He's also studied Cuban rock iguanas. He soon spies one in a tree near a beach. It's a 4-foot-long beast that looks like a mini dinosaur.

TOLSON: Normally one does not see the adults up in the trees. The young ones tend to climb quite a bit. But he's just lying over a branch with his back legs and tail dangling down, just chilling out like nobody's business.

CARPENTER: Also on the base are brilliant green hummingbirds, fat manatees, large sea turtles and rodents of unusual size. Some scientists would like to see wildlife play a bigger role on the base.

JOE ROMAN: Well, we're familiar with the term collateral damage in war and in conflict. And this is actually a collateral benefit.

CARPENTER: Joe Roman of the Gund Institute for Environment coauthored an article in Science magazine last year proposing that after the detention center closes, Gitmo could be transformed from a military base into a peace park and research station. Under his proposal, it would first be jointly managed by the U.S. and Cuba but would eventually revert to Cuba.

ROMAN: This could be something like a Woods Hole of the Caribbean where you could have researchers come from around the world studying everything from preventing extinction to climate change to oceanographic processes in that area.

CARPENTER: It's an intriguing idea, but it's premature. A spokesman says the Department of Defense has no plans to change the status of the base anytime soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

CARPENTER: When Tolson does find one of his boas hiding in the knee-high grass, it's a very impressive creature.

TOLSON: She's about 11 feet of beautifully patterned brown, chestnut and black patches. She looks phenomenal.

CARPENTER: Then the boa glides beneath a coil of concertina wire and off into this American military outpost in Cuba which happens to be a haven for Caribbean wildlife.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

CARPENTER: For NPR News, I'm Murray Carpenter.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAVELIN'S "WE AH WI") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.