The Cuban crocodile is a highly-protected species that is found only in the Zapata Swamp in the province of Matanzas, roughly 100 miles south of Havana, and the Lanier Swamp, located on the special municipality of the Isle of Youth, a 934 square mile island to the south of mainland Cuba.
Rampant hunting of the prehistoric creatures was outlawed in the early 1960s and conservation efforts have not only continued, but have increased over the past five decades.
Believed to have migrated from the Nile River millions of years ago, a change in sea level marooned the aggressive reptiles in these two unique ecosystems. Living alongside the Cuban crocs are their American cousins that share nearly 99 percent of the genetic makeup.
The Cuban crocodile, whose population in the Zapata swamp is estimated at between 3,000-6,000, spends more time on land than its freshwater counterparts, and through evolution, has less heavy webbing on its feet. They also have longer, stronger legs that are used to perform better on land and to launch themselves from shallow water into low-hanging branches to snag unsuspecting tree rats, known locally as jutias.
Even though Cuban crocodiles are well-protected, manmade canals built over the past two centuries have allowed both species to mate and produce viable offspring. Cuban and American scientists agree that climate change is just another stressor on these animals that have thrived for eons.
In the province of Matanzas, two hours south of the craziness of Havana, there are two crocodile farms for both conservation and education. One side of the rural road is a huge grid of fenced pens with hundreds of crocodiles in various stages of development. From relatively cute, freshly-hatched crocs measuring less than a foot, to hefty, 50-year-old, dinosaur-like beasts measuring up to nearly 12 feet. Across the road, a second complex is geared toward tourism and education. The entire region is well worth a visit for anyone interested in wildlife.