The Caribbean region once supported a very diverse land mammal fauna containing around 120 endemic species, but today only 15 are thought to survive and nearly all of them are threatened with extinction. Two of these species, the Hispaniolan solenodon Solenodon paradoxus and Hispaniolan hutia Plagiodontia aedium, are classified by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as being “Endangered” – the second highest category of extinction risk. Over the past century, both species have always been considered very rare and at times even thought to be extinct by many naturalists.
The Hispaniolan hutia, a large arboreal rodent, and the solenodon, a large insectivorous shrew-like mammal, inhabit a range of forest types across the Dominican Republic and a small part of Haiti. Along with its Cuban sister species, the Hispaniolan solenodon diverged from other mammals over 70 million years ago, and therefore represents a huge amount of unique evolutionary history which is almost unrivalled among other mammals. Combined with its globally threatened status, the Hispaniolan solenodon is considered one of the top priority mammal species in the world for conservation by the EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) of Existence conservation initiative.
Very little is known about the status and natural history of both of these species. It seems likely that they are both in decline as forest environments continue to be degraded and destroyed in the Dominican Republic and particularly Haiti through human activities such as agriculture, charcoal burning, and clearance for urban development. However, with such little information on even their most basic ecology, it is impossible to design comprehensive conservation actions and to evaluate the success of any management efforts.
A number of questions need answering quickly. What is the exact geographic distribution of both species? How does this relate to areas managed for biodiversity conservation? Are their populations in decline? How well do they cope with habitat modification and the effects of invasive mammalian predators? How is their genetic diversity distributed across Hispaniola? What are their priority conservation requirements? And ultimately, how have the solenodon and hutia survived the West Indian mammal extinction event when so many other species died out? But like many areas of the world, resources and capacity in Hispaniola for field research and conservation planning are unfortunately limited.
In early 2009, a collaboration of UK and Dominican partners received a Darwin Initiative grant from the UK Government to run a three-year project in the Dominican Republic to start answering these questions and to build the supporting capacity needed to plan the conservation of these species. Led by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the project collaboration comprises the Sociedad Ornitológica de la Hispaniola, the Zoological Society of London, the Parque Zoologico Nacional (ZooDom), and the Ministerio de Estado de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales de Republica Dominica. The project started in October 2009 and its purpose is to enable the long-term conservation of the Hispaniolan solenodon and hutia through participatory species action planning, a strengthened evidence-base, an island-wide monitoring programme, and improved awareness. Among the many outputs will be a range of scientific publications, including maps of species distribution and priority conservation zones, and evidence-based Species Action Plans.
In the Dominican Republic, the project is known as “Los Ultimos Sobrevivientes – salvando el Solenodonte y la Hutia de la Hispaniola” which translates as “The Last Survivors – saving the Hispaniolan solenodon and hutia”. The title is designed to emphasize the project’s context: before humans arrived in Hispaniola about 25 species of endemic land mammals lived on the island, many of them surviving until Europeans arrived a few hundred years ago, but only the solenodon and hutia survive today.
In the longer term, we aim to broaden our focus to the other last survivors in the Caribbean to enable the long-term conservation needs of these endemic land mammals to be understood and implemented – and to build conservation science capacity in the region to ensure these efforts are sustainable into the future.