Story and Photos by Army Staff Sgt. Lorne Neff
JTF Guantanamo Public Affairs
Did you hear about the 18-foot boa constrictor loose on JPJ hill? It’s not a joke – more like a rumor.
Actually, the biggest Cuban Boa spotted on Guantanamo was in 1989, measuring in at 15-feet-long. Much larger snakes once roamed these hills – upwards of 18-to-20-feet, but vehicles, population growth and domestic animals have thinned out the numbers. Here at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, there’s a team that’s actively researching the reptiles and bringing awareness to their plight.
“We want to make it clear, they are not dangerous, they are not venomous, they are not aggressive, they bite only as a last resort when they are severely threatened, and are no danger to anyone,” said Peter Tolson, Ph.D., director of conservation and research at the Toledo Zoo.
Tolson and a small team of researchers travel to GTMO yearly to catalog and collect data on GTMO’s female Cuban Boas. The partnership between the Toledo Zoo and the Navy Facilities Engineering Command has been ongoing since 2000.
“We went out and we found these big girls and we brought them back to the vet clinic and we collect the data on the offspring: sexes, weights, lengths and then we release them where we found them,” he said.
Tolson’s project is important, he said, because the species is endangered. Each island in the Caribbean has unique species of boa, but he said the large snakes are some of the most endangered on Earth. Even though the Cuban Boa is protected here at NAVSTA, and the People’s Republic of Cuba, the numbers still dwindle.
“On the Naval base, the primary cause is vehicle strikes,” said Tolson. “We have tracked over 50, and a significant portion of those have been struck by vehicles on the roads.
“In Cuba itself, human persecution is a big factor because they eat chickens and if the Cuban farmer sees a boa, he will kill it even though the boa is protected in Cuba as well,” said Tolson.
“Here, the rules are enforced and the Navy acts as great stewards,” he said.
And while the rules are enforced here, the fact that a staple in a boa’s diet is the banana rat, or the hutia, is something may make Troopers and NAVSTA residents happy.
“For those who are ticked off because the hutia chewed their radiator hose or chewed their plants in the back yard, they are the biggest ally, hutia are their primary source of food and they eat one every two or three weeks,” he said.
Tolson’s colleague Candee Ellsworth, conservation coordinator at the Toledo Zoo, said Troopers and residents have no need to fear the boas and advised if you spot one, to just leave it alone and allow it the opportunity to go along its way.
“They don’t have a home per se, that they come back to,” said Ellsworth.
“If you see them in the yard, chances are they are just passing through, they don’t need to have someone come and search for them,” she said. “If you do need to have one removed, call base security for assistance. But in the end, if you leave it alone, you will be fine.”
In addition to the boa, Tolson and Ellsworth are studying the Cuban Rock Iguana and the Cuban hutui and will finish their visit with a special reptile exhibit Sunday, Oct. 6 at 2 p.m. at Phillips Dive Park.
“People can come, talk with us, bring the kids and see these animals and we usually have a great time with that,” said Tolson.