A Race Against Time

Professor Blair Hedges

In a pursuit to preserve Haiti’s disappearing species, a CST professor and a Haitian CEO have teamed up to establish private nature reserves. Now, the first such park has been purchased: Morne Grand Bois, a mountain in the southwest of Haiti with rare and endangered plants and animals. “Haiti is on the brink of a mass extinction due to deforestation,” says Professor S. Blair Hedges, director of Temple University’s Center for Biodiversity, who has been surveying the last remaining tracts of Haiti’s original forests before they disappear.

Using a helicopter to access mountaintop tracts, he has identified a dozen biodiversity “hot spots” where original forests and their species still exist. “Even here, as well as across the nation, the widespread cutting of trees for energy and agriculture is threatening the survival of Haiti’s native species and creating an environmental disaster for its people as well.” Hedges’ groundbreaking research identified a shortlist of hot spots throughout Haiti. His partner in the effort is Haitian businessman Philippe Bayard, CEO of Sunrise Airways and president of the leading conservation group in Haiti, Société Audubon Haiti. Since they teamed up six years ago, Hedges and Bayard raised public awareness about Haiti’s disappearing species through video, brochures and public lectures, as well as the distribution of 80,000 printed calendars throughout Haiti and the production of a documentary film titled Extinction in Progress.

Haiti’s government took notice. In 2015, Haiti declared Grand Bois a national park, identifying it as a priority for conservation and validating the critical need to acquire and protect the area. Parks were also created for Deux Mamelles and Grand Colline, other hot spots in southwestern Haiti. There are, however, little or no resources from the Haitian government for protection of large and remote areas. Some hot spots are privately owned, so unchecked tree cutting continues.

“The cutting of nearly all of Haiti’s original forests—for building materials, slash-and-burn agriculture, and charcoal production—has resulted in fatal floods, compromised water quality and tremendous threats to biodiversity,” says Hedges, Laura H. Carnell Professor of Biodiversity. “Protecting Grand Bois mountain and its forests is a first step to thwarting environmental catastrophe and protecting the country’s unique biodiversity.”

To assemble the mountain tracts, Bayard and Hedges sought donors to purchase private land and help pay for park management. Two experienced conservation organizations, Global Wildlife Conservation and Rainforest Trust, joined the effort. The Grand Bois purchase was finalized in summer 2017. “It is a jewel of biodiversity with about one half of the original forest intact above 1,000 meters of elevation,” explains Hedges. “Its more than 1,200 acres hold 68 species of vertebrates, including species found nowhere else and other plants and animals thought to be extinct, such as the Ekman’s magnolia tree and the Tiburon stream frog. “That Grand Bois and the two other areas were named as national parks based on our work has been very gratifying,” says Hedges. “Now with funding from Global Wildlife Conservation and Rainforest Trust, we are beginning the process of land purchase and management to build a network of private nature reserves in the country.”

Bayard and Hedges continue to work closely with the Haitian government. The pair recently founded Haiti National Trust to preserve the country’s natural environment and biodiversity. “When I first landed on Grand Bois mountain with Professor Hedges, I knew it needed to be protected,” said Audubon Society of Haiti President Bayard. “But it could not have happened without this special partnership of scientists, business and nongovernmental organizations working together to save habitat and species in Haiti.”

Morne Grand Bois is found in Haiti’s Massif de la Hotte mountain range, the number-one-priority conservation site in the country and one of the most important sites for amphibians in the world. Because 17 amphibians here are critically endangered, the Massif de la Hotte is an Alliance for Zero Extinction site and also a Key Biodiversity Area, which is a nationally identified site of global significance.

In addition to his research and conservation work in Haiti, Hedges has collaborated with the Philadelphia Zoo to keep alive and/or captively breed 10 of the most endangered frog species still found in the country. As head of Temple’s Center for Biodiversity, Hedges coordinates research that seeks to understand how species evolved, what species currently exist, how species interact with each other and the environment, and how scientists and society can save species from extinction.

—Greg Fornia, KLN ’92