The Americans Take What They Want in Haiti – Even Near-Extinct Lizards
by Dady Chery
A nation whose sovereignty has been stolen has no rights that the big powers – or their scientists – are bound to respect. American zoogeographers recently snatched the rarest of Haitian reptiles, with impunity. “The animals collected on this expedition were endangered animals and possibly the last individuals of their kind.” Had the shoe been on the other foot, it would have represented an international crime, since “such comportment by scientists is criminal and would be illegal in the United States.”
The Americans Take What They Want in Haiti – Even Near-Extinct Lizards
by Dady Chery
This article previously appeared on Dady Chery’s web site.
“There was no conceivable scientific justification for removing the endangered lizard.”
More frog species live in Haiti than anywhere else in the Caribbean. This broad speciation partly resulted from the isolation of animal populations by the mountainous landscape. Many species of the small lizard anole also make Haiti their home. These animals have attracted the attention of well-meaning conservationists as well as soulless seekers of fame.
At the end of July, an expeditionary team withdrew over 100 animals from an isolated patch of virgin forest in the mountains of Haiti’s Tiburon peninsula. The team included no Haitians. It was led by Pennsylvania State University biologist Blair Hedges, who brought along one of his graduate students, Philadelphia journalist Faye Flam, Dominican free-lance photographer-naturalist Miguel Landestoy, a videographer, and a botanist with some knowledge of Haitian Créole.
The group was flown by helicopter to a remote Haitian forest at an altitude of about 1800 meters where they removed as many lizards and frogs as they could find from a chilly patch of woods that the animals had made their sanctuary.
The journalist reports that:
“Near the end of the trip, the team began searching in a region that was lower and much hotter, and the blistering sun was threatening the whole collection of rare frogs and lizards. With my own skin beginning to burn, I volunteered to take the more than 100 animals back by helicopter to the island of La Vache, off the south coast of Haiti, where there was an air conditioned hotel room waiting for them. These high-altitude creatures are adapted to cool temperatures and can die if exposed to more than a minute or so of harsh daytime sun….
“Though some will inevitably die, the goal was to get them through the trip and back to Pennsylvania alive, where they can be studied and catalogued. Every time I checked, the frogs and lizards were stirring. By luck, most got through the night, and are now in Port-au-Prince awaiting their first and only trip to the United States!”
What sorts of scientists would show up for a project like this without a cooler, and then abandon their samples of rare and endangered animals to the heat, or to a journalist, casually expecting some of the animals to die?
“Suppose a group of Haitians were to decide to go, say, on a helicopter trip to the Ozark Mountains to collect endangered animals because the Ozarks were being destroyed by mountaintop removal.”
From the footage at about 9 minutes into the video it is evident that at least one of the anole lizards was quite furious about being plucked away from the tree fern where he was sleeping on a moonless night. Justifiably so. This animal happened to be Anolis darlingtoni: the rarest lizard in Haiti and the one in the most immediate danger of extinction. It is also given the common name “darlingtoni lizard,“ though this animal surely has a Haitian name. In characteristic colonial style, it was renamed after U.S. zoogeographer Philip Darlington who catalogued it in the 1930s.
Returning to our expedition. Suppose a group of Haitians were to decide to go, say, on a helicopter trip to the Ozark Mountains to collect endangered animals because the Ozarks were being destroyed by mountaintop removal. And let us suppose further that this group of Haitians bagged 100 animals or so — all rare, some never before reported, others nearly extinct — and tried to fly them all to Haiti. What do you think would happen?
It turns out that Blair Hedges, the scientist who headed the Penn State team had removed the same species of lizard from another region of Haiti. Anolis darlingtoni has not been seen there since. Here is how he got his previous quarry and what happened to it :
“…we collected on the slopes of the Massif de la Hotte south of Castillon. On the evenings of the 5th and 9th of November , at an elevation of 1360 m, we found Anolis darlingtoni in a one-hectare patch of disturbed forest….sleeping on vegetation about 1-4 m above the ground. Three juveniles (two were collected) were found sleeping vertically on the tips of dead tree fern branches (l-4 m high) while three adults were found sleeping horizontally on limbs of small trees low (1 m) to the ground.
“Two of the three adults (all males) were deposited in the United States National Museum and the third (skeletonized) was deposited in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. The two juveniles were used in biochemical analyses and are in the frozen tissue collection of the junior author.
In other words, all the collected animals were killed, although before that expedition the animals were considered extinct and had not been seen for 50 years.”
“All the collected animals were killed, although before that expedition the animals were considered extinct and had not been seen for 50 years.”
About the current expedition, the journalist writes further:
“Hedges estimates they’ve picked up about 33 unique species here – several of them never seen before – living proof that if deforestation doesn’t stop in Haiti, we will never know the full extent of the country’s loss.”
Sounds kind of noble, doesn’t it?
In addition to Anolis darlingtoni, rare animals noted in the video include:
*La haute glanded frog,
*The Hispaniolan lesser racer, and
*The Macaya dusky frog (exceptionally rare)
Wouldn’t it be better to help stop Haiti’s loss instead of merely monitoring it? Had these scientists felt any motivation to stem this loss, the logical next step would have been to collect extensive videotape footage of the animals in their natural habitat, leave the animals alone, and use the videos to advocate for official protection of the mountain sanctuary on their behalf. But this is not what these scientists did.
Instead, they took the animals to a laboratory at Penn State to be ground up and studied. Here’s how they justified these actions:
“Bringing specimens to the lab is critical for several reasons. DNA sequences are needed for correct identifications. Morphological analyses are needed to describe new species, and cryo-banked cells will keep species alive in case they go extinct in the wild.”
In other words, Hedges is claiming that it is necessary to bring an animal to the lab to look at it carefully, to kill the animal and extract its DNA to identify it correctly, and to freeze its cells to “keep [the] species alive.” This is quite misleading, of course. A far superior way to preserve an animal’s genetic material is by treating him with respect and letting him live out his sexual life. In any case, the same species had already been frozen in 1984, and such deep-frozen specimens should last indefinitely. And so there was no conceivable scientific justification for removing the endangered lizard.
A bit later, the video notes, in the continuing calm tone of the readers of devastating side effects of drugs in U.S. television advertisements, that the Macaya dusky frog was “later found to be genetically distinct from the Macaya populations.” Meaning that the little frog that we saw being manhandled in the video is quite dead now, and its DNA has been extracted and studied.
Hedges is not the only westerner who has chased after Haitian frogs and lizards. Other collectors of these animals have claimed that they were meant for captive-breeding programs, but I have yet to find such a program. In fact, some of these individuals could be adventurers who trade in endangered animals or fools who try to keep the animals as pets.
“Wouldn’t it be better to help stop Haiti’s loss instead of merely monitoring it?”
Whatever the motives of this Penn State team, one thing we know for sure is that the animals collected on this expedition were endangered animals and possibly the last individuals of their kind.
Yes, deforestation is advancing in Haiti. I make no excuses for us Haitians in this regard, though I do feel obliged to note that the world loses 16 million acres of forest each year, and deforestation is a problem for the entire globe, including the U.S. 
The Haitian frogs and lizards were hunted in their forest sanctuary: one requiring a tortuous journey by helicopter and picked for its inaccessibility to humans. The animals were spirited away to a U.S. laboratory to be ground up and exploited for their DNAs.
Such comportment by scientists is criminal and would be illegal in the United States. It brings to mind the Christian missionaries who kidnapped 33 Haitian children immediately after the earthquake. Like the missionaries, these U.S. scientists feel that while in Haiti they are under no legal or ethical guidelines. In fact they were so proud of their deeds that they publicized them in an article and a video.
Obviously, their overarching interest is to publish scientific papers that move their careers along. But DNA sequencing, which is what these scientists evidently do best, is actually quite boring and undemanding. Scientific papers on DNA sequencing do not make careers, unless one sequences the DNA of the cholera that infected Haiti or something of the sort. In other words, if the owner of the DNA is exciting, then one can instantly turn an otherwise boring sequencing project into a “hot” career-building enterprise.
“This summer’s expedition to the peninsula by a rival Penn State team to rediscover this elusive animal might have been motivated merely by a desire for one-upmanship.”
As it happens, lizards are a hot scientific topic right now. The first genome (all the DNA that makes up the genetic material) sequence for a reptile was published three months ago, and it was the sequence of the green anole (Anolis carolinensis) genome. The justification offered by a team at Harvard for this project was that there was a connection to human health because of
“the anole split brain and the fact that female anoles alternate ovaries in producing eggs, just like one other group of vertebrates.”
The project resulted in a huge grant to the Harvard group, which had searched Haiti’s Tiburon peninsula for Anolis darlingtoni in summer 2009 and failed to find it. And so this summer’s expedition to the peninsula by a rival Penn State team to rediscover this elusive animal might have been motivated merely by a desire for one-upmanship.
Scientific research and competition are well and good, but the U.S. scientific establishment ought to pay more attention to the ways scientists are collecting their biological materials for genome sequencing projects these days.
Back in the late 19th century, the likes of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, and leagues of lesser-known scientists and adventurers, undertook long voyages after which they returned from the New World with boatloads of animals preserved by pickling or taxidermy for stocking the British natural history museums. The sale of rare beetles was so lucrative that many people made their living from it, and the stocks of the animals collected in those times were so vast that, even after more than 140 years, only a minor fraction have ever been exhibited. We, of more enlightened times have, of course, come to consider this mode of study as being no longer an acceptable way to treat animals.
Have you ever wondered how many species of birds and beetles the 19th-century scientist adventurers eradicated? I have.
In a sort of scientific neocolonialism, we find a 21st-century group from the U.S. casually removing and destroying rare animals from places they consider to be their backyard.
The video’s concluding remark is:
“Without protection, they will all disappear soon.”
Without protection against whom?
Dady Chery grew up at the heart of an extended working-class family in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. She emigrated to New York when she was fourteen and since then has traveled throughout the world and lived in Europe and several North American cities. She writes in English, French, and her native Créole. She holds a doctorate. She can be contacted at dc(at)dadychery.org.
1. Penn State team finds a long-lost lizard in Haiti
2. How the green anole was selected to be the first reptile genome sequenced
3. Caribbean Journal of Science, Vol. 27, No. 1-2, 90-93, 1991.
4. A Day of Highs and Lows in Haiti
5. Global deforestation.