for National Geographic News
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Detainees may be leaving the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but a host of rare animals—giant snakes, "banana rats," nesting sea turtles—are there to stay, protected by the same razor wire fences that keep prisoners in (Guantanamo animal pictures).
Best known for its controversial role in the U.S. "war on terror," the Guantanamo Bay base is also an important refuge for animals pressured by Cuba's tough economic conditions.
"The protein situation is poor in Cuba," explained the Toledo Zoo's Peter Tolson, who has years of experience reserching wildlife at Guantanamo Bay. "There are laws that protect [animals] on paper, but in general there is not a lot of enforcement.
People are eating Cuban boas and rock iguanas, Tolson said.
But on the Guantanamo base's 28,800 acres (11,660 hectares), plants and animals found only in Cuba thrive in virgin subtropical dry forests and swim in clear waters along relatively undisturbed coastline.
"There is an overt effort on the part of the [U.S.] Navy to protect what's there," Tolson added.
The United States has operated Naval Station Guantanamo Bay since 1898, during the Spanish-American War. The country maintains the base by virtue of a lease that can end only by the consent of both Cuba and the U.S.
Giant Snakes and Rock Iguanas
Tolson works with the Navy to radio-track Cuban boas on the base, where their numbers and sizes, he said, are incredible. The snakes are listed as near threatened on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
"We routinely find animals ten feet (three meters) long and larger. My correspondence with Cubans who are studying them indicates that [such large snakes] are extremely rare in mainland Cuba," he said.
The Cuban rock iguana, which the IUCN lists as vulnerable, also thrives—and reaches great sizes—on the base.
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