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Jose Nunez-Mino: The Last Survivors Project

Jose is a forest biologist and conservation ecologist, most well known for his work in Honduras and the Dominican Republic. He has worked and volunteered for many important conservation organisations, including Plantlife, OpWall, BTCV and Frontier, as well as having left conservation for a few years to work in business! Thankfully, he couldn’t stay away, and has recently completed his PhD at the University of Oxford.

Name: Dr. Jose Nunez-Mino

Species: Hispaniolan Solenodon and Hutia

Location: Dominican Republic

Twitter: @solenodon_joe

Bio: Jose is a forest biologist and conservation ecologist, most well known for his work in Honduras and the Dominican Republic. He has worked and volunteered for many important conservation organisations, including Plantlife, OpWall, BTCV and Frontier, as well as having left conservation for a few years to work in business! Thankfully, he couldn’t stay away, and has recently completed his PhD at the University of Oxford.

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Research Site:

I’m lucky enough to be working in one of the most varied islands in the Caribbean region, so I get to work in many different habitats. Although it is the second biggest island in the region (Cuba being the biggest) it has the most varied topography which includes the highest (Pico Duarte: 3175m) and lowest (Lago Enriquillo: -46m) points in the Caribbean.

In 1997, Eberhard Bolay wrote a book entitled: “The Dominican Republic – a country between rain forest and desert” and that pretty much sums it up although there is no desert per se but rather large areas of dry forest made up of cacti and xerophytic (dry adapted) broadleaf species. There is cloud forest, conifer forest and a range of other tropical forests in Hispaniola although unfortunately there are also plenty of deforested and degraded areas here too. We work across all of these different habitats.

Target Species:

Our project is called “The Last Survivors” because the two species we are working with, the Solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus) and Hutia (Plagiodontia aedium), are all that is left of a once rich and unique land mammal fauna (not including bats) which was made up of at least 25 species. Both species are currently listed as endangered by the IUCN. Glover M. Allen wrote about these species 100 years ago in the “Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College”. Of the solenodon he said ”Of the habits of this species in the wild very little is definitely known” while he wrote the following about the hutia: “Of this interesting animal, nothing further seems to have been discovered since it was first described nearly seventy-five years ago”. The situation has unfortunately not moved on much in the last one hundred years.

LEFT: Solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus) photographed in the field, Solenodons are venomous, nocturnal, burrowing, insectivorous mammals belonging to the family Solenodontidae. CENTER: The Hispaniolan hutia (Plagiodontia aedium) is the only surviving native rodent on Hispaniola.  RIGHT: IUCN Red List range of the Solenodon.
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Our project is very holistic in its approach so we are not only doing research to assess the distribution, genetics, landscape use and assessment of major threats but we are also carrying out an educational and awareness raising programme (most people on the island do not know the species). In addition we are trying to capacity build within Hispaniola so that local individuals can both lead any monitoring work and conservation program in the future.

Highlights:
There are many things that are enjoyable about working in Hispaniola. I feel very privileged to be working in a place with such diversity of habitats and species. The levels of endemism are quite staggering here: Plants 36%, Reptiles 95%, Amphibians 97% and Birds 9%.

It gives me great satisfaction that I am involved in a small way in helping to conserve not only the two mammal species and their habitats but also all the other unique species found here. The fact that I get to go and explore some amazing remote locations is also very rewarding.

TOP LEFT: Jose with a Solenodon caught in the field. TOP RIGHT: The Last survivors team working in the field at night, to maximise chances of catching these nocturnal mammals. BOTTOM LEFT: Hispaniolan solenodon, (Solenodon paradoxus), stuffed specimen in the Natural History Museum, Vienna. BOTTOM RIGHT: Overlooking a disappearing landscape in the Dominican Republic.
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Challenges:

Like anyone working in conservation will tell you, our work can sometimes feel very challenging and frustrating. We are constantly struggling to convince people that what we are trying to do, goes beyond simply saving a species or its habitat.

Despite working on an island where the social and economic impacts of deforestation can be clearly seen in one-third of it (Haiti) it’s often still a struggle to convince people of the vital importance of preserving as much of the natural environment as possible.

Luckily, our efforts are not fruitless and there are increasingly more people willing to listen to what we have to say and, encouragingly, work with us. We have had support from many individuals and private organisations but to make our efforts sustainable in the long-term we need more to engage with us.

Top Tips for research in this environment:

1) My top tip would be to work with local people.

2) Don’t over rely on technology like GPS or maps to get you around, local knowledge of an area is invaluable.

3) We are very lucky to have some incredible local research assistants, without them our progress to date would have been both much slower and far more challenging.

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