There are 16 national parks, nine natural monuments and six scientific reserves in the Dominican Republic. The total number of protected areas (including panoramic routes, recreational areas and ecological corridors) is 67. All are under the control of the Dirección Nacional de Parques. Armando Bermúdez and José del Carmen Ramírez, both containing pine forests and mountains in the Cordillera Central are the only remaining areas of extensive forest in the Republic; it is estimated that since the arrival of Columbus, two-thirds of the virgin forest has been destroyed.
The reasons for the loss are fire and the establishment of smallholdings by landless peasants. By setting up these parks the gloomy prediction of 1973, that all the Dominican Republic’s forest would vanish by 1990, has been avoided. In addition, a pilot reforestation project has been started near San José de las Matas, the Plan Sierra.
Los Haitises, on the south coast of Samaná Bay (Bahía de San Lorenzo), is a protected coastal region, whose land and seascape of mangrove swamps, caves and strange rock formations emerging from the sea (mogotes) is unmatched in the Republic. In Los Haitises you can visit the Cueva del Angel, caves in which live many birds live and a humid tropical forest, as well as the mangroves.
The Parque Nacional del Este is on the peninsula south of San Rafael del Yuma and includes the Saona Island. It has remote beaches, examples of precolumbian art in a system of caves and is the habitat of the now scarce paloma coronita (crowned, or white-headed dove, Columba leucocephala), the rhinoceros iguana and of various turtles.
The Isla Cabritos National Park in Lago Enriquillo is the smallest in the system; it is a unique environment, between four and 40 meters below sea level. Its original vegetation has been lost either to timber collection or to the goats and cattle which once grazed it. Now covered in secondary vegetation, 106 species of plant have been identified, including 10 types of cactus. The island has a large crocodile population, an endemic species of iguana, and other reptiles. 62 species of bird have been identified, five aquatic, 16 shore and 41 land birds; 45 are native to the island. Among the birds that can be seen (or heard) are the tiny manuelito (Myiarchus stolidus) and the great hummingbird (Anthracothorax dominicus), the querebebé (Chordeiles gundlachii), best heard at dusk, and the cu-cú (Athene cunicularia), which sings at night and dawn and excavates a hole in the desert for its nest.
In the northwest the Montecristi national park, on the Haitian border, contains marine and land ecosystems, the coastal Laguna de Saladillo, dry subtropical forest and the Cayos Siete Hermanos. In the southwest, the Sierra de Bahoruco is a forested highland which has, among other plants, 52 percent of the orchids found in the Republic; it also has many species of birds. At the southernmost tip of Barahona, also in the southwest, is Jaragua national park, which includes the Isla Beata; on the mainland it is principally dry forest. Also designated national parks are a number of panoramic roads, botanical and zoological gardens (such as those in Santo Domingo, see below), aquaria and recreational parks, and sites of historic interest (La Vega Vieja and La Isabela).
The Reservas Científicas include lakes, patches of forest and the Banco de la Plata (Silver Banks), to which hump-backed whales migrate yearly from the Arctic for the birth of their young. Trips are organized to see the whales on about 50 boats; contact the DNP.
National Parks have been established in Lago Enriquillo; the Bahía de Calderas is now a national monument to protect the ecosystem in the dunes of Las Salinas, the largest sand dunes in the Caribbean; the Bahía de Luperón (Puerto Plata) and Cascada del Limón (Samaná) are also national monuments; Laguna Rincón in the east is now a Refugio de Fauna Silvestre; also created was the Reserva Antropológica de las Cuevas de las Maravillas in Boca de Soco, 15 kilometres along the Carretera San Pedro de Macorís on the way to La Romana. Several ‘vías panorámicas’ were created along scenic routes and El Puerto – Guaigui, Playa Andrés, Boca Chica and Cayo Levantado were designated Areas Nacionales de Recreo.
The Reserva Antropológica de las Cuevas de Borbón was extended in 1996 to protect the El Pomier caves, in San Cristóbal, under threat from limestone quarrying. The caves are of enormous archaeological value, with over 4,000 wall paintings and 5,000 rock drawings. Cave No 1 contains 590 pictograms, making it superior to any other cave painting site in the Caribbean. The caves also house large numbers of bats. Entry is RD$5.
The Jardín Botánico Nacional and the Museo de Historia Natural, Santo Domingo, have a full classification of the Republic’s flora. Of interest are the 67 types and 300 species of orchid found in this part of Hispaniola; there are a number of gardens which specialize in their cultivation. The most popular are Oncidium henekenii, Polyradicium lindenii and Leonchilus labiatus. The Jardín Botánico holds an orchid show each year. The national plant is the caoba (mahogany). There is a wide variety of palms, some of which grow only on Hispaniola.
The Dominican Republic is becoming a popular bird watching destination. The national bird is the cotica parrot, which is green, very talkative and a popular pet. It is, however, protected. Among other birds that can be seen, apart from those mentioned above, are other parrots, hummingbirds, the guaraguao (hawk type of bird), the barrancolí and the flautero.
Of the island’s mammals, the hutia, an endemic rodent, is endangered. Similarly in peril is the manatee, which may be seen at Estero Hondo.