The southwestern African nation of Namibia is sending 148 wild animals overseas to Cuba, where they will become residents of the National Zoological Park outside of Havana.
This abides by a decision made back in 2009, when Cuban President Raul Castro visited Namibia to keep up the two countries' strong diplomatic relationship. Namibia is supplying the animals as a donation, and they can expect to go on the high seas in October if all goes well.
Make Thee an Ark
The plans are drawing comparisons to that most famous animal-transportation scheme of legend: the giant ark, constructed by a man named Noah -- apparently the only decent man in town -- before the world was flooded.
Back then, it was serious stuff.
The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth, said the Old Testament's God to Noah. Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch.
This time around, the mood is lighter.
Cuba is expecting an incredible collection of exotic animals -- not just the familiar lions and rhinos and cheetahs, but also plenty of species most of us have never heard of: gemsbock, springbok, eland, and kudu. Cat-like caracals with ridiculously pointy ears. Golden-brown hartebeests with Z-shaped horns. Honey badgers with menacing fangs and funny white toupees.
Cuba's national zoo boasts 845 acres of land and about 850 animals already in captivity, according to the Telegraph. The African animals' arrival will help to diversify the gene pool and draw more visitors.
Namibia and Cuba, both majority-Christian countries, can surely appreciate the biblical allusions -- the Namibians themselves refer to this project as Noah's Ark II.
But in fact, the transfer of 148 animals from Africa to the embargoed island has little to do with the Old Testament, and much more to do with the old hammer and sickle.
Home on the Range
Namibia is not likely to see a great flood anytime soon. The nation is dry and sparsely populated, with rivers that often run dry and very little rainfall. On the Western coast, the South Atlantic Ocean washes right up onto the barren sand dunes of the Namib Desert. Along the eastern border, the Kalahari semi-desert is home to dry scrub bushes and spindly trees clinging to red sand.
Between these arid lands, the Waterberg National Park sits atop a rocky plateau about 150 miles north of the central capital city of Windhoek. The area is home to a diverse collection of animals, many of whom were once in danger of going extinct and were purposefully transported to Waterberg in order to protect them from poachers and predators.
That preservation program, which kicked off in the 1970s, was successful. Now, Waterberg Plateau animals are often exported to other parks in Namibia, which helps to preserve biological diversity across the country.
And it's not just about ecology; the practice helps to attract visitors to Namibia's many parks and resorts, bolstering an economy that relies on tourism for about 14 percent of its GDP.
So Namibia has animals aplenty, and the distribution of these creatures to different parks and reserves is nothing new. But what could possibly motivate this African country to donate 148 animals to a Latin American island over 7,000 miles way?
Communists for Capitalism
Namibia gained independence in 1990. And Cuba, as it happens, played a major role in that development.
Cuba's involvement in Namibia's bloody independence struggle was a result of the Cold War conflict between the Soviet Union and Western powers.
It was 1966 when a U.N. resolution revoked South Africa's mandate over Namibia, which was then called South West Africa. A patchwork militia coalesced to form the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO), which fought to secure Namibia's independence from the apartheid government.
The Soviet Union was eager to create new zones of influence in key locations, and Namibia was rich in mineral deposits and had a strategically useful deep-water port at Walvis Bay. So Moscow pledged support to the SWAPO guerilla fighters and sent Cuban troops to bolster forces on the dusty battlefields, many of whom simply traveled southward from a similar battle raging in neighboring Angola.
During the Namibian War of Independence, SWAPO fighters often called for the establishment of a Socialist state. They were allied to the Communist forces that eventually gained power in Angola with the Cubans' help. But after securing de facto independence in 1990, SWAPO leaders of the new ruling government decided on a capitalist orientation instead.
As it turned out, Soviet military assistance was not enough to convince Namibia's new leaders of the superiority of socialism -- not to mention the fact that Western nations had deeper pockets, and pledged not to give any assistance to Namibia if it became a socialist state. And so, in 1990, Namibia set up a presidential republic that allowed for an economy with a strong private sector. The Soviet Union collapsed one year later, but Namibia has enjoyed relative political stability to this day.
Ties That Bind
However, Communist Cuba still enjoys a close relationship with Namibia, having shared a history of bloodshed in the semi- arid state -- Noah's Ark II is a clear sign of that. Namibia is putting down about $1 million to fund the animal transfer, and expects nothing in terms of payment from Cuba.
Not everyone is happy with the pending transfer. Animal rights groups argue that the relocation would amount to animal cruelty.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in neighboring South Africa condemned the animal transport.
It is saddening to note that these animals will be taken out of their natural habitats and sent to a strange land where they will be deprived of freedom and be totally dependent on humans for their daily needs, the group said in a statement.
In response to such concerns, Miguel Luis Abud Soto, the general director of Cuba's National Zoological Park, who signed the final agreements on the transfer of animals on July 4, assured onlookers that the animals would be treated with respect.
We will try to give the animals good treatment. We will have to feed them well, he said, according to the Namibian newspaper New Era.
Soto also acknowledged the significance of the gift, noting that the Cuba-Namibia relationship is as strong as it ever was.
We have been together for many years, he said. And we will be brothers and sisters forever.