The Dominican Republic has an important number of sites which include 16 national parks, nine natural monuments and six scientific reserves, for a total of 67 protected areas that include panoramic routes, recreational areas and ecological corridors, all of which are under the direct supervision and control of the Dirección Nacional de Parques (the National Parks Office).
Armando Bermúdez and JosÈ del Carmen Ramírez, both pine forests on the mountains of the Cordillera Central are the only remaining areas of extensive forest in the country, as two-thirds of the virgin forest have been destroyed since the discovery of the island by Columbus. Fire and the small holdings by landless peasants can account for such loss. The protection of these parks has averted the complete disappearance of the forests predicted for 1990. A pilot reforestation project was started near San JosÈ de las Matas, under Plan Sierra to add to this effort.
The Isla Cabritos National Park in Lago Enriquillo -the smallest in the system between four and 40 m below sea level- is a unique environment. The original vegetation was lost either to timber collection or to the goats and cattle which once grazed there. New secondary vegetation has been identified including 106 species of plants, and 10 types of cactus. A large crocodile population, an endemic species of iguana, and other reptiles populate the island. 62 species of birds have also been identified: five aquatic, 16 shore, and 41 land birds. 45 of these are native to the island. Among the birds sighted or heard are the manuelito (Myiarchus stolidus) and the great hummingbird (Anthracothorax dominicus), the querebebÈ (Chordeiles gundlachii), best heard at dusk, and the cu-cú (Athene cunicularia) that sings at dawn and dusk, and nests in an excavated hole in the desert.
Los Haitises, located on the southern coast of the Bay of Samaná, is an unparalleled coastal region, endowed with mangrove swamps, caves and strange rock formations emerging from the sea (mogotes). Cueva del Angel, a cave with many birds, a humid tropical forest, and mangroves is a frequent tourist stop.
Parque Nacional del Este, which includes Isla Soana, is on the peninsula south of San Rafael del Yuma. Its highlights include remote beaches, samples of pre-Columbian art on the walls of its cave system, and the habitat of the now scarce paloma coronita (crowned, or white-headed dove, Columba leucocephala), the rhinoceros iguana and of several turtle species. A study conducted with international funds has found that tourist-oriented activities do not give the proper importance to environmental concerns, and that uncontrolled visits by hundreds of people greatly disrupt the internal micro-climates and the bat population. Likewise, motorboats contribute to spoil the beach areas with fuel and lubricants that affect the habitat of manatees, dolphins, turtles and iguanas and pollute the waters.
The Montecristi National Park -on the Haitian border, to the Northwest- contains marine and land ecosystems, a coastal lagoon, Laguna de Saladillo; dry subtropical forest and Cayos Siete Hermanos (the Seven Brother Keys) in the southwest. Sierra de Bahoruco, an important mountain range, is a forested highland with 52% of the orchids found in the Republic, and many species of birds. The southernmost tip of Barahona, also in the southwest, has the Jaragua National Park (mostly dry forest), which includes Isla Beata (Beata Island).
The Scientific Reserves encompass lakes, patches of forest and Banco de la Plata where every year humpback whales migrate from the Arctic to spawn their young.
In 1996, President Balaguer created new protected areas that are now off-limits for hotel or housing construction. National parks were established in Lago Enriquillo; 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; Bahía de Luperón in Puerto Plata and Cascada del Limón in Samaná are also national monuments; Laguna Rincón in the East is has become a protected wildlife area; and has the anthropological reserve of las Cuevas de las Maravillas in Boca de Soco, which runs 15 km along the San Pedro de Macorís road on the way to La Romana. Several panoramic roads were created along scenic routes and El Puerto - Guaigui, Playa AndrÈs, Boca Chica and Cayo Levantado were designated national recreation areas.
A number of other panoramic roads, botanical and zoological gardens (see Santo Domingo), aquaria and recreational parks, and sites of historical interest (La Vega Vieja and La Isabela) have also been designated as national parks.
Dirección Nacional de Parques - DNP is at Avenida Máximo Gómez, Santo Domingo (Apartado Postal 2487, T4724204). A visit to forest reserves requires a permit from the DNP or from the authorized administration office at each park. The cost of the permit is RD$50 (US$3.95), which does not cover the boat fare for visits to Los Haitises or Isla Cabritos. A DNP publication, Sistema de áreas protegidas de República Dominicana, describes each park and gives details on how to reach it (US$12).
The Anthropological Reserve of Cuevas de Borbón in San Cristóbal was extended in 1996 to protect the El Pomier caves threatened by limestone quarrying. These caves have an enormous archaeological value, with over 4,000 wall paintings and 5,000 rock drawings. The 590 pictograms in Cave No. 1 rank it as the most important cave painting site in the Caribbean region. The cost of admission is RD$5.
The National Botanical Garden and the Museum of Natural History, in Santo Domingo, have a full classification of the country's flora. It includes 67 types and 300 species of orchids found on this part of the island of Hispaniola as well as a number of gardens that specialize in their cultivation. The most popular are Oncidium henekenii, Polyradicium lindenii and Leonchilus labiatus. The Botanical Garden holds an annual orchid show. Caoba (mahogany) is the national plant. There is a wide variety of palms, some of which grow only on Hispaniola.
The Dominican Republic has become a popular bird watching destination. The national bird is the cotica parrot, which is green, very talkative and a popular pet though now subject to protection. Other birds seen include several types of parrots, hummingbirds, the guaraguao (a hawk), barrancolí and the flautero. Mammals on the island include the hutia, an endangered, endemic rodent, the also endangered manatee whose habitat is located in Estero Hondo.