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Caribbean Islands: CPD Site CB11


Location: The karst limestone "cockpit" terrain of the parishes of Trelawny, St James, upper St Elizabeth, Manchester and Clarendon, together with parts of St Ann, between latitudes 18°06'-18°25'N and longitudes 77°27'-77°55'W.
The total area of the Cockpit Country is 430 kmē, of which about 202.5 kmē is still of high importance for biodiversity.
300-746 m.
Evergreen seasonal forest: mesic limestone forest and degraded mesic limestone forest. Limestone cliff and landslide vegetation. In valleys, human interference has resulted in areas of pasture and some agricultural crops.
The whole region is estimated to contain 1500 vascular plant species, of which 400 are endemic to Jamaica, including 100 species of angiosperms and one species of fern which are strictly endemic to the Cockpit Country.
Useful plants:
Timber trees, medicinal plants, potential ornamental plants.
Other values:
High landscape value.
Clearance for subsistence farming and for commercial crops, fire, road building, illegal timber cutting.
Most of the area has Forest Reserve status.

Map 35: CPD Site CB11



The Cockpit Country is an expanse of land in central-western Jamaica which has an unusual "eggbox" topography of limestone karst hills and valleys. The area extends between approximately 18°06'-18°25'N latitude and 77°27'-77°55'W longitude, in the parishes of Trelawny, St James, upper St Elizabeth, Manchester, Clarendon and part of St Ann. To the east of the main block lies the "central inlier", composed of bedrock other than limestone, which supports different vegetation. This is surrounded on the north and south sides by extensions of the Cockpit Country limestone, which support vegetation similar to, and as diverse as, the Cockpits themselves.

The majority of the Cockpit Country is Government-owned Forest Reserve. The main areas are Cockpit (223.3 kmē), Fyffe and Rankine (9.6 kmē), Peru Mountain and Thicketts (2.5 kmē), Chatsworth (3.8 kmē) and Cooks Bottom (2 kmē). These figures include unforested land: the total area of land worth conserving has yet to be delimited. Some privately-owned areas on the periphery are worth conserving.

Rainfall in the Cockpit Country area varies between c. 1900 and 3800 mm per annum. Little of this is retained on the steep dry slopes, but flows into underground aquifers beneath the more fertile valleys.

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The forest vegetation may be described as mesic limestone forest, in the evergreen seasonal forest formation of Beard (1955). The forests are, however, poorly known. Kelly et al. (1988) recorded 75 tree species in a total area of 1000 mē; 27 of the 75 species were represented by one individual only. The canopy height was between 16 and 24 m, and was dominated (in patches) by species such as Guapira fragrans (Pisonia fragrans). Rubiaceae and Myrtaceae were frequent in the tree and shrub layers, but the ground flora was dominated by ferns (22 of 30 ground herbs were pteridophytes). Orchidaceae and Bromeliaceae were frequent epiphytes and mosses were plentiful on rock outcrops and tree bases.

Limestone cliff vegetation supports many local endemics. There are some landslide formations as well as modified vegetation types, including pasture and cropland.

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The native flora of the whole of the Cockpit Country includes an estimated 1500 vascular plant species (C.D. Adams, personal estimate 1992), about 42% of the Jamaica's native vascular flora. About 60% (500 species) of Jamaica's endemic vascular plant flora occurs in the Cockpit Country. In the more restricted area of high biodiversity, covering about 202.5 kmē according to JCDT (1992), there are an estimated 800-900 vascular plant species (C.D. Adams, personal estimate 1992).

According to Proctor (1986), there are 106 species which, in Jamaica, are only found in the Cockpit Country. These include 100 species of angiosperms and one species of fern which are strictly endemic to the Cockpit Country and five other species which are not endemic to Jamaica. The strict endemics are best represented in the families Rubiaceae (11 spp.), Compositae (9 spp.), Gesneriaceae (8 spp.), Euphorbiaceae (7 spp.), Orchidaceae (7 spp., all in the genus Lepanthes) and Myrtaceae (6 spp.). Floristic studies indicate that each limestone knoll can support many different plants from the next, including plants which are endemic to just one knoll.

There have been few floristic studies in the forests of the Cockpit Country. A total area of 1000 mē of forest on the fringes of the Cockpit Country was found by Kelly et al. (1988) to support 235 higher plant species (206 species of angiosperms and 29 of pteridophytes); 75 species of tree >2 m tall were recorded. The high diversity may be explained by the intermediate-rainfall character of the forests: species tolerant of very wet conditions (e.g. Guzmania lingulata) can co-exist with those adapted to dry conditions (e.g. Hylocereus triangularis). (The study area from which these figures were obtained has, unfortunately, been cut over and no forest remains there now.)

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Useful plants 

There are a number of ornamental endemic plant species with great horticultural potential. These include: Portlandia coccinea, Lisianthius capitatus, Palicourea pulchra and Piper verrucosum. Two strictly endemic trees are valuable for their timber: Terminalia arbuscula and Manilkara excisa. Other endemics, not confined to the Cockpit Country, are valuable timber species.

Two wild relatives of edible yam occur: Rajania cyclophylla, endemic to the Cockpit Country, and R. cordata, restricted in Jamaica to the Cockpits but also occurring in other West Indian islands.

Some plants are used locally for medicinal purposes, but there is no published information on these.

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Social and environmental values 

The population of the Cockpit Country is sparse and generally confined to places accessible by road. Of the estimated 4500 inhabitants, most are farmers (cultivation extending deep into the area). The rugged terrain and the paucity of surface water has helped to prevent forest clearances for timber and cultivation. Although much of the valley forests have been cleared, the steep slopes and hill summits have only been minimally disturbed.

A total of 36 restricted-range landbirds occur on Jamaica, of which 28 are endemic to the island (the highest total for any Caribbean island). Most of the birds occur in the mountain forests throughout the island, an exception being the recently split red-billed and black-billed streamertails, Trochilus polytmus and T. scitulus, which are confined to western/central and eastern Jamaica (including the John Crow Mountains) respectively.

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The greatest threats are clearance for agriculture, illegal cutting of timber and firewood collection. The rate of deforestation between 1981-1987 is estimated at 15.8% (2.8% per year) (Eyre 1989). Until recently, interior forests were very inaccessible. However, roads are being built into the area, which will inevitably lead to increased deforestation and selective cutting. The area is, therefore, severely threatened.

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The Cockpit Country has not yet been formally declared a protected area, although much of the area has Forest Reserve status no plant may be removed without permission of the Forest Department.

Because of the amount of human activity in the area, as well as some of the area being in private ownership, designation of the area to allow for continuation of some human uses is possibly more appropriate than National Park status. Some form of protection is being recommended to the Government in JCDT (1992).

Conservation efforts on a more localized scale would be beneficial, as some of the knolls which are the type localities for a number of the endemics, are privately owned.

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Map 35. Cockpit Country Mountains, Jamaica (CPD Site CB11)


Adams, C.D. (1972). Flowering plants of Jamaica. University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. 848 pp.

Beard, J.S. (1955). The classification of tropical American vegetation types. Ecology 36: 89-100.

Conrad Douglas and Associates (1992). Plan for a system of protected natural areas for Jamaica. Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust, Kingston, Jamaica.

Eyre, L.A. (1989). Slow death of a tropical rainforest: the Cockpit Country of Jamaica. Environmental Quality and Ecosystem Stability IV-A: 599-606.

JCDT (1992). The plan for a system of protected areas in Jamaica (background documents prepared by Conrad Douglas and Associates). Jamaica Conservation and Development Trust, Kingston, Jamaica.

Kelly, D.L. (1988). The threatened flowering plants of Jamaica. Biological Conservation 46: 201-216.

Kelly, D.L., Tanner, E.V.J., Kapos, V., Dickinson, T.A., Goodfield, G.A. and Fairbairn, P. (1988). Jamaican limestone forests: floristics, structure and environment of three examples along a rainfall gradient. Journal of tropical Ecology 4: 121-156.

Proctor, G.R. (1982). More additions to the flora of Jamaica. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 63: 199-315.

Proctor, G.R. (1985). Ferns of Jamaica. British Museum (Natural History), London. 631 pp.

Proctor, G.R. (1986). Cockpit Country and its vegetation. In Thompson, D.A., Bretting, P.K. and Humphries, M. (eds), Forests of Jamaica. The Jamaican Association of Scientists and Technologists, Kingston, Jamaica. Pp. 43-47, 140-143.


This Data Sheet was written by Dr Susan Iremonger (WCMC, 219 Huntingdon Road, Cambridge CB3 0DL, UK).

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