Tales From Snake Island

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Ilha da Queimada Grande is an island located off the coast of Brazil, about 90 miles from the city of São Paulo. This small, isolated terrain is appropriately known as Snake Island as it is the only location the venomous Bothrops insularis, or golden lancehead, can be found. Infested as it is with these deadly banana yellow vipers, not much else survives on the island.

Luckily for anyone with ophidiophobia, Snake Island is closed to the public. However, a few scientists and journalists received permission to explore this desolate land mass.

BTRtoday speaks with herpetologist Brady Barr from National Geographic’s “Dangerous Encounters with Brady Barr,” who visited Snake Island about fifteen years ago while working with a team of scientists from the Butantan Venom Institute.

The scientists were collecting venom from the golden lantis, while Barr simultaneous worked on a film for National Geographic, appropriately titled “Snake Island.” While most people who visit this terrifying place only spend a few hours there and then leave (or, rather, get the f*** out), Barr and his team camped on the island for four days straight.

Ilha da Queimada Grande is extremely dangerous as a result of having the highest concentration of venomous snakes on the planet.

“You hear that a lot about places, but this place is legit,” Barr confirms. “There were a lot of snakes.”

The 430,000 square meter island estimates to have as high as three snakes per square meter.

Barr explains that these deadly snakes crawl around everywhere–on the ground, in the bushes, and in the trees, making it a very difficult place to stay. Travelers are unable to drop their guard for even a second or there is a high chance of getting bitten.

“It was one of the few places that I’ve ever been that you couldn’t drop your guard, you couldn’t relax. [If] you’re tired, you couldn’t just lean up against the tree or sit down,” Barr describes. “You couldn’t get complacent.”

The island is small in size, with a temperate climate, and has many different types of terrain that range from bare rocks to rainforests. Like the snakes themselves, the island is beautiful from afar, but its aesthetics are misleading. The snakes became trapped on the island when rising sea levels covered up the land that connected it to Brazil’s mainland. As a result, the lancehead had to adapt to their secluded environment.

Due to the fact that there is not much else besides these snakes on the island, they are forced to survive off migratory birds that saturate the skies once or twice a year. When the lanceheads are small they eat frogs, lizards, and similar amphibians that sometimes appear on the island.

“Times are hard for them, so they have this really potent venom that puts down prey quick because they can’t afford to miss a meal if they’re lucky enough to get one,” Barr says.

The golden lancehead’s venom is thus five times more potent than that of its closest relative, the fer-de-lance. This common serpent is responsible for most snakebite deaths in South America. These snakes have an especially toxic venom, and because the island is located way off the coast of Brazil, any bite is potentially life-threatening.

So much so, that the island has had trouble even keeping one lighthouse guard alive.
“The only thing on the island is a lighthouse. Supposedly the lighthouse keeper was bitten and killed by a lancehead so they replaced him. The replacement was bitten and killed by a lancehead, and I think they went through two or three,” Barr details. “Then finally they automated the lighthouse.”

In other words, with just a lighthouse and thousands of snakes, it is shocking that anyone has survived this place.

Luckily during Barr’s trip, no one was bitten. Barr admits that there were a few close calls because people wouldn’t see the snakes and then suddenly there would be one right over their shoulder.

“We were super careful… you had to be,” Barr says. “It was unlike any place I’ve ever been just because you could never relax.”

Although they can be very dangerous, Barr advises the age-old adage for best practice when dealing with the snakes; Just leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone.

“Unless you’re trying to pick up a snake, you’re not going to get bitten. There’s a huge study going on about number of snake bites and who is getting bitten in the U.S., and it was overwhelmingly males, there was alcohol involved, and they were trying to pick up a snake,” Barr says.

While they may seem very scary, these snakes should be more afraid of humans. Many are threatened or endangered. For example, the golden lancehead are classified as critically endangered, as they only exist in one remote location with minimal sources of food. Many people often kill these snakes for sport, threatening the species’ likelihood of survival.

“Unlike the warm and fuzzy animals on the planet, very few people care about snakes, and conservation dollars don’t seem to go to the cold and scaly animals on the planet,” Barr points out. “They’re just as important and many times more important. So my advice is don’t bother snakes, and they’re not gonna bother you. They’re serving a valuable purpose and they’re good for the planet.”

Even though Barr believes in respecting even the most venomous vipers, he concludes the layperson should steer clear of visiting Snake Island.

“I don’t recommend anybody go there,” he says. “It’s a thing of nightmares for people, especially if you’re afraid of snakes… beautiful place, but very, very dangerous.”

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