In the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of São Paulo in Brazil, lurks a treacherous fate: Ilha da Queimada Grande, also known as ‘Snake Island’. Under a canopy of trees, on what seems to be an idyllic, green island in the tropics, lives the golden lance head pit viper. This snake has a venom so poisonous, it can kill a human in less than an hour. It gets worse…there are 4000 of them. Unsurprisingly, the official human population of this small island is now zero!
Snake Island is located approximately 90 miles into the Atlantic Ocean from the nearest city, São Paulo, and 21 miles off the coast of São Paulo state. Nobody really knows how the snakes appeared in such numbers on the island, but rumour has it that they were put there by pirates, to protect buried treasure. More realistically, the scientific explanation is that the island was once connected to mainland Brazil, and when the sea level rose 11,000 years ago and secluded the area, the snakes became trapped on the island. Alone, they managed to reproduce with ease, as they were (and still are) the only predators on the island.
Ilha da Queimada Grande consists mainly of rainforest, except for a solitary lighthouse. Yes, this does mean that the island was once inhabited by a brave lighthouse keeper! Once technology allowed the beacon to be automated, this became the preferred way for the lighthouse to manned – or, more pointedly, not. There have also been fated attempts to farm on the island, with areas of the island deforested to make room for a banana planation. However, the locals abandoned the idea once their lives, too, came to a slithery end. The past inhabitance of the island can in fact be witnessed in the island’s native Portuguese name, Ilha da Queimada Grande: the term ‘Queimada’ means ‘to burn’, this was the method they used to make way for the postponed plantation on the island. It wouldn’t be surprising if they hoped to dispose of a few vipers in the process too…
Though there may be up to 4000 golden lance head pit vipers living on Snake Island, these reptiles are in fact endangered. One reason for this is their diet. Many different species of birds can be found frequenting the island, but there are only a couple that are foolish enough to be caught by this serpent by venturing to the floor beneath the canopy of the rainforest. The second reason for the endangerment is their circumstance – these serpents are found only on Snake Island, and due to the limited space with which to roam, they are bound to cross each other rather frequently. Over thousands of years, their situation has also led to inbreeding, and naturally this causes many health defects in the snakes. Due to the vipers’ lethal venom, which is five times deadlier than snakes on mainland Brazil, the snakes are even the target of smuggling “bio-pirates” who catch them and take them to pharmaceutical companies. They can also fetch up to $30,000 each on the bio-black market.
Though there are many other ‘Snake Islands’ across the globe (belonging to Australia, Canada and Romania, to name a few), none quite live up to their name like lha da Queimada Grande. Ophidiophobia, or the fear of snakes, certainly affects many people today, and knowledge of this Island will not lessen these people’s fears. In popular culture, the snake pit of Indiana Jones fame, the scheming Kaa of The Jungle Book, and maybe even David R. Ellis’ Snakes on a Plane have struck a chord with audiences over the years. What makes these different to Ilha da Queimada Grande, though, is that they are all fiction. For many, Ilha da Queimada Grande embodies the true realization of this fear.