From Iguazu Falls to Lencois Maranhenses National Park, Brazil has a lot of breathtaking places. One of such destinations seems to be Ilha da Queimada Grande, located in 90 miles off the Sao Paulo coast – it looks like one of those remarkable places every devoted traveller should include in their bucket list, but only at first glance.
If you ask Brazilians, they will tell you immediately what is so special about this island and none of them would actually dare to go there. Why? It is totally packed with 2000-4000 golden lancehead vipers, which are the deadliest snakes in the whole world.
The venom of this viper can kill human being in less than an hour. And such facts are also spiced with some creepy legends telling what an awful fate is waiting for those who dare to wander the shores of a Snake Land. One of the stories describes the fate of a fisherman who stopped on the island in search of bananas, and how he has been discovered days later, in his boat, dead in the pool of blood and his body covered with snake bites.
But the island wasn’t always uninhabited. Back in 1909-1930s, few people still lived on this land and run its lighthouse. But another local legend says that the whole family died in their own house when a cadre of snakes entered their home though the windows.
Some people believe that snakes were brought here by pirates in order to protect their gold, but in reality such a huge numbers of snakes appeared here thousands of years ago, without human’s help. 11,000 years ago, the sea level rose so high that separated the island of Ilha da Queimada Grande from the rest of Brazil, causing the snakes inhabiting island to get used to different kind of life than before.
As a result the snakes have been left with no ground level predators allowing then to reproduce rapidly. And also they had no ground level prey – which was one of their challenges. In order to find the food, they had to slither upward in order to hunt down the unlucky birds. Usually snakes stalk their prey, bite and wait until the venom works so it is easier for them to grab the victim. However, golden lancehead vipers can’t track the birds they bite, that’s why they developed an incredibly potent and efficient venom, which is way stronger comparing to the mainland snakes and is able to kill its victim in the matter of seconds.
Due to such a danger, Brazilian government strictly controls the visits to island. But even without it, the island has never been on top of the traveler’s list. There are so many snakes, that some people claim there is one snake per every square meter. One bite equals to 7% chance of death and even if person has a treatment right away, there is still 3% left of a chance he is going to die. The snake’s venom can also cause kidney failure, necrosis of muscular tissue and intestinal bleeding.
Whenever there is some daredevil willing to explore the island, government will require a doctor to be on any legally sanctioned visit. There is still a working lighthouse on the island which is annually maintained by the Brazilian navy. Here are also important laboratories for biologists and researchers, who have special permission to visit the island and study golden lanceheads.
The majority of bites reports in Brazil come from lancehead snakes, which are close relatives to the deadliest golden lancehead. Currently scientists are hoping that closer study of golden lancehead will help them to understand more the snakes of the Bothrop genus and find more effective way of treatment.
In the interview with Vice, Marcelo Duarte, a scientist with the Brazilian Butantan Institute, which studies venomous reptiles for pharmaceutical purposes, described the medical potential of the golden lancehead. “We are just scratching this universe of possibilities of venoms,” he said.
But there is always another side of the coin. Besides scientists and biologists there are also biopirates who are often visitors to the island. They trap the snakes and sell them through illegal channels, as one of the golden lancehead snakes can bring you from 10, 000$ to 30, 000$.
However the number of the snakes has decreased significantly due to the diseases and habitat degradation and now they are listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Natures Red List.