An Ophidiophobics Worst Nightmare: Ilha Da Queimada Grande

January 7, 2018

Written by Capt McNeely

Georgia Division ZADF Twitter: @ZADF_ORG

Ilha da Queimada Grande, the tall white structure is the Lighthouse.

Sometimes the scariest things in life can’t be found in works of fiction or spoken around a flashlight on a dark and stormy night, they’re very real and they’re places that embody what we fear most. If you’re someone who suffers from Ophidiophobia, the fear of snakes, then this island is not for you. Ilha da Queimada Grande is an island located 18 miles off the coast of Brazil with a population of ZERO, well, when speaking about human population. If you’re talking population, in general, it’s actually around 2-4,000 snakes (cue Indiana Jones’s famous line). If you’re still reading this, I’m sorry it gets worse; the snakes populating the island are Golden Lanceheads, a species of pit viper that can only be found on this island and that’s good too because the venom they produce is the most deadly venom of any snake species in North/South America and is said to actually MELT flesh around the bite wound and cause severe intestinal hemorrhaging that results in a painful and bloody death.

Bothrops insularis, The Golden Lancehead Viper

Still with me? OK, another unpleasant thing about these snakes is that they’re arboreal, meaning they like to be in trees and most of Ilha da Queimada Grande is rainforest. The population of Lanceheads is so concentrated that it’s estimated that there’s one snake per meter on the 430,000 square meter island, in other words, wherever you go on this island you’re no more than 2-3 feet from one of these vipers. How can these snakes survive if they’re on an island separated from the rest of the world? Their diet consists of seabirds that stop on the island to rest (hence why these snakes like hanging around in trees). The Island at one time was used as a banana plantation but because of the Lanceheads production was abandoned even after part of the rainforest on the island was cleared by the slash and burn technique, slash and burn in Portuguese is Queimada, hence the islands name. In 1909 a lighthouse was built for navigation purposes and it’s this lighthouse that gave birth to the islands most infamous story. A lighthouse in order to operate needs a keeper, and to make sure the keeper is not bored or goes mad from being alone will have his family with him, the last family to man the lighthouse was said to have met a terrible fate one night.

The now unmanned Lighthouse of Ilha da Queimada Grande

The legend goes that one night while the family was in the housing part of the lighthouse when suddenly they realized that many snakes have entered the home through an open window. The family decided to abandon the home and flee to the dock where they had a boat moored but as they ran for their lives through the forest, the snakes dropped from the trees above or struck the family members from the branches they hung from. The bodies of the lighthouse keeper, his wife, and three children were found in their boat which was now full of blood as a result of the multiple bites. The story is said to be just that, a story, but many believe it’s true because other stories have been told by sailors and fishermen who have found boats adrift near the island with dead bodies on board with snake bites and blood pooling inside the boat. Some believe that the boaters or fishermen stop by the island to pick bananas from trees that still grow on the island and met their fate at the fangs of the vipers.
Some believe it’s a pirate curse. A legend goes that pirates left treasure on the island and released the early ancestors of the Lanceheads on the island so they would protect the treasure of these pirates. Science proved this theory false, the lanceheads ancestors most likely were on the island while it was still connected to the rest of South America and over time the sea level rose up and separated the island from the rest of the continent and the Lanceheads became the alpha predators on the newly made island and killed off other species before adapting to living in trees and feeding on birds. Either way, vipers living in trees with the power to kill you in a bite makes you not care about the science!

A sign telling boaters that mooring is prohibited and the island is restricted.

Today, Ilha da Queimada Grande is considered “Restricted” by the Brazilian Navy and access to the island if forbidden, reasons for it, you guessed it. The snakes. Since this is the only place in the entire world that this species of viper is located and with the fact of how many there are in such close proximity and how potentially dangerous wandering around the rainforest on the island is one reason. The second reason is because of years of inbreeding, being collected by “overzealous” scientists, and black market animal traffickers have caused the Lanceheads to be listed as critically endangered. Because of this restriction, you must be granted special access by the Brazilian government to go to the island, this is mainly for scientists. Tourists have been known to go to a guy, who knows a guy, who knows a guy, who knows a guy who can get you to the island but you’re risking death by a snake bite or jail time. Me? I’m comfortable looking at the island from the comfort of my bedroom on a computer screen which I think some of you feel the same way.
If you’re still curious about what that island is like, check out this VICE documentary about it.

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