Snake Island: A Deadly Paradise

Ilha da Queimada Grande - Snake Island
Ilha da Queimada Grande – Snake Island


Snake Island, also known as Ilha da Queimada Grande, is a remote and deadly location situated approximately 33 kilometers off the coast of São Paulo, Brazil, in the Atlantic Ocean. This small tropical paradise spans just 43 hectares with a maximum elevation of 206 meters and boasts a year-round temperate climate, giving it an idyllic appearance.

What makes Snake Island so deadly? The clue is in its name.

What sets this island apart from others apart is its ominous reputation, earned from being home to the Golden Lancehead Viper (Bothrops insularis), a highly venomous snake capable of killing adults with a single bite if left untreated. Every meter of the island is covered by snakes.

History of Snake Island

The history of Snake Island is shrouded in mystery, with legends suggesting it may have been used by pirates to safeguard their treasures by populating it with snakes to avoid other looters accessing their gains. And once sea levels rose, it was separated from the rest of the land, creating a unique environment for the snakes to thrive in.

Whether this account is true or not, is highly debatable; since the last time sea levels rose in that area dates from around 11 000 years ago. Were there pirates there at a time when humans were just entering a new age of enlightenment, and, by many proven worldwide accounts, just learning to farm?

The Portuguese name of this island is Ilha da Queimada Grande. It translates to ‘large burnt fire island’, or, sometimes incorrectly translated as ‘forest fire’. The name was given by locals in 1909 when they attempted to clear the island with forest fires in other to use it for banana plantations. The attempt was unsuccessful. Instead, a lighthouse was built to help boats avoid collisions at night.

Brazil Snake Island Map
Map of South America. Shows Snake Island off the coast of Brazil

Today, Snake Island is devoid of human inhabitants, and the lighthouse has been automated, requiring only occasional maintenance by trained personnel. The Brazilian Navy has closed the island off to the public, allowing access only to government-approved researchers for brief periods. Both Ilhas Queimada Pequena e Queimada Grande were declared Areas of Relevant Ecological Interest in 1985.

The Golden Lancehead Viper

What can be said for sure is that sea levels did in fact rise, parting the island from the Brazilian mainland, and creating a unique habitat for Golden Lancehead , who in turn began to thrive and evolve in unique ways.

The wildlife that originally inhabited the island dwindled as the snakes eat them.  Now, there is only birds, cockroaches, locust and other small insects. Because of this, the vipers of Snake Island evolved to hunt in different ways from their mainland counterparts. The Lancehead snakes hide in trees and attack birds as they fly nearby during their migrations from one place to another. Cannibalism has also been documented among the Golden Lanceheads; allegedly because they do not have enough sustenance on the island.

Golden Lancehead Viper (Bothrops Insularis)
Golden Lancehead – The unique ecosystem of the island has led to the evolution of the Golden Lancehead Vipers, as they adapted to their environment by hunting birds during their migrations, as well as resorting to cannibalism due to the scarcity of prey.

Endemic to the Ilha da Queimada Grande, in Brazil, the Golden Lancehead Pit Viper is one of the world’s most toxic snakes. Ilha da Queimada Grande is swarming with 2,000-4,000 Golden Lancehead Vipers, which are among the deadliest snakes in the whole wide world. The Bothrops Insularis snake has about four times more potent venom than its continental cousin, the common Old Lancehead (all of them belong to the genus Bothrops, with 45 species living throughout Central and South America).

Illegal Black Market Trade

Moreover, the illegal black-market trade in venomous vipers from Snake Island has emerged, with individual snakes fetching prices ranging from $15,000 to $35,000.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly why this trade exists. The explanations are varied and convoluted, but there can be summarised with two main points:

  1. There exist people that simply enjoy the exotic and dangerous, and have enough money to splurge on extravagant purchases and endangered species without fear of repercussion, mostly because they can bribe authorities. These would be the same type of people that keep crocodiles, hippopotami, lions and chimpanzees as pets.
Illegal Black Market Trade
Illegal Black Market Trade

2. On the other hand, there exists the medical and pharmaceutical industry which are bound by certain codes of ethics regarding what type of experiments they can perform and on what type of animals. What type of research is done in this regard is but anyone’s guess. Suggestions varied from trying to find cancer cures to weaponising the venom and using it to kill other people.  

In conclusion, Ilha da Queimada Grande, stands as a captivating yet perilous natural wonder in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Brazil. Its reputation as one of the world’s deadliest places is primarily due to the presence of the Golden Lancehead, a venomous snake capable of delivering a lethal bite. Despite the island’s intriguing history, shrouded in pirate legends and environmental transformations, its isolation and inherent danger have led to strict regulations, with the Brazilian Navy restricting access to authorized researchers.

The unique ecosystem of the island has resulted in the adaptation of the Golden Lancehead Vipers, making them formidable and distinct predators in their habitat. However, the island’s allure has also sparked a disturbing illegal black-market trade, where these deadly snakes are bought and sold at exorbitant prices for dubious purposes.

The story of Snake Island, with its mysteries and dangers, serves as a testament to the power of nature to shape and evolve life in the most unexpected ways. While the island remains inaccessible to the public, it continues to capture the imagination of those who seek to understand the secrets it holds. The Island stands as a stark reminder of the delicate balance of ecosystems and the human fascination with the unknown and the dangerous, inviting further exploration and research into its unique and deadly inhabitants.

A very interesting documentary on the subject was done by Vice in 2014. It documents a small expedition to the island with permission of the Brazilian government.

Vice Documentary starring Rocco Castoro

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