Snake Island: A Deadly Paradise

Ilha da Quimada Granda - Snake Island
Ilha da Quimada Granda – Snake Island


Approximately 33 kilometres off the coast of São Paulo (Brazil), in the Atlantic Ocean, there exists one of the deadliest places in the world known as Snake Island. The island is a small tropical paradise of just 43 hectares and a maximum elevation of just 206 meters. Its topography varies considerably from bare rock to rainforest. Due to its unique location, it boasts a temperate climate all year round, giving it its characteristic paradise-like appearance.

What makes Snake Island so deadly? The clue is in its name. Every meter of it is covered by snakes. But not just any snakes, it is covered by the Golden Lancehead Viper (Bothrops insularis), a highly venomous snake that can kill grown adults with a single bite within minutes if not treated immediately.

History of Snake Island

The history of Snake Island is patchy at best. But the most common legend is that it was originally used by pirates to hide their treasures. They covered the island 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 Snake 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

Currently, no humans are living on the island and the lighthouse has been automated so that highly trained people only go there once or twice a year to fix any repairs to the light. Both Ilhas Queimada Pequena e Queimada Grande were declared Areas of Relevant Ecological Interest in 1985.

The island is so dangerous that it was closed off to the public by the Brazilian Navy. Only researchers with special waivers by the government are allowed to visit it, and only for short periods of time.

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 vipers (Bothrops insularis), 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

Endemic to the Ilha da Queimada Grande, in Brazil, the Golden Lancehead Pit Viper (Bothrops insularis) 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

There is an illegal black-market trade for the venomous vipers of Snake Island. The price for a single snake varies between $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.  

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.

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Vice Documentary starring Rocco Castoro

4 thoughts on “Snake Island: A Deadly Paradise

  1. I like to watch shows about snakes, but I don’t really like snakes, that’s why I wouldn’t visit this island, just because of the many snakes on that island. I would watch, but from a safe distance.

  2. Very interesting article. I didn’t even know there was such an island with such a history.
    But the snakes have done well for themselves. They have learned to survive.
    And the price for the snake is simply amazing!!!

  3. very amazing things.. I never thought that the world has such an island… good writing…. in the main time, i am so upset because of the black market trade. this is just animal that has the right to survive in the world.

  4. Very interesting article. I didn’t even know there was such an island with such a history.
    But the snakes have done well for themselves. They have learned to survive.i really like this type of article aboute snake.