Snake Island: the Brazilian rock known as the deadliest place on Earth

. Jan 19, 2020
snake island brazil Photo: WikiCommons

Forget kidnapping, mugging, police brutality, or the Zika virus. The most dangerous spot in Brazil is a tiny island due south of São Paulo. This place is so deadly that authorities do not allow anyone to set foot there without acquiring specific permits. We’re talking about Ilha de Queimada Grande, more commonly known as Snake Island.

</p> <p>As the name suggests, there are no mammals native to the island and the main residents are Golden Lancehead vipers, the meter-long serpent that is responsible for 90 percent of snake-related deaths in Brazil. The poison of these Lanceheads is five times stronger than that of other Lancehead Vipers on the continent.</p> <p>Their only source of food is the birds that use the island as a rest stop. Experts believe that they evolved to have such strong venom as a way of securing their survival: if the poison weren’t immediately powerful enough, the birds would not die quickly and would instead be able to escape only to die over the ocean, meaning countless meals would be lost. Apart from their extremely potent venom, the snakes have also learned to climb trees in order to enhance their chances of catching these feathered treats.</p> <p>While they are often forced to go long times without food, the Golden Lanceheads from Snake Island have no concerns about predators—their dominance is unchallenged on the rock, largely by overcrowding. Biologists believe that the island is home to roughly one snake per square meter.</p> <h2>A little piece of hell</h2> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="666" src="" alt="snake island brazil" class="wp-image-30422" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /></figure> <p>The name of the island is a reference to an old practice of fishermen who used to use it as a temporary dock. <em>Queimada grande</em> translates as &#8220;big fire,&#8221; and travelers would be forced to burn large chunks of land upon arrival in order to scare off the serpents and allow them to land briefly. The Brazilian Navy only allows scientific expeditions to visit the island, as not even the hardiest of adventurers would last long exploring its snake-infested jungle.</p> <p>And visiting would hardly be worth it. The island has no sandy beaches or drinkable water, and the heat is intense. Besides the deadly snakes, the island is also home to a large population of poisonous spiders.</p> <p>That being said, it could come as a surprise to hear that there are indeed people willing to visit Snake Island. Some foolhardy tourists try to illegally hire local fishermen from the closest beach towns of Peruibe or Itanhaem to make the 35-kilometer crossing.</p> <p>There are other visitors to Snake Island, too, with more nefarious intentions. Pirates have been known to visit the island to capture snakes for use in illegal medicines. The venom of the Golden Lancehead viper is used in hypertension treatments and could be worth a lot of money. To avoid this illegal exploitation of the island, the Brazilian Navy and NGOs are monitoring the area.</p> <p>The Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Protection (<a href="">ICMBio</a>) often sends its researchers over to the isle in its efforts to protect the Golden Lancehead viper. Despite being the dominant species on the rock&#8217;s food chain, the serpent is under threat of extinction, as it is only endemic to Ilha de Queimada Grande and the local habitat—devoid of small mammals, especially rodents—makes it difficult to find readily available food.

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Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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