Amidst the great blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean lies a clandestine, tropical paradise shrouded in mystery and natural beauty.
Snake Island. Its name immediately gives away its reputation. It has long been considered to be one of the most dangerous, terrifying parcels of land anywhere on the planet – and for good reason.
The island is nestled off the Brazilian coast. But the completely uninhabited island holds a dark secret beneath its beautiful facade of rocky shorelines underneath a blazing sun.
Despite its apparent calm and tranquility, the island teems with an unparalleled density of deadly snakes, unlike anything seen anywhere else. Lethal snakes, potentially tens or hundreds of thousands, slither through the foliage, their venomous fangs poised to strike any intruder that sets foot on the island.
The incredible story and history of Snake Island, where danger lurks at every turn, is one filled with daring explorers, legendary tales, and ultimately, a constant battle for survival.
What is Snake Island?
The history of Ilha da Queimada Grande, famously known as Snake Island, is as captivating as it is perilous.
It is located approximately 33 kilometers, or 21 miles, off the São Paulo coast in southeastern Brazil. This small island in the Atlantic Ocean spans a mere 430,000 square meters.
It boasts a diverse terrain. It ranges from barren rocks to lush rainforests. It rises high out of the ocean’s surface, up to 676 feet at its tallest point.
Snake Island’s climate is fairly temperate. Temperatures fluctuate from a low average of 65°F in August to 81°F in March – summer for the southern hemisphere. It also experiences varying rainfall throughout the year, from almost none in July to fairly rainy conditions in December.
This mesmerizing landscape harbors a fascinating history – and a deadly secret.
In modern times, Ilha da Queimada Grande witnessed massive deforestation. This resulted in its Portuguese name “Queimada,” meaning “forest fire,” after locals burned the forest to clear land for a banana plantation.
Further back in time, Snake Island would have been connected to mainland Brazil. However, rising sea levels severed this connection thousands of years ago. In the process, many venomous serpents were stranded. Ever since, they have thrived in their isolated haven, living on a diet of birds.
In 1909, a lighthouse was erected to guide ships away from the rocky shores. The last lighthouse keepers eventually left for good when it was automated. They left behind an untamed wilderness where the serpents reign supreme.
The Perfect Habitat for Danger
Snake Island’s story begins around 11,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. Sea levels rose, trapping a population of snakes on the tropical enclave.
Isolated for thousands of years, the snake population underwent remarkable adaptations. They rapidly multiplied and turned the island into a forbidden haven.
Local legends speak of pirates using Ilha da Queimada Grande to protect their buried treasure. But the true reason for its unique inhabitants lies in its remarkable isolation and evolutionary history.
Today, with a more realistic estimated population of 2,000 to 4,000 golden lanceheads, this highly venomous pit viper species reigns supreme on Snake Island. This density – by many accounts, one snake for every square meter – has given the island its reputation as a place of great danger.
Plenty of rumors and legends abound. But for those who dare to question whether Snake Island is as dangerous as its reputation suggests, the answer lies in the delicate dance between the golden lancehead snakes and their secluded realm.
The Golden Lancehead
The treacherous realm of Snake Island is ruled by the golden lancehead. This is an infamous and highly venomous pit viper known scientifically as Bothrops insularis.
Endemic solely to Ilha da Queimada Grande, the golden lancehead vipers hold the distinction of being the island’s only natural inhabitants. Named for their distinctive light yellowish-brown underside and characteristic head shape, they’re among the deadliest snakes in Latin America.
Their potent venom, adapted to preying on local birds, is five times more potent than – and the fastest-acting of – all closely related species.
No official reports exist of human encounters with golden lanceheads due to the island’s uninhabited status. But other lanceheads have inflicted more human fatalities in the Americas than any other group of snakes.
In the rare instances of a bite, the effects are severe. The effects include swelling, excruciating pain, and nausea, along with possible internal bleeding or even kidney failure. With a mortality rate ranging from 0.5% to 3% if treated and 7% without treatment, the danger posed by golden lanceheads cannot be overstated.
The golden lancehead snakes, shrouded in myth and menacing allure, are the unquestioned commanders of Snake Island.
Allure for Adventurers
With so many snakes, the Brazilian Navy has strictly restricted public access to Snake Island. This decision was made as an attempt to protect both human and snake lives.
Only authorized researchers granted waivers by the Brazilian federal conservation unit are allowed on the island to collect vital data. This ensures the preservation of the fragile ecosystem. It also safeguards the critically endangered golden lancehead population.
Despite the restrictions, the island remains a target for wildlife smugglers. These smugglers capture and sell the rare snakes on the black market. It’s also a destination for amateur thrill-seekers that attempt to visit Snake Island.
The island faces challenges such as habitat degradation. This is caused by the removal of vegetation and the emergence of diseases. It resulted in a significant decline in the golden lancehead population over the past 15 years.
The battle between conservation and exploitation persists as the allure of Ilha da Queimada Grande continues to attract both dedicated researchers and illicit adventurers.
Is Snake Island Really One of the Most Dangerous Locations on the Planet?
Despite their deadly toxins, there exist no records of golden lancehead snake bites on human flesh. Although the migratory birds are less fortunate.
The potential risks posed by the island’s serpentine inhabitants are enough for access to be restricted by the Brazilian government. But this is for the good of both the snakes and unwise adventurers.
The island’s turbulent past and unparalleled natural wonders elevated Ilha da Queimada Grande to a realm of fascination and fear. Its delicate ecosystem and the presence of so many venomous snakes on such a small island have rendered it a place of awe and mystery.
Geiling, Natasha. “This Terrifying Brazilian Island Has the Highest Concentration of Venomous Snakes Anywhere in the World.” Smithsonian.com, June 25, 2014. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/snake-infested-island-deadliest-place-brazil-180951782/.
Phelan, Joe. “Is Snake Island in Brazil as Dangerous as It Sounds?” Discover Magazine, March 27, 2023. https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/almost-4-000-snakes-rule-this-brazilian-island.