Ilha da Queimada: Home to the World’s Highest Concentration of Venomous Snakes

Brazil’s Ilha da Queimada is one of the deadliest places in the natural world. The island, which is off the coast of Sao Paulo, has the highest concentration of venomous snakes on Earth.

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According to the Smithsonian, there are as many as four thousand golden lancehead vipers on the island. The Wall Street Journal equates that number to one viper per square meter. The golden lancehead’s venom can melt human flesh and kill a person in an hour. A bite from a golden lancehead carries a seven percent chance of death, and even with treatment, victims still have a three percent chance of dying. The snake’s venom can cause kidney failure, necrosis of muscular tissue, brain hemorrhaging and intestinal bleeding.

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The snakes feed on the migratory birds that visit the island seasonally during long flights. Often, venomous snakes stalk their prey, bite and wait for the venom to paralyze or kill an animal before ingestion, often having to track it before death. Golden Lancehead venom is a powerful exception. It is three to five times stronger than any other venom in the Bothrop genus, and envenomation can kill instantly. Hemotoxins, common to all species of viper, have the ability to denature proteins, essentially digesting the prey on contact.

It goes without saying that no one currently lives on Ilha da Queimada, but the Brazilian Navy services an automated lighthouse annually. Historically, few people lived on the island to run the lighthouse during the early 20th century. According to a local tall tale, the snakes killed the last lighthouse keeper, his wife and their three kids in the 1920s.

Ilha da Queimada is also an important ecosystem for biologists and researchers, who are granted special permission to visit the island in order to study the golden lanceheads. One can only visit the island accompanied by a doctor and with a valid government permit.

Although the golden lancehead doesn’t face any danger from local predators, their population is drastically decreasing due to black market demands, animal collectors, habitat degradation and other diseases. The island has lost around fifty percent of the lanceheads in the last fifteen years. A single snake carries a price tag of $10,000 to $30,000 on the black market. The lancehead is currently listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.