- Written by National Trust
Monday 9th July 2012, West Indies – Conservationists have found the world’s rarest known snake in the Caribbean nation of Saint Lucia. A five-month assessment of the Saint Lucia racer, a small non-venomous snake, has revealed that as few as 18 individuals remain. The racer was once common across Saint Lucia, but rapidly declined after predatory mongooses were introduced to Saint Lucia from India in the late 19th century. The last Saint Lucia racers now survive only on a single offshore islet just 12 hectares (30 acres) in size, which has remained mongoose-free.
The Saint Lucia racer, one of four endemic snakes of Saint Lucia, was declared extinct in 1936. However, in 1973, a single individual was caught on Maria Islands Nature Reserve. Since then, sightings have been rare, leading to fears that these harmless snakes may have been lost forever. Towards the end of 2011, a team of Saint Lucian and international conservationists was assembled to find out whether the racers still survived and, with funding from the Balcombe Trust, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund and the US Fish & Wildlife Service, began painstaking searches of the rocky, steep-sided islet. Eleven racers were caught, tagged with microchips and released unharmed. Analysis of data from recaptures indicate a total population of only 18 individuals. Another, less conservative method placed the population at nearer 100. The Saint Lucia racer is therefore deemed to be the rarest known snake in the world and indeed one of the rarest animals of any kind. At only 12 hectares, its distribution range is also one of the smallest of any snake.
“Durrell has been committed to working with Saint Lucia’s most threatened species for the last 30 years and so it was a huge relief to confirm that a population of the racer still survives” says Matthew Morton, Eastern Caribbean Programme Manager for Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, “but that relief is tempered by the knowledge of how close we still are to losing it forever”.
The title of the “world’s rarest snake” was previously held by a different West Indian snake, the Antiguan racer. In 1995, the Antiguan racer numbered only 50 individuals, but after 17 years of conservation efforts by the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project, these racers have increased to a more secure population of 900 individuals. This success has been achieved by building local understanding and pride in the snake and removing the non-native mongooses and rats that prey on snakes. This strategy is now being investigated closely by the conservation team in Saint Lucia to determine whether the Saint Lucia racer can be saved using a similar approach. Until then, the tiny population, found on only one tiny island, remains under severe threat of extinction.
“We have four endemic snakes species unique to Saint Lucia” says Alwin Dornelly, Wildlife Officer at the Saint Lucia Forestry Department, “one of them extremely rare. We have to ensure we make every effort to save this important species from extinction.”
Bishnu Tulsie, Director of The Saint Lucia National Trust says “we welcome confirmation that the Saint Lucia Racer is still present on Maria Major and will collaborate with partners to implement measures to improve chances for its survival.”
”Tens if not hundreds of West Indian animals have already been lost because humans have unwisely released harmful species from other parts of the world, and we cannot allow the gentle Saint Lucia racer to be the next casualty” said Dr Jenny Daltry, Senior Conservation Biologist with Fauna & Flora International, adding “To do nothing is not an option”.
Notes to editors:
The Saint Lucia racer (scientific name: Liophis ornatus) is a small snake, less than a metre in length; medium brown in colour often with darker brown markings on its back. It is a non-venomous snake and field surveyors on the 2011 assessment found it to be
remarkably unaggressive and easy to handle. On Maria Islet it feeds on various lizard species that are abundant there in the absence of mongooses. Maria Islet was gazetted as a Nature Reserve by the Government of Saint Lucia in 1980. The habitat on the islet is very dry, with large stands of cactus and seasonal dry forest. Interestingly, historical notes suggest the Saint Lucia racer may originally have preferred more moist habitats before it was eradicated from them by mongooses.
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The Saint Lucia Forestry Department, Ministry of Sustainable Development,. Energy, Science and Technology
The Forestry Department is the principal agency responsible for managing forest and wildlife resources on the island of Saint Lucia. Its mission is to protect and conserve the natural resources for the protection of the environment and to obtain maximum utilization consistent with sustainable development with regards to the welfare of the rural communities and the country as a whole. The Department’s motto “La Forway Say La Vie” (The Forest is Life) provides a simple yet fundamental principle for the sustainable management of a small, tropical island.
The Saint Lucia National Trust (http://slunatrust.org/) is not only the longest serving environmental and heritage membership organisation on the island, but also the only membership organisation with a legal mandate to conserve both the natural and cultural heritage of Saint Lucia.
Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (www.durrell.org) is an international charity working globally to save species from extinction. Headquartered in Jersey, in the Channel Islands, Durrell focuses on the most threatened species in the most threatened places.
Durrell’s philosophy emphasises the need for our three core conservation pillars to work together: a wildlife park in Jersey as a centre of animal husbandry and knowledge, disciplined management of conservation programmes in the field and an International Training Centre to build conservation capacity. Durrell’s belief is that lasting and effective wildlife conservation can be achieved where these three components are in
harmony. In the Eastern Caribbean, Durrell is based in Saint Lucia and presently supports conservation efforts in Saint Lucia, Montserrat and Antigua.
Fauna & Flora International (http://www.fauna-flora.org) protects threatened species and ecosystems worldwide, choosing solutions that are sustainable, based on sound science and take account of human needs. Operating in more than 40 countries worldwide – including four in the West Indies – FFI saves species from extinction and habitats from destruction, while improving the livelihoods of local people. Founded in 1903, FFI is the world’s longest established international conservation body and a registered charity.
High resolution photos of the Saint Lucia racer and other images from this work are available upon request.
For an interview with Matthew Morton, Eastern Caribbean Manager for Durrell, please contact:
Les Augres Manor, La Profonde Rue, Trinity, Jersey, JE3 5BP, Channel Islands.
For an interview with Alwin Dornelly, Wildlife Officer, he can be contacted at:
Department of Forestry Ministry of Sustainable Development, Energy, Science and Technology Union, Castries Saint Lucia