Plenty of people dream about visiting a tropical island where they can unwind on the beach and let their worldly worries drift away—a place of beauty safe from the dangers of the world.
But even beautiful islands fit for the front of a postcard can hold unknown dangers. For instance, Ilha da Queimada Grande, a little island off the coast of Brazil, looks harmless from a distance. As you approach, it seems like a great place to go rock climbing or relaxing on the beach. There’s even a quaint little light house, perfect for photo opportunities.
And wouldn’t you know it, this island has another name—and when you hear it, you’ll understand why no tourist has set foot there in years.
Do you dream of an island vacation, complete with private beaches and clear, blue ocean? Maybe you dream of photographs by a quaint light house. Well, from a distance, Ilha da Queimada Grande may look like the perfect place for that relaxing getaway. However, it proves to be anything but…
Just 93 miles from the heart of São Paulo, Brazil, the island offers 106 acres of rock, rain forest, and beach. If it’s privacy you want, you’re in luck—the population of the island is exactly zero. Of course, that privacy comes with a cost.
Unfortunately, Ilha da Queimada Grande isn’t all that it appears to be. You can’t go there unless you have a permit from the Brazilian government, and it’s actually one of the most terrifying, deadly places on the entire planet. When you see its nickname, you’ll know why!
In the trees and strewn about its rocks, the island known as Snake Island harbors thousands of Bothrops insularis, otherwise known as golden lancehead pit vipers. They have one of the most deadly bites of any snake in the world, and Discovery.com estimates that there are between 2,000 and 4,000 snakes on the island—the only place where they can be found.
Original estimates claimed there were over 430,000 snakes on the island—one for every square meter.
How’d so many snakes end up in such a condensed area? Well, one theory suggests that, 11,000 years ago as water levels rose, the snakes became trapped there as they were unable to make the swim back to the mainland. There’s another theory, too…
But when one news outlet ventured out to Brazil to better understand this mysterious island, they talked with an unnamed local, who offered another, much more colorful theory as to the origin of the snakes: pirates. What made him think that?
“You know, in my mind, I believe [the snakes] were introduced by pirates,” said the local in Portuguese. “To protect gold galleons. So I believe there’s gold there. How else would these snakes appear there? Snakes that don’t belong to any other continent?”
Howard Pyle / Wikimedia
Legends about the island of Queimada Grande don’t stop at the origin of the snakes, either. Another local, who shared a tale about the dangers of the island, said the folks on boats saw a bunch of bananas, so they went to cut a few off of the branches…
Daniel Frauchiger / Flickr
His story had a simple, if not poignant conclusion: “Both of them died,” the man said. Poisoned bananas or venomous vipers, it wouldn’t be surprising that this island is dangerous. The snakes’ venom alone can kill a person in up to six hours. Up to. You could die much, much faster than that! Strangely, though, that venom is also a valuable resource.
While the venom is deadly, it also comes with some medicinal purposes. In 1981, medical experts utilized the venom in a medicine designed to lower blood pressure—it’s great help for those with blood clots or heart disease. It’s even FDA-approved. However, the value of the snake venom comes with consequences.
Despite needing legal clearance from Brazil to make a trip to the island, the snakes are valuable enough assets to encourage a little bit of law-breaking. Animal smugglers make undercover trips out to the island to get their hands on snakes for their venom… and something else.
These animal smugglers or bio-pirates venture to Snake Island to steal the snakes themselves. According to an ABC News report, the snakes sell on a black market for about $15,000. The fact that anyone would want to own one of these snakes is made more alarming by just how much destruction their venom can cause…
ABC News / Youtube
The venom of the lancehead viper melts flesh. That’s right. It doesn’t just give you a stomachache, diarrhea, and then an untimely death. It actually breaks flesh down so that the snake can more easily digest its prey. So, what most frequently serves as the unfortunate target of the venom?
Birds. Because you can’t very well wait for a bird to sit around and die if you’re a hungry snake—it would just fly far away from you and die somewhere else—these snakes needed fast-acting venom. This raises another question: how do snakes kill birds if the birds mostly settled in trees?
Snake Island is a demonstration of “survival of the fittest” in action: only the snakes who were capable of climbing the trees and snagging birds from their perches were the only ones who survived. Think about that: the snakes on Snake Island evolved to climb trees. Hooray!
In an official capacity, no one has ever lived on Snake Island except for one man and his family. There’s very little available information on him—like whether he existed at all—but apparently, he operated the island’s lighthouse, which had been built in 1909.
Evidently though, Snake Island didn’t have a great educational district or something because the lighthouse steward and his family were eventually replaced by an automated lighthouse. Every year, the Brazilian Navy visits it to conduct annual repairs.
The lancehead viper has been classified as critically endangered, which should come as no shock since Snake Island is literally the only place on the planet where you can find them. A number of factors have led to their demise…
Scientists have over-harvested the snake for its venom, and pirates have made a quick buck off their sale. Furthermore, after centuries of interbreeding, many of the snakes are born with both male and female reproduction parts—unfortunately, that usually means they’re sterile, too.
Snake Island may be full of deadly snakes, but they’re one of a kind. Sure, if you go there, you might end up a corpse in a Brazilian legend, though no human deaths have ever been recorded outside of stories. It might be a snake-infested death pit, but to the lancehead viper, Ilha da Queimada Grande is paradise—their only paradise.
Talk about a dangerous island! Would a visit to Snake Island be worth the adventure of surviving it? Only the bravest—or craziest—could say.
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