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World’s rarest snake, The Antiguan Racer, saved from extinction

03/11/2010 10:29:11

Antigua Racer snake, back from the brink. Credit Jenny Daltry/FFI

World's rarest snake back from the brink of extinction

November 2010. Conservationists working in the West Indies have made great strides towards saving the world's rarest snake, the Antiguan racer (Alsophis antiguae). The population has dramatically climbed from just 50 individuals in the mid-nineties to more than 500 today.

Rat eradication has led to 3000% increase in birds
The ten-fold increase is due to the successful partnership of six local and international organizations that make up the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project. The initiative has carried out nation-wide environmental education, the removal of alien rats that attacked the snakes and a pioneering reintroduction programme. Remarkably, the snake conservation efforts have also benefited other native wildlife that share its habitat, with the number of birds having increased by 30-fold in 15 years.

Great Bird Island, where just 50 of the snakes 
were found in 1995. Credit jenny Daltry/FFI.

1995 - Just 50 snakes alive on 1 island
Research by British and Antiguan scientists in 1995 discovered only 50 Antiguan racer survived, all confined to the 8-hectare Great Bird Island, off the coast of Antigua. The mongoose, an Asian species introduced by humans, wiped out the snakes from mainland Antigua, while another alien species, Eurasian black rats, attacked the last of the species on Great Bird Island. The defenceless snakes were also killed by people. Hence, the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project was launched as an emergency bid to save the critically endangered species from imminent extinction.

Rats cleared from 12 islands
Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, the Project has removed rats from 12 of Antigua's offshore islands and increased the snake population by ten-fold. Through careful reintroduction of individual snakes, the area occupied by the Antiguan racer has been boosted eight-fold to 63 hectares. The snakes have become accepted, even liked, by local residents and visitors. Trained local volunteers monitor the wildlife and keep their islands rat-free. The Antiguan racer still faces many challenges, including global sea level rise, but a new action plan is being developed which is expected to find additional areas where the snakes can be re-established and protected.

Local volunteers
"I am proud we proved the pessimists wrong, and turned the fortunes of this unique and endearing animal", said Dr Jenny Daltry, FFI Senior Conservation Biologist. "Many people have contributed over the years, but special credit must go to the local volunteers. This success is a testament to their dedication."

EAG raising awareness of local children of the
Antiguan racer snake Credit Jenny Daltry FFI.

Dr Brian Smith, a Professor in Biology at Black Hills State University, adds, "Working with students in Antigua has been a highlight of my professional career. Being part of an international collaboration to rescue this snake from the brink of extinction has been immensely gratifying".

"Although the population of the racer has grown by leaps, we cannot stop now", warns Natalya Lawrence, Programme Coordinator, Environmental Awareness Group. "There is still a need for public awareness, continued monitoring, and stronger laws to protect the snake and other endangered species on our islands."

Pelicans, turtles and lizards benefit
Removing rats from a dozen offshore islands has benefitted many other Antiguan species beyond the snake. For example, Caribbean brown pelicans have increased from only two breeding pairs to more than 60 pairs on the first islands to be restored, while rare white-crowned pigeons have exploded from five pairs to more than 450 pairs. Sea turtles and lizards have also benefitted from reduced predation of their eggs by rats and even the plant life has improved.

Global model
"An important by-product of the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project has been to demonstrate a globally-relevant model for conservation of biodiversity", said Bruce Potter, President of Island Resources Foundation. "Offshore islands are being turned into reserves where public and private organizations can control invasive species and manage tourism development pressures more effectively".

In 2006, the offshore islands became part of a major new marine protected area: the North East Marine Management Area. This stunningly beautiful area draws at least 50,000 local and international visitors every year and covers a quarter of Antigua's coastline, making it the country's largest protected area for biodiversity conservation.

About the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project
The Antiguan Racer Conservation Project was founded in 1995 and co-managed by six national and international organizations: Environmental Awareness Group, Forestry Unit Ministry of Agriculture, Housing, Lands and the Environment), Black Hills State University, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Fauna & Flora International, and the Island Resources Foundation. The project operates as part of the Offshore Islands Conservation Programme, which works to restore and conserve Antigua's offshore island ecosystems for the benefit of biodiversity and local people. The project's current sponsors are the Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, Mohammed bin Zayed
Species Conservation Fund, Syngenta and US Fish and Wildlife Service (Critically Endangered Animals Conservation Fund and Neotropical Migratory Birds Conservation Act).

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