Located 150 kilometers off the coast of São Paulo in Brazil is the uninhabited island of Ilha da Queimada Grande, or as it’s more commonly known, ‘Snake Island’. It may not have human habitants, but what earned the island its name is its resident snake population that is of incredibly high density — it is estimated that for every one meter squared, there lives at least one snake.
Extremely rocky terrain, subtropical landscapes and isolation make this island totally uninhabitable for humans or any other mammal. This has had a profound impact on the snake population that has thrived without any predators or human intervention, and has sustained itself through feeding on migratory birds that use the island as a resting stop. The snakes, known as golden lanceheads, exist nowhere else in the world and are totally unique to the island; they also just so happen to be one of the most poisonous reptiles on Earth.
The golden lancehead is part of the lancehead genus, a type of pit viper, and has the fastest-acting venom from the genus and is five times more potent than its nearest relative, the jararaca. Its powerful bite eats away at the surrounding flesh and causes internal bleeding and organ failure. On average, the golden lancehead grows up to 70 centimeters, but there are reports of some specimens growing to over one meter.
The Brazilian government banned all trips to the island due to the danger the snakes pose to human life, but likewise due to the danger humans bring upon the snakes — the golden lancehead snake is classified as critically endangered and the area is protected in order to preserve this unique population, the only one of its kind on the planet. Despite the government’s best efforts, illegal hunters still raid the island to capture these vulnerable snakes to sell on the black market.
Several legends circulate regarding the island and its main residents, including a gang of snakes wiping out the family of a lighthouse keeper and a tale of three hungry fishermen dying in a pool of blood after being attacked. The truth is, while the golden lancehead snake is highly poisonous, there haven’t been any officially recorded deaths from this critter, most likely because their specie doesn’t exist anywhere else on earth and people tend not to stop on the island.
To visit the island is illegal, immensely risky and requires permission from the Brazilian navy. Anti-venom is located in São Paulo‘s Butantã Institute, 150 kilometers away, so a bite can be fatal. The institute has golden lanceheads for milking and research purposes so they can be seen up close and personal there, yet with a welcome, safety glass in between.