Scientists from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, together with other conservation groups, found and tagged 11 of the rare snakes in the Maria Islands reserve, about 1 kilometre south of St Lucia. Overall, they estimate that only 18 individuals live on the 30-acre islet, and as a result have declared the St Lucia racer to be the world’s rarest snake.
“In one sense it is a very worrying situation, with such a small population restricted to a single, tiny site,” said Matthew Morton, Eastern Caribbean Programme Manager at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. “But in another sense, it’s an opportunity … It means that we still have a chance to save this species.”
A small, brown, non-venomous snake, the St Lucia racer is known for being quite gentle and docile around humans. However, predation by introduced mongooses decimated its population on St Lucia, and the snake was declared extinct in 1936.
Fortunately, the St Lucia racer was spotted again on the Maria Islands in 1973, and occasional sightings have been reported since. The small, rocky island reserve is free of mongooses, providing a safe haven for the snakes.
Last year, conservationists launched a search for the St Lucia racer on the larger of the two Maria Islands. Once captured, the snakes were implanted with microchips that will allow them to be followed for at least ten years, providing vital information about their lives.
The team also collected DNA samples to assess the level of genetic variation within the tiny population. Although the results will not be known for several more months, the information will have important implications for any breeding programme for the species.
Scientists are now trying to come up with the best way to save the St Lucia racer. Moving snakes to St Lucia’s main island is not an option, as they would soon fall victim to mongooses. Breeding them on other mongoose-free offshore islands is a possibility, but would depend on finding locations with adequate food supplies.
According to Mr Morton, ensuring that people are aware of the snake’s plight will be vital for its conservation, although this could be difficult as they “aren’t whales or fluffy little animals that people like.” Action will need to be taken, however, if this rare snake is to survive into the future.
“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 Jenny Daltry, Senior Conservation Biologist at Fauna & Flora International. “To do nothing is not an option.”
Find out more about the work of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.
Find out more about the St Lucia racer on ARKive.
Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author