Rarity to Recovery: The Story of the Antiguan Racer Snake

Uploaded by KevinCollinsVideo on 10.11.2012

>> KEVIN V/O: The summer of 2002.
For the first time,
I, Kevin Collins,
set foot on the beautiful Caribbean island...
...of Antigua.
Like most tourists,
I'm eager to explore Antigua's warm waters and sunny beaches.
My travels lead me to Great Bird Island,
a tiny island situated off the northeast coast of the Antiguan mainland.
To be honest,
I come mainly to enjoy the gorgeous coral reefs surrounding the island.
...But it's on the island itself that I discover something...
While sightseeing from Bird Island's rocky summit,
I spot a tiny snake wriggling between some stones.
For sure, it's cool to see a snake,
but beyond the sheer novelty of the situation,
I don't think much about my reptilian encounter.
...That is, until a few years later.
I'm browsing the Internet when I stumble on an article about the
"world's rarest snake."
According to the article, the snake,
known as the Antiguan racer,
once resided exclusively on none other than Great Bird Island, Antigua.
"Wait a minute," I think to myself,
"isn't that the tiny island I visited...
...and didn't I see a snake there?"
The article also states that conservation efforts
boosted the Antiguan racer population
from around 50 individuals in the mid-1990s,
to around 500 today.
Simply put, I'm dumbfounded.
I might have glimpsed at one of the rarest creatures on the face of the Earth,
yet at the time, I hadn't the slightest clue.
I'm eager to learn more about this scarce serpent,
so I'm returning to Antigua to seek the answers to my questions.
I want to know...
How did the Antiguan racer become so rare?
What is being done to protect them?
And most importantly,
I'm curious to see how conservation efforts have managed
to catapult this snake
from rarity...
...to recovery.
My first stop is the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda,
where I'm meeting up with Natalya Lawrence.
Natalya works with the Environmental Awareness Group of Antigua,
or EAG.
She's also the coordinator of the Offshore Islands Conservation Programme,
which seeks to conserve the plants and animals living on Antigua's offshore islands,
including the Antiguan racer snake.
>> KEVIN: How did the Antiguan racer become so rare?
>> NATALYA: For several reasons.
The mongooses, first of all, almost, or basically wiped out the populations on the mainland.
And then they were backed into a corner basically on the offshore islands,
and then even on the offshore islands...
...the rat situation over there was terrible.
>> KEVIN V/O: So, as it turns out,
the Antiguan racer fell victim to a double threat...
...of rats...
...and mongooses.
Both of these creatures are non-native invasive species.
Hungry mongooses decimated the snakes on the mainland.
The few snakes that remained on the offshore islands were tormented by rats.
Not only did the rats steal the snakes' eggs and their food supplies,
they also bit the tails off some snakes, damaging their reproductive organs.
But I'm curious...
...how did rats and mongooses arrive in Antigua in the first place?
Apparently, it all began with Christopher Columbus...
>> NATALYA: Okay, so thanks to Columbus...
...Thank you Columbus! He discovered our country in the 15th century.
So after that, you know,
English settlers and other settlers came to the Caribbean
and they were planting sugarcane, so they cleared a lot of the forest.
When they came to plant the sugarcane, when they brought workers, slaves and so on,
there were rats on the boats.
So basically, the rats got a free ride to Antigua,
came off the boat, and they never went back home.
Because the rat problem became so great in the 19th century,
they thought of a means of getting rid of the rats.
So they brought mongooses, hoping that the mongooses would eat the rats.
It turns out that rats normally hang out in the night
and mongooses go hunting in the day.
...So they never really met up.
And so, that's what happened to the racers.
The mongooses had to eat something,
and they weren't really finding the rats because of the different time schedules,
so the mongooses just went after the snakes.
>> KEVIN: So that was a big mistake, bringing the mongoose...
>> NATALYA: Yeah, um, introducing foreign species ... always a mistake.
>> KEVIN: That is for sure.
>> KEVIN V/O: By the mid 1990s, the Antiguan racer was in bad shape.
So in 1995, several volunteers and sponsors banded together
to form the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project.
>> KEVIN: In general terms, what does the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project entail?
>> NATALYA: Well, first of all it does anything to save the racer.
Then it deals with a lot of island restoration.
It tries to get rid of whatever is foreign, so that the islands can recuperate.
>> KEVIN V/O: Apparently, rat eradication is key
to the recuperation and preservation of Antigua's offshore islands.
So I'm returning to Great Bird Island to witness this process firsthand.
It's been a long time since I set foot on Bird Island,
so I'm excited to return.
...And hey, I can't complain about the weather!
I'm hoping that I'll get lucky enough to see an Antiguan racer again.
Fortunately, I'm accompanied by Tahambay Smith and Sean Peters,
two EAG field officers who excel at killing rats and finding racer snakes.
Every month, Tahambay and Sean traverse Bird Island,
checking the contents of several rat bait stations.
>> KEVIN: How do the rat traps work?
>> TAHAMBAY: It's kind of basically designed to attract the rats
because rats obviously like to go and search for something...
...they don't like things to be handed to them.
They prefer to ... you know ... inquisitive.
"What's this, a box? Block? Wow."
Go inside, "Wow, food!"
Then so basically it kind of - I think - plays on the psyche of the rats
that they're going somewhere to find something,
but they don't know what it is they're going to find until it's too late.
>> KEVIN V/O: Bird Island has been rat-free for years,
but total vigilance is required to keep things that way.
As long as there are invasive species in the world,
Bird Island could again fall victim.
Back in the forest, Sean spots something hiding in the brush.
I wonder ... could it be a racer snake?
>> SEAN: Look a snake right here!
>> BOY: I see the head, right here.
See ... there you go.
>> KEVIN: You got one?
>> SEAN: Yeah. Now this is Antigua's very own...
...a male racer snake.
>> SEAN: This here is Kevin, holding an Antigua racer snake...
...the rarest snake in the world!
>> TAHAMBAY: *One* of the rarest snakes...
>> KEVIN: ...*One* of the rarest snakes.
>> KEVIN V/O: As I hold this tiny creature, I begin to realize its true significance.
This isn't just a snake...
...it's a piece of history, a national treasure, and a symbol for successful conservation.
>> KEVIN: We ready to let him go?
>> SEAN: Yeah, yeah in the wild.
>> KEVIN: Right over here?
>> SEAN: Yes … Goes "Free Willy!"
>> KEVIN: Go free!
>> KEVIN V/O: Feeling invigorated from my snake encounter,
I next meet up with Aldrick Nicholas.
Aldrick is a local fisherman.
For many years, he has provided boat rides for the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project.
I'm interested in finding out what he thinks of snakes.
>> KEVIN: Do you like snakes yourself?
>> ALDRICK: Well, so far, working with this organisation from back in 1995,
yes, I would say I like snakes.
>> KEVIN: Do you think that the Antiguan racer is a beautiful animal?
>> ALDRICK: I would think so.
I consider an animal that is not venomous, that is not poisonous to us, as a human being,
I think it's ... it's good.
There's some people that, you know,
might not want to touch them,
might not want to work with them,
might not want to see them and so on,
but that's their feeling.
>> KEVIN V/O: The following day, I return to Bird Island to observe a snake census.
Although rat poison has conquered the rodent threat,
Antiguan racers still face other problems.
Inbreeding, for example, is a serious concern due to the Antiguan racer's minuscule population.
The carrying capacity of the tiny offshore islands is also an issue.
Andrea Otto is an EAG field biologist with an abundance of racer snake experience.
Today, she's conducting a racer snake census on Bird Island.
Censuses provide valuable insights into the overall health
of racer snake populations throughout Antigua.
>> ANDREA: In the snake census what we're trying to do is get
a fairly accurate estimate of how many individual snakes there are.
So we use a method called the mark-release-recapture method,
where we try to catch as many snakes as possible,
we mark them using PIT tags, and then we try and catch more.
And we can plug the information that we gather into a program
and the program calculates approximately how many snakes there are.
>> KEVIN V/O: PIT tag is an acronym for Passive Integrated Transponder.
These devices allow Andrea and others to keep track of the racer snakes over time.
Today, Andrea is tagging an undocumented female racer.
>> ANDREA: Between … between here...
...you have to go in deep enough so it's under the skin,
but not too deep that you go down into the snake's body.
...When you do it right you don't get blood.
And you can clearly see ... see the chip?
You can see that it's under the skin and not into the flesh of the snake.
So that's it.
>> KEVIN: What kind of information do you record for each snake?
>> ANDREA: We do a lot of morphometric measurements.
We measure their snout to vent length, then their tail length.
We measure the size of their heads, both the length and the width.
We try to ... the new snakes, count their scales, see how many there are.
We find their mass.
And we also try to observe any deformities,
any illnesses, any problems the snakes might have.
>> KEVIN: Are the racers aggressive or harmful?
>> ANDREA: Well, they're snakes so they can bite but...
...I've handled over a hundred of these snakes and...
...I admit I've been bitten once, but it was just like a little pin prick.
...And they're not poisonous, so...
...they're very cool snakes.
>> KEVIN V/O: Arguably, the best friend and biggest foe of the Antiguan racer is mankind.
Accordingly, outreach activities are a critical component of conservation efforts.
>> NATALYA: Okay, tell me three important uses of the mangroves.
Three important uses...
>> STUDENT: They keep... ...they keep the small baby fish safe.
>> NATALYA: Yes, exactly.
Or we can say it's a nursery, right? Remember that?
>> KEVIN V/O: In recent years, the Floating Classroom Initiative
has given young Antiguans a chance to see some of their country's natural treasures...
...including the racer snake.
I'm following along to witness this program firsthand.
>> JOSEPH: They don't move slow like the ones you see on television.
They're very quick. They're non-poisonous...
...they do bite but they're not poisonous.
>> KEVIN V/O: Joseph Prosper is an educator who works with the EAG.
He's played a crucial role in the establishment of the Floating Classroom Initiative.
>> JOSEPH: The Floating Classroom Initiative came...
...because of a need to find a way
to encapsulate the name "Awareness" in Environmental Awareness Group.
So even though we knew about the snake and we've been on TV talking about it,
it was not reaching the populace...
...and there were fears with the whole snake story.
And we thought that...
what is that we could do
that could involve a lot of people,
and bring home the "Awareness" in the name Environmental Awareness?
And the whole concept of a floating classroom came up,
where we engage the students, children of Antigua and Barbuda,
to come across and to see the whole ecosystem within where we are today,
the mangroves, the various aquatic life, the various marine life,
and then bring them across here and introduce them to the Antigua racer.
>> KEVIN V/O: I have to say, it's really an awesome thing
to see kids embracing snakes without fear.
Well, most of the time.
>> JOSEPH: If you look back at teaching in the last two years,
there's not a question that don't come about conservation.
I made sure, through the years, that the government put in the curriculum, the science curriculum,
that you must come and do this.
I fight over that for years, that's why it's so important to me.
>> KEVIN V/O: Years of experience have taught Joseph
that outreach is especially effective with children.
>> JOSEPH: I teach in the schools.
And even though I work in the Ministry of Education,
I still go to the schools.
And I have found that, if you want to get the message to adults,
on anything,
it must come through the children.
It might take a longer time, but must go through the children...
...to bring about some sort of change.
>> JOSEPH: I'm on my way out. Look, somebody must continue.
I over the hill now, look how I look.
I can't even walk good.
I don't come as often now because my knee get damaged
trying to grab them on the ground and all of that through the years.
And so it's very, very important to me...
...to continue this.
>> KEVIN V/O: As my trip to Antigua comes to an end,
I think back to my first racer snake encounter.
I'm trying to sort out...
...what it is about this creature that captivates me.
I guess that, in a world full of environmental destruction and endangered species,
it's nice to see a success story.
Someday, I'll return to Great Bird Island.
And thanks to the efforts of so many dedicated people,
I'm confident that the Antiguan racer will still be there...
Simply put, that's a great thing.