It’s a tropical paradise. A rare, nearly untouched island—the stark lighthouse the only obvious human footprint among the rocky greenery. How did this desirable land escape the agriculture, tourism and fishing industries of nearby populous Brazil? A different population–the highest concentration of one of the world’s deadliest snakes.
An island getaway is a dream, not often a nightmare, for those of us needing an escape. But, cut off from the mainland, some islands have become havens for large populations of both invasive and endemic species, thriving in an environment without competition. In certain cases, their dominance has eliminated the human presence, in others; it’s the basis of the local tourism industry.
Tashirojima, or Cat Island in Japan, has more furry stray cats than humans, their population booming from the belief that feeding the felines brings good luck. The locals even built a small shrine in the middle of the island for the cats, whose initial presence on the island was meant to keep mice from eating the silkworms raised by the islanders. Japan also boasts Rabbit Island, Okunoshima, luring tourists with its swarm of 300 or so friendly bunnies. A popular attraction, its reputation now contrasts greatly with its dark past, the island once being used as the base for a lethal gas operation. It is said that the bunnies were originally brought over either for testing the poisonous gases or by some mischievous school children in the 1970’s—no one is sure.
Some island populations do as much to deter visitors as the cats and rabbits do to lure them, with the dominant creatures igniting horror movie phobias of spine tingling, jaw snapping and slithering inhabitants. And still, for the curious, the adventurous or the fearless, these spots might be the perfect destination for your next island vacation.
5. Christmas Island
Christmas Island is a tropical paradise in the Indian Ocean with rich culture, a growing tourism industry and an immense variation of wildlife. It’s also the annual route for the red crab breeding migration from the inland forests to the ocean. The Christmas Island red crab alone has a population estimated at over 100 million mature crabs, and is only one of fourteen crab species found on the island. The population of crabs is said to have possibly dropped a couple million due to the accidental introduction of the yellow crazy ant.
Growing up to 4.5 inches, these Christmas Island Red Crabs feast on fruits, flowers, leaves, other dead crabs and birds. Their migration to the ocean begins each year during the wet season, lasting around eighteen days. Anyone who wishes to avoid the annual invasion and still enjoy the island can plan their trip accordingly.
Over the past several decades, Guam has seen two major population booms—the brown tree snake, and, subsequently, Argiope appena, the banana spider. Believed to originate from a pregnant female snake who stowed away to the island on a ship some 60 years ago, the invasive tree snakes have successfully wiped out 9 of the 12 local bird species, the surviving species live in specific areas with a high amount of snake trapping. The brown and yellow spiders, without their natural bird predators, have flourished, with forty times more webs in Guam than the surrounding islands. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began dropping dead mice laced with acetaminophen—toxic to the snakes but thought to be harmless towards the rest of the jungle population—onto the island in an attempt to curb the snake population, lessen the spider population, and restore natural order.
3. Seal Island
This popular tourist destination on a tiny rock outcrop off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, is home to thousands of Cape Fur Seals. The seals are usually friendly and curious with scuba divers, and wary of human interaction on land. Hunted by humans for over a century, they didn’t gain protection in South Africa until the late 1900’s. The high concentration of harmless seals has resulted in a higher concentration of deadly sharks. Seal Island is known for attracting a large number of great whites in its “Ring of Death”—the waters surrounding the island—and is a popular place for photographers to capture the sharks surfacing for dinner. It is also the only venue in the world to offer a combination tourist trip where spectators can watch the beasts breach the water and then cage dive to meet them face to face.
2. Ramree Island
This small island off the coast of Burma earned a Guinness Book of World Record for the most deaths from a crocodile attack. The story comes from World War II during the battle of Ramree when the British attempted to drive away the Japanese invasion force in order to claim a new airbase. Finding success, the British pushed the Japanese soldiers into marshland surrounding the island—straight into a deadly concentration of saltwater crocodiles. It’s estimated that the crocodiles, the world’s largest reptilian predator averaging about 15 feet, numbered in the thousands, and reports claim that the Japanese incurred between 400-800 casualties, with survivors telling gruesome tales of their comrades screams as they were devoured alive. While the actual toll has been disputed by historians and locals alike, the swamp is still considered a haven for these hungry predators.
1. Snake Island
Ninety miles off the coast of Brazil, an island the size of football field is home to the highest concentration of one of the world’s most venomous snakes, Bothrops insularis—the Golden Lancehead Viper. Ilha da Queimada—meaning slash and burn from a long ago attempt to turn the island into a banana plantation—is better known as Snake Island, with its slithering population resulting in legends of venom so deadly it will liquefy your insides. When rising seas isolated the snake population on the island, they adapted to finding their food source high in the trees instead of on the ground. The Golden Lancehead developed a fast-acting venom that can instantly kill their main food source, migratory birds. The venom is so rare that the snakes can sell for $30,000 on the black market. About 2 to 3 thousand of these deadly snakes (1 to 5 snakes per square meter) inhabit the rocky patch of land, a concentration so dangerous that the Brazilian Navy has banned all civilians from accessing the island. But the snake population has actually been in decline due to the so-called “biopirates” taking advantage of their black market value.
Recently, VICE was granted exclusive access to the island from the Brazilian Navy to document the annual lighthouse inspection, which has been run automatically since the 1920’s. Legend says that the last lighthouse keeper disappeared while out picking bananas, and the search party looking for him was picked off by the snakes one by one. Accompanied by researchers who weigh and document the snakes, a doctor and the navy, the eerie documentary gives a firsthand look at the astounding number of Golden Lancehead Vipers occupying Ilha da Queimada.