Some Species Get No Respect – protection for the Aruba Island rattlesnake

Some Species Get No Respect – protection for the Aruba Island rattlesnake – Brief Article

Mark Jerome Walters

But on Aruba, a rattlesnake manages it.

Glamorous personalities have long monopolized the role of “spokesanimals” for conservation. The panda has become one of the best-known symbols. A beguiling monkey has become one of the poster animals for saving Brazilian rainforests. But on the island of Aruba, a venomous rattlesnake has captured the hearts of the people.

As recently as the 1980s, the Aruba Island rattlesnake–driven from its land by development, taken for the pet trade, or killed for its rattles–verged on extinction, with probably no more than a few dozen remaining in the wild. Scarcely more than that survive today, but on the rocky, dry, mostly uninhabited southern end of the volcanic island, the snake has become a cause celebre among many Arubans. The species was even a catalyst for the establishment of Arikok National Park.

While a recent surge in tourism has increased development pressures on the park, the snake’s habitat has been under attack since the early 17th century. Deforestation, earth moving, and overgrazing by goats have left a fragile ecosystem with low vegetative cover, rapid erosion, and the depletion of many plants and animals. Today only about 10 square miles of the entire island could be considered even relatively undisturbed.

In 1984 the American Zoological Association established a species survival plan (SSP), which included capturing wild snakes and distributing them to various zoos for captive breeding. The plan also helped to elevate the reputation of the snake from something more than a curiosity to an animal of unique value. After all, the rattler is Aruba’s top predator.

Not long after the SSP was established, Andrew Odum, curator of reptiles at the Toledo Zoo, came to Aruba to spearhead an intense public campaign on behalf of the snake. His message was simple: Aruba was the only home of this rare treasure.

The government not only put the snake’s image on currency; it moved to strictly protect a nature preserve of 12 square miles occupied by the snake. Although pleased, Odum recognizes that “conservation is a long war. You can win every battle, then someone brings out the bulldozers and you’re finished.”

Despite the precarious status of the snake in the wild, the SSP is often viewed as a model. Captive breeding has been highly successful. When the first snakes were brought into zoos for breeding in 1982, just over half of the species’ gene pool was represented by captives. Now, after bringing more snakes into captivity and with their successful breeding, more than 95 percent of the genetic assets of the wild population are protected.

That’s very good news for the snake. Should the remainder vanish from the wild, there would always be a sufficient supply of well-equipped captive-bred individuals to replenish the population–if the native habitat can ever support them again.

And that is the bittersweet side of this conservation “success” story. Despite being protected, much of the native habitat is still in decline. Introduced goats prevent many tree and herb species from regenerating or developing new seedlings. Fewer trees will survive in the park area in the long run. And perhaps fewer snakes will be found in the wild even as their captive numbers rise.

The snake has won nothing but a reprieve. And as long as the center of the species’ security lies in artificial quarters, far distant from its native habitat, regret and sadness rather than celebration must remain the order of the day.

Contributing editor and veterinarian Mark Jerome Walters writes frequently on endangered species.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group