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Closer look: A surprising flagship species for restoring a Caribbean paradise

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Written by: Dr Jenny Daltry
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The Antiguan racer is endemic to Antigua and Barbuda and was abundant until Asian mongooses, Herpestes javanicus, were introduced in the 19th century. The mongooses hunted many native birds, reptiles and amphibians to extinction and reduced the snake population to only 50 individuals on the 8.4-hectare Great Bird Island. The Antiguan racer had thus become the rarest snake in the world.

To save these harmless reptiles from extinction, the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project was formed by a partnership of organisations including Fauna & Flora International (FFI), Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the local Environmental Awareness Group

The racers on Great Bird Island were safe from mongooses, but lacked room to increase and were being literally eaten alive by another alien invasive species: the black rat. Project staff and volunteers therefore embarked upon an ambitious programme to eradicate rats using a rodenticide donated by Syngenta. Great Bird Island and an additional 13 islands have been cleared of rats to date. Antiguan racers have been successfully reintroduced to three islands, the largest being Green Island at 45.2 hectares.

This recovery effort initially met with little enthusiasm, due to widespread dislike of snakes. However, the project team succeeded in raising appreciation of the racers and the offshore islands through the media, guided field trips, teacher training and curriculum development, public talks, training tour operators and other means. There are now over 1,000 Antiguan racers in the wild – a 20-fold increase – and they have become a tourist attraction in their own right.

The oldest known Antiguan racer is at least 15 years of age. All racers are tagged to monitor their progress and deter theft.

The rat eradication programme has greatly benefited native plants, endemic lizards and nesting hawksbill turtles as well. Wildlife on the rat-free islands is being monitored by trained local volunteers and student interns, who have also documented a significant increase in nesting birds, such as rare Caribbean brown pelicans (which have increased by 10-fold on the rat-free islands) and regionally endemic white-crowned pigeons, which have increased by 16-fold.

In 2006, the offshore islands became part of a major marine protected area: the North East Marine Management Area. This stunningly beautiful area draws well over 60,000 local and international visitors every year.

Fauna & Flora International continues to support the Environmental Awareness Group, the Government of Antigua and Barbuda, local communities and tourism companies to achieve our mutual goal of “Healthy, functioning offshore island ecosystems that are sustainably managed as a refuge for native wildlife and for the benefit of local people.”

Written by
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Dr Jenny Daltry

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There are now over 1,000 Antiguan racers in the wild – a 20-fold increase – and they have become a tourist attraction in their own right.

Dr Jenny Daltry

Senior Conservation Biologist

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