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Antiguan racer. © Jenny Daltry / Fauna & Flora

Antiguan racer. © Jenny Daltry / Fauna & Flora

How the Antiguan racer was rescued from extinction

Case Study

In 1995, when Fauna & Flora first intervened, the recently rediscovered Antiguan racer was probably the world’s rarest snake, with a total population numbering just 50 individuals on one tiny offshore islet. Less than three decades later, thanks to a multi-partner recovery programme that included the removal of invasive alien predators, a nationwide public education campaign, and reintroduction to rat-free islands, snake numbers have increased twentyfold.

The Antiguan racer has become a tremendous source of national pride and a diminutive, scaly standard-bearer for the rest of the country’s threatened biodiversity.

The Antiguan Racer Conservation Project is one of the longest-running and most successful conservation initiatives in the Caribbean and bears many of the features of Fauna & Flora’s most successful interventions: focus on a neglected species; pooling of multidisciplinary resources that combine local knowledge, international experience and specialist skills; and the appliance of science.

Antiguan racer on Bird Island, Antigua. © Jeremy Holden / Fauna & Flora

Antiguan racer on Bird Island, Antigua. © Jeremy Holden / Fauna & Flora

A female Antiguan racer in its natural habitat on predator-free Great Bird Island.

A snake on the brink

The Antiguan racer disappeared from the Antiguan mainland and most offshore islands well over a century ago, the inevitable result of deforestation, agricultural encroachment, persecution and the unwelcome attentions of invasive alien predators. Non-native ship rats were inadvertently brought ashore by European settlers, who then deliberately introduced Asian mongooses to Antigua in an ill-advised attempt to control the rodent plague. The mongooses ate the defenceless racers instead.

A few snakes survived the onslaught, pinned into a corner on a tiny mongoose-free island not much bigger than a superstore car park. Forgotten by the outside world, and harassed by rats, the last remaining population clung on, its future hanging by a single thread.

By the time the species was rediscovered on Great Bird Island in the early 1990s by a local naturalist, Kevel Lindsay, and a visiting herpetologist from Fauna & Flora herpetologist it was close to extinction – although nobody knew just how close. Fauna & Flora’s Dr Jenny Daltry conducted a three-month survey. She recorded just 50 snakes, many of which had bite marks, and confirmed black rats as the main threat to the racer’s survival.

Great Bird Island, Antigua. © Adam Long / BMC / Fauna & Flora

Great Bird Island, Antigua. © Adam Long / BMC / Fauna & Flora

Great Bird Island, site of the Antiguan racer's rediscovery, measures just over eight hectares.

Repelling the invaders

Staff from Fauna & Flora’s in-country partners, the Environmental Awareness Group and the Antiguan Forestry Unit, led a carefully orchestrated rat removal campaign, laying out blocks of poison in a grid pattern across the entire island, including ledges on the precipitous sea cliffs.

After two weeks, there was no further evidence of rodent survivors. Nevertheless, the need for constant vigilance was underlined in early 2001, when fresh tooth marks were found on a water bottle, prompting a follow-up course of treatment.

Dealing with setbacks

Just two years after the rat removal, the Antiguan racer population had doubled, but by 1999 the project had become a victim of its own success, as the snakes ran out of lizards to eat on their microdot in the ocean. With help from Black Hills State University scientists who were studying the nearby lizard populations, other offshore islands suitable for the reintroduction of racers were quickly identified. Having removed rats and mongooses from these potential sanctuaries, the team established new colonies there. The racer population began to boom once more.

It was agreed that a breeding stock of Antiguan racers should be established in captivity as an insurance policy against any unforeseen catastrophe that might befall the wild population. Five adult racers were flown to Jersey, where they were entrusted to the care of experts from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. To everyone’s delight, five fertile eggs laid by the captive females hatched successfully. Then disaster struck in the form of a tiny parasite, the common snake mite, to which the racers proved to have very little resistance. Nine out of the ten snakes died.

Snake charm offensive

Back in Antigua, the project partners launched a nationwide snake charm offensive to change local and tourist attitudes to the harmless, docile racer. They emphasised what a rare privilege it is to have a species on your own doorstep that is found nowhere else on the planet. A documentary, Race Against Time, appeared on national and regional television. The project was featured on BBC World Service, Antiguan radio and television, in national newspapers and the in-flight magazine of the regional airline, as well as in several UK national newspapers.

An educational website covering the battle to save the Antiguan racer was set up in collaboration with Wildscreen, to give young students at home and abroad an insight into how the jigsaw pieces of a complex conservation project fit together. Today the Antiguan racer figures prominently in the national curriculum.

Harnessing the new enthusiasm for this reptilian national treasure, the project provided the necessary training, equipment and resources to develop the skill sets of students, tour operators, volunteers and budding scientists, enabling them to participate fully in the long-term conservation of Antigua’s unique snake and the wider island ecosystem. Trained local volunteers now monitor the micro-chipped racers and keep their islands rat free.

McRonnie Henry, Director of the Antiguan Forestry Department © Jenny Daltry / Fauna & Flora

McRonnie Henry, Director of the Antiguan Forestry Department © Jenny Daltry / Fauna & Flora

McRonnie Henry, then Director of the Antiguan Forestry Department, radiotracking translocated racer snakes in 2001.

Large-scale impact

A project that began as a quest to save the world’s rarest snake from extinction has evolved into a multifaceted programme that benefits biodiversity, local communities and the wider economy. Retaining the racer as its symbol, the locally managed Offshore Islands Conservation Programme has since been instrumental in the creation of a new protected area covering over 3,000 hectares of Antigua’s coastline.

Other endangered species on the offshore islands – including a rare endemic lizard, brown pelicans, West Indian whistling ducks, white-crowned pigeons and nesting sea turtles – have benefited significantly from activities such as rat removal and ecological restoration. Some bird colonies have increased more than thirtyfold. Antiguan racers peaked at an incredible 1,100 individuals.

© Jenny Daltry/Fauna & Flora/OICP

© Jenny Daltry/Fauna & Flora/OICP

West Indian whistling ducks have begun to thrive again.

Against the odds

At the outset, some conservationists had advised against intervention on the basis that the snake was too rare and too unpopular. Fauna & Flora was undeterred by the seemingly insurmountable obstacles. For Jenny Daltry, who is now coordinating a groundbreaking Caribbean alliance between Fauna & Flora and Re:wild, that momentous decision remains a source of deep satisfaction: ‘I am so glad we proved the doubters wrong, and helped turn around the fortunes of this unique and lovely animal’.

The Antiguan Racer Conservation Project now serves as the exemplar for in situ conservation of other endangered reptiles on islands throughout the Caribbean.

Antiguan racer.

Saving racers

The introduction of alien species to the Caribbean has wrought havoc, pushing many of the region’s native species to the very brink of extinction.

But there is still hope, as the Antiguan racer success story shows. Please support Fauna & Flora today to help us save other threatened Caribbean species before it’s too late.


Antiguan racer.