Dubbed the ‘world’s rarest snake’ in 1995, when only 50 individuals remained, the Antiguan racer has been making a steady comeback with help from Fauna & Flora International (FFI).
Antiguan racers used to be the top predators throughout Antigua and Barbuda until small Asian mongooses were introduced in the 1890s to control invasive black rats that were damaging European plantation sugar cane crops. The mongooses had little impact on the rats, and preyed on native species instead, wiping out most Antiguan racers. The species was declared extinct in the 1930s, but a few survived on Great Bird Island, an 8.4-hectare cay that had luckily remained mongoose free.
In partnership with other national and international organisations, FFI helped to eradicate the rats and other harmful invasive alien species from Great Bird Island and a further 14 islands around Antigua, before reintroducing Antiguan racers to three of these: Rabbit, Green and York islands. Today, the population in the wild exceeds 1,100 individuals, a 22-fold increase since conservation efforts began.
Many other species have also benefited from this work, not least bird colonies on islands cleared of invasive predators – some of which have increased more than 30-fold! Species that have begun to thrive again include many regional rarities, such as the West Indian whistling duck and Caribbean brown pelican.
Although good progress has been made, the Antiguan racer and its habitat remain at constant risk, due to the rising numbers of visitors to the offshore islands where it lives, as well as the chronic threat from alien invasive species and coastal development.
Snakes are often difficult to conserve due to negative public perceptions, but through education campaigns and awareness-raising the Antiguan racer has become an unusual flagship species for conservation in Antigua and Barbuda, and features prominently in the national environmental education curriculum. Many Antiguans and Barbudans have become justifiably proud of their unique snake and its unique island ecosystem.