The Albany adder is a small, easy-to-miss species of viper, less than 30cm (just a foot) in length and beautifully camouflaged in tan and brown. These snakes live only in South Africa's Eastern Cape Province, and not much is known about them except that after many years of habitat destruction and poaching, they're one of the world's most endangered reptiles.
The species was first discovered in the 1990s, and only about a dozen Albany adders have ever been officially documented, the last one back in 2007. In fact, the snakes are so rare, and their native habitat so threatened by human activity, that it wasn't entirely clear they still existed at all – until the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and the Rainforest Trust (RT) went out looking for them.
Tracking down the reptiles was no easy task. "[W]e spent six days in the field with a team of five reptile experts and we only managed to find two snakes at the eleventh hour," EWT Field Officer Michael Adams and RT Conservation Officer James Lewis told me via email.
Despite the difficult search, the discovery proved the snakes still persist in the region, and the finding came just in time, too. "If a species is not officially recorded in the wild for a period of ten years or more, it is classified as extinct," they explained, "so the Albany adder was essentially a month away from being declared officially extinct."
The snakes may not be extinct, but they're most certainly still critically endangered, so the two organisations have launched a conservation initiative for the species, with the hope of ultimately establishing a nature reserve. If they succeed, this would be the first protected area in Africa dedicated to the conservation of an endangered snake!
"Often there is a focus on the larger, more charismatic species when it comes to endangered species and their protection," Adams and Lewis explained. Sadly, this can lead to many other animals being overlooked, even those on the brink of extinction.
It's no surprise why this happens: big fluffy critters are more endearing than slithery, scaly ones, and there are a lot more damaging stigmas and misleading folktales about snakes than about elephants or pandas. And that bias, the researchers explain, exists not only in the minds of the public – it's sometimes there among scientists too. If a species of rhino were to find itself down to just 12 known sightings and a dwindling habitat, it would no doubt get immediate attention, they note.
With the Albany adder, the two groups hope to set a precedent. Creating a formally protected area for the species would not only ensure the survival of these overlooked reptiles, but also other parts of their environment. The species lives among the highly endangered Coega Bonteveld vegetation type, which has been reduced by a startling 90%, and remains under threat from development. Protecting the snakes will go hand in hand with preserving their unique ecosystem.
It's an ambitious undertaking, and the team is aware of the challenges. "[S]nakes are very difficult to monitor compared to mammals and birds," Adams and Lewis said. "It is harder to track them and more difficult to fit them with tracking devices." And since these reptiles are so poorly understood, researchers don't have much to go on regarding their habits or life histories.
No conservation initiative can happen without support, and one of the biggest challenges to snake conservation is public opinion. "Unfortunately, it is also very hard to change public perception overnight," the researchers said. "For many people, even the notion that a snake species could be critically endangered is a very strange and foreign one."
Happily, the two organisations aren't strangers to reptile conservation. The Endangered Wildlife Trust is also working to protect the armoured sungazer lizards of South Africa's grasslands, and the Rainforest Trust has established projects protecting tropical species around the world, including turtles in Brazil and chameleons in Cameroon. The groups are also launching a project to preserve the critically endangered salt marsh gecko of South Africa's Eastern Cape.
Top header image: Endangered Wildlife Trust and Rainforest Trust