Algoa Bay could get Africa’s first rare snake reserve

ALMOST EXTINCT: The Albany adder Picture: MICHAEL ADAMS
ALMOST EXTINCT: The Albany adder
Picture: MICHAEL ADAMS

A new game reserve is on the cards for the Algoa Bay region to protect what could be the planet’s rarest snake.

If the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) was successful in its bid to protect the Albany adder, it would be the first reserve in Africa, if not the world, dedicated to protecting a critically endangered snake, EWT field officer Michael Adams said.

The US-based Rainforest Trust has come on board as a sponsor for the purchase of the land, once it is identified and approved by the authorities.

Discussions are under way with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s viper specialist group and further support has come from Bayworld herpetologist Werner Conradie.

While the Caribbean St Lucia racer was previously considered to be the world’s rarest snake, with just 18-100 specimens left, there are far fewer Albany adders.

The reserve project is premised on the discovery of two Albany adder specimens after zero sightings for nearly a decade – the cut-off point at which a species is officially declared extinct.

A stubby little snake that feeds on lizards, it was first described in 1935 by the then curator of Grahamstown’s Albany Museum, John Beard, and its range was established to be the Albany district between Port Elizabeth and Addo.

But after just 11 more sightings, the last in 2007, a total of 12 in all, there were concerns that it might already be extinct, Adams said.

Guided by input from Conradie and Port Elizabeth herpetologist Dr Bill Branch, an EWT team visited the area in September to try to establish if there were any more specimens to be found.

The six-strong team scoured all the likely sites for two weeks, turning up plenty of other reptiles but no Albany adder.

Then, on the last day, when Adams was returning despondently to camp, he came upon an Albany adder crossing the road.

“I knew instantly what it was,” he said. “There was nobody else there so I shouted and screamed all by myself.”

Because of its reliance on camouflage, the adder froze on the side of the road instead of slithering off, and Adams was able to photograph and measure it.

Then, as the whole group was driving on a last reconnaissance that evening, another member of the group, Chris Cooke, spotted a second Albany adder – once again crossing the road.

The species is threatened by destruction of the bonteveld thicket and grass mosaic on which it relies, through agriculture, development and sand mining and the pet trade, so the team is keeping mum for now on exactly where the sightings were.

They will be returning in two weeks time to look for more specimens, talk to landowners about a possible conservation partnership and continue their discussions with the Eastern Cape Parks and Tourism Agency about the reserve project.

The bigger the reserve the better, so a couple of thousand hectares would be good, but even a couple of hundred hectares would make a difference, Adams said.

Conradie said the reserve was an excellent initiative.

“The Albany adder is one of our little wonders,” he said.

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