How Antigua and Barbuda successfully saved the world’s rarest snake and continue to protect vulnerable island ecosystems
By Milo Putnam on April 21, 2022
We all could use a little more hope–but nurturing hope and optimism is hard work. The Environmental Awareness Group (EAG), a small local non-governmental organization based in the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, nurtures hope with the same meticulous methodology as they do any of their conservation projects: with discipline.
“What I will say is that it's not easy. I feel an enormous weight on my shoulders. But we keep this discipline of hope,” says Shanna Challenger the offshore island conservation program coordinator for the EAG. “We are doing what we can in the areas that we work in. Despite all the challenges going on, we're going to keep our heads down and keep doing this work. We have to keep these offshore islands and the species that live there safe."
Caribbean island ecosystems are unique and fragile. Since European colonization, the Caribbean has suffered some of the highest rates of extinction globally. These nearly 10,000 islands are considered some of the world’s most biologically diverse. And some of the most threatened. But the Antiguan Racer, a small snake, has given conservationists from Antigua and Barbuda hope that these ecosystems can recover, thrive and preserve the wild.
The Antiguan Racer was considered the ‘world’s rarest snake’ in the mid-1990s, when there were only 50 individuals in existence. This small harmless brown snake was on track for extinction until conservationists quickly mobilized to ensure this wouldn’t be the racer’s fate.
Why had the Antiguan Racer become so rare? The introduction of invasive black rats and Asian mongoose were two of the many devastating by-products of European colonization of the Caribbean. Antiguan Racers were no match for these ravenous mammals. Of the more than 50 offshore islands in Antigua and Barbuda, the Antiguan Racer population remained only on Great Bird Island, somehow dodging the invasive predators with a taste for snakes.
Jenny Daltry, Caribbean alliance director for Re:wild and Fauna & Flora International, was among the founding members of the Antiguan Racer Conservation Project in 1995.
“Kevel Lindsay – an Antiguan naturalist and forest officer – called us for advice and I must admit the picture looked bleak at first. The snakes were dying out and hardly anyone cared,” recalls Daltry. “But when people realized that Antiguan Racers are actually very friendly, harmless, and truly unique, they wanted to help. So, this soon turned into a bold joint effort involving EAG staff, volunteers, the government, international NGOs, universities, schools, the media, landowners, tour operators, and the local fishing communities.”
In partnership with the EAG and the local government, Fauna and Flora International helped to ensure that three additional islands could provide refuge to these Critically Endangered snakes. By 2015, the Antiguan Racer population in the wild exceeded 1,000 individuals, spanning four offshore islands.
“The Antiguan Racer has been through a lot, and although the Environmental Awareness Group does its best to ensure that their numbers never get that low again, our snakes are still threatened today by people who destroy their habitat and kill them out of fear,” says Andrea Otto a local educator and snake biologist with the EAG.
Despite the negative perceptions about the racers, conservationists with the EAG are determined to instill the Antiguan Racer as a flagship species for conservation. And it’s working. Their robust recovery is a source of tremendous national pride for many Antiguan and Barbudan communities, even attracting groups of tourists eager to see them in the wild.
Alongside efforts to reinforce racer numbers, the EAG has prioritized bolstering environmental education among Antiguan and Barbudan primary school students. They created the ‘Floating Classroom’ experience, an initiative that guided students and teachers on field trips to the offshore island ecosystems filled with immersive hands-on learning. For over 20 years, the ‘Floating Classroom’ took thousands of primary school students and teachers to areas of their country they have never seen before.
In 2020, the EAG was forced to adapt the successful program due to the pandemic. Guided by a discipline of hope, they treated it as an opportunity to expand their conservation programming to a broader audience – virtually! In partnership with the Sandals Foundation, the EAG team opted to launch ‘Into the Wild with the EAG,’ a curated virtual program that could be accessed year-round in a three-part video series accompanied by student activity booklets and teacher resource guides. Episodes titled ‘My Offshore Islands,’ ‘Marvelous Mangroves,’ and ‘Underwater Adventures’ focus on the ecosystems within the North East Marine Management Area of Antigua.
“Our team, we became writers, editors, hair, and makeup. We did all of that,” says Challenger. “One of the things I wanted to make sure was that Antiguans and people locally were doing the videos and were involved.”
The videos were shot and edited by a local filmmaking company, and the accompanying activity booklets were designed by a local graphic artist, who brought a charismatic cartoon guide named Acer the Antiguan Racer to life for the series. All the educational resources were developed by EAG staff and reviewed by the Ministry of Education to ensure they aligned with curriculum standards and could be seamlessly integrated into schools. ‘Into the Wild’s’ extreme attention to detail accurately represents native wildlife, community supporters, and conservationists in Antigua and Barbuda. The pièce de resistance that will remain stuck in your head for days, is the catchy opening jingle for ‘Into the Wild’ with an unmistakably Caribbean tune. As a whole, this initiative captures the overflowing pride Antiguans and Barbudans have for their wild islands.
Since the launch of ‘Into the Wild,’ over 1,200 fourth-grade students from Antigua and Barbuda have become island explorers right within their classrooms. The program has been so successful, the EAG has been inundated with requests to expand the program for other grades.
The work to celebrate the Antiguan Racer is far from complete. With the help of Acer, the cartoon Antiguan Racer, many including Challenger hope the snake will finally receive the national attention it deserves–. possibly even becoming the national animal of Antigua and Barbuda.
“Our [current] national symbols are great but can be found all over the world. I personally want our national animal changed to the Antiguan Racer,” says Challenger. “I'm like, can't we get something Antiguan and Barbudan, please? Something that's uniquely ours?”
With a conservation success story like the Antiguan Racer, Challenger’s idea may be catching on. Following the launch of ‘Into the Wild’ many more Antiguans and Barbudans have become much prouder of this unique snake’s resilience and recovery and have a deepened pride for their offshore islands.
Even as the Antiguan Racer is tremendously recovering from near extinction, a different Caribbean snake species has inherited the title of ‘world’s rarest’ - the Saint Lucia Racer. Its numbers have fallen to as low as 20. But the Antiguan Racer’s legacy has left a blueprint for success that local partners in Saint Lucia are working to replicate.
With some disciplined hope and local champions, the Saint Lucia Racer might be the next Caribbean snake to slither back from near extinction.
Milo is Re:wild's communications specialist working with our partners to share their stories in protecting and restoring the wild. With over a decade of natural resource interpretation and environmental education experience he lives to spark connections between people and wildlife. Milo loves to travel with his husband and is passionate about supporting ethical wildlife tourism.