Exploring Ilha da Queimada Grande: The Fascinating Story Behind a Forbidden Island


| LAST UPDATE 05/26/2022

By Stanley Wickens

Just off the coast of São Paulo, Brazil is a beautiful island with a fascinating history. However, it's so dangerous that most people would think twice before deciding to explore it - here's why...

Exploring the Unknown

As humans, we're naturally curious about the world we live in. For thousands of years, people have explored the Earth's land, water, and atmosphere, searching for new, groundbreaking discoveries.

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Throughout our history, the desire to explore our surroundings has been an innate trait in every one of us. Even in prehistoric times, when cavepeople climbed up steep hills to see what lay on the other side, humans have always had a universal urge to venture into the unknown...

Dangerous but Fascinating

As a result of our ancestors' efforts, we've gained knowledge of our universe that's pushed the boundaries of scientific discovery far past anything we've ever known. We've even managed to study planets in our solar system that are billions of kilometers away!

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However, some of the most fascinating and mysterious places most people have never had the chance to explore are located here on our planet. One of these places is an island in the Atlantic Ocean that's so dangerous, it can't be found on anyone's travel list - and for good reason...

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Not a Typical Island

Located just 25 miles off the coast of São Paulo, Brazil, Ilha da Queimada Grande is one of the most fearsome places on our planet. It's an island well-known among the people of Brazil, but they know better than to venture out into the Atlantic and head towards it.

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Ilha da Queimada wasn't always an island; it used to be part of Brazil's mainland. But all that changed around 11,000 years ago, when sea levels rose and separated the landmass, turning it into an individual island. Since then, life on the island didn't evolve in the same way species on the mainland did...

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A Small Population

The thing is, Ilha da Queimada wasn't always uninhabited by humans. In fact, people used to live on the island for some time. A civilization thrived in the region from 1909 until the late 1920s, when people began to hear terrifying stories about the fate that awaited those who lived there...

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YouTube via Nat Geo WILD

As beautiful as the tropical weather, rainforests, and coastline of this island were, human beings quickly realized they had to get out of there - and stay out. There are many theories as to how Ilha da Queimada Grande became so dangerous, but since no one's been there for decades, it's pretty hard to tell fact from fiction...

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Two Tragic Tales

According to legend, it all happened in the late 1920s, when the local lighthouse keeper and his family were killed by snakes that slithered into their home through the windows. But unfortunately, their story wasn't the only one involving the island that ended in tragedy…

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Another story that's become well-known about this frightening place talks about an unfortunate fisherman, whose boat found its way to the island as he searched for bananas. It was only days later that he was found in his boat, drowned in a pool of blood, covered in several snake bites. Do we notice a pattern here?

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So Many Snakes

So what's with all the tragic snake stories people are telling about the island? For decades, Ilha da Queimada Grande has been equated with trouble - so much so, in fact, that it was given the nickname "Snake Island." But just how many snakes does the island have to earn such a moniker?

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YouTube via Brave Wilderness

Simply put, Snake Island is infested with poisonous snakes. One specific species, the predatory golden lancehead vipers, dominates the floors of the island's forests. A species of pit viper, golden lanceheads can grow to measure more than 1.5 feet long. But it doesn't end there.

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Every Square Meter

We know what our readers are probably thinking: 1.5 feet isn't even that long. Sure, the golden lancehead is much shorter than, say, cobras or pythons. However, considering research has shown there's one snake for every square meter on the island, these little vipers become a problem - and a big one, at that.

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YouTube via Nat Geo WILD

Since the 430,000-square-meter island was home to an estimated 430,000 snakes, that means humans living on it couldn't walk a single step without encountering one of these serpents. This fact alone was enough to drive a civilization of people off the island.

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A Long History

But the big question was, how did this venomous species end up there? Weren't humans aware of them before setting up camp on one of the deadliest places on Earth in the early 20th century? Apparently, these reptiles' history on the island went much farther back than 1909...

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YouTube via Nat Geo WILD

Just like the stories about island's victims, the tales about its predators are drenched in myth. According to some claims, the deadly snakes were brought to the island by pirates who sought to protect their gold. And although it sounds like an exciting story, scientific research has offered an alternative theory.

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A New Habitat

According to most experts who have researched life on the island, these snakes have evolved on Ilha da Queimada Grande over millennia. The rise in sea levels that began 11,000 years ago resulted in the many species of this reptile being stranded on the island.

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YouTube via Nat Geo WILD

Due to the fact that there were no natural predators to pose a threat to these snakes, their numbers quickly multiplied. But their survival story wasn't without its difficulties - now completely isolated from the mainland, these snakes needed to adjust to life on the island.

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A Challenging Transition

The main challenge these animals had on the island was to find ground level prey to feast on. It was was especially difficult to adjust to this new environment, where the only food lurking around was migratory birds. Soon enough, nature would realize these snakes weren't fully equipped to take on their prey.

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YouTube via Nat Geo WILD

Normally, snakes would stalk their prey by sinking their venom-loaded fangs into it. They would then wait for the venom to weaken the victim before they tracked it down again. But it soon became clear that golden lancehead snakes can't track the birds they bite. So instead, they evolved...

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Much More Powerful

Soon enough, this species developed an incredibly dangerous venom that was three to five times stronger than that of their cousins back on the mainland. This efficient new venom gave these reptiles the power to kill most of their prey almost instantly.

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CARL DE SOUZA / Contributor via Getty Images

The poor birds who landed on the island to catch their breath stood no chance against the increased superpower of the golden lancehead. But they weren't the only ones affected by the evolutionary changes happening to the island's new apex predator...

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Time to Flee

Unfortunately for the people who lived on the island, the golden lancehead's venom upgrade meant their time on the island was over. It goes without saying that the chance of being bitten every couple of feet was reason enough for these people to flee. But there was more to it...

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CARL DE SOUZA / Contributor via Getty Images

According to the Smithsonian, this viper's venom, which is nearly five times more deadly than mainland snakes, had the ability to melt human skin the second it came into contact with it. That's because snakes use rely on this power while they hunt their prey.

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Deadly Snake Bites

But for the (relatively) lucky ones, the venom of the poisonous snake is injected into their bodies. Why lucky? Because in this case, it would take the venom an hour to kill the victim, giving the person a bit of time to get treated by a health professional. But it wasn't that simple...

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rightdx via Getty Images

One bite from this snake gives the victim a 7% chance of death. It is treatable, but even with treatment, unwanted complications are still very possible. Not only that, even with treatment, the mortality rate is only reduced to 3% - so there's still a chance the victim won't make it.

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No Way to Escape

The situation on the island was too dangerous for humans to be able to continue living on it safely. Seeing that the golden lanceheads could reach even the highest trees in search of prey, it became clear that there was no escaping these deadly creatures.

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YouTube via Nat Geo WILD

Not only were these snakes reproducing rapidly, but they also had no natural predator. Being the apex predator of the island, there was nothing that would reduce the number lanceheads - they literally covered every square meter of the island. Then came the decision that changed everything...

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Taking Action

Since these venomous reptiles weren't going anywhere, the Brazilian government decided that the people had to. The country then took action, putting into effect a law that would ban anyone from even setting foot on the island, let alone living on it.

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YouTube via Brave Wilderness

The island became completely forbidden to the public, with people needing approval from the Brazilian Navy to be able to access it. Only a select few are allowed to visit Ilha da Queimada Grande, for very specific reasons. But who could possibly be allowed to enter such a dangerous territory?

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Rules and Restrictions

Even after reading all about the dangers that Snake Island holds, we expect there will still be a small fraction of our readers who are up for the challenge of exploring it. After all, the mystery and fearsome stories surrounding the island have a kind of allure...

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YouTube via Discovery UK

Unfortunately for these brave and adventurous souls, the Brazilian government has strict regulations regarding visits to the island. In fact, only a few teams of scientists are allowed to go there each year to study snakes and other life on the isolated piece of land. But even they have to adhere to certain rules…

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Bringing Along a Doctor

Those who visit Snake Island are instructed to bring a doctor along with them. As we mentioned, the chances of a person dying from the bite of a golden lancehead is 7%. However, being treated by a doctor can bring those chances down to 3%. Still not ideal, but better.

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Lisa Maree Williams / Stringer via Getty Images

In case someone is bitten by one of the deadly vipers, it can't be guaranteed that they would make it to a hospital on the mainland in time. To prevent such a tragedy, the Brazilian government wants to make sure there's a qualified health professional accompanying the team. But even then, no one is completely safe...

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Serious Health Damage

Even in the case that the victim survives the vicious bite of the golden lancehead, the venom spreading throughout their body could still do some serious damage. And unfortunately, we're not only referring to leftover scars from bite marks on the skin...

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A snake bite can damage a person's internal organs. Not only can its venom cause kidney failure and necrosis of muscular tissue, but it can even lead to brain hemorrhaging and intestinal bleeding. The way we see it Brazilian government's restrictions are making more sense by the minute.

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Swollen Hands

However, snake bites aside, there are a few other things that teams of researchers visiting the island need to be aware of. The first is taking extra precautions. Scientists roaming the island tend to carry sticks in their hands to help them fight off snakes that might attack.

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Also, remember how we said that golden lancehead venom kill muscle tissue? If a victim feels like their skin is beginning to melt, they must take off any rings, watches, or bracelets - it may be challenging to remove them when arms and fingers start to swell. But unfortunately, this isn't the worst that could happen...

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Breathing Difficulties

Since a bite from this island's top predator can cause swelling of the face, mouth, or throat, it could cause the victim to have subsequent breathing difficulties. One way to treat these symptoms is to use an EpiPen, until further medical care is possible.

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However, it's not always enough - to increase the victim's survival chances, a doctor must accompany the team throughout their trip on the island. Since the venom of the island's golden lancehead pit viper is five times more powerful than that of its ancestors, self-treatment isn't enough.

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Beware of Biopirates

But besides the deadly snakes, there's more to beware of. On the island, travelers can also find wildlife smugglers - also known as biopirates - who frequently stop by the island to trap snakes to later sell them for money. And apparently, they're worth a lot...

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YouTube via Brave Wilderness

In fact, one golden lancehead pit viper alone is worth between  $10,000-$30,000 on illegal markets. Seems like quite a hefty price tag for a snake that could potentially take down whoever dares to tread in its mist. But a few things about this species are probably worth all that cash...

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An Endangered Species

Since this species evolved after Ilha da Queimada Grande was separated from the mainland, the island is the only place in the entire world where the golden lancehead can be found. This is why they're extremely rare - and also why the species is in trouble.

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Golden lanceheads are considered an endangered species on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Because of their critical condition, an international effort is being made to preserve this species, and keep them as safe as possible from human exploitation.

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Helpful Venom

But there is one thing that researchers are relying on this one-of-a-kind species for - but don't worry, nothing harmful to these creatures! Science has shown that the golden lancehead's venom can actually be very beneficial to the field of medicine.

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Alex Bowie / Contributor via Getty Images

According to VICE, scientists can use the venom of the golden lancehead to make medicine. A study showed that it can be used for pharmaceutical purposes, and can specifically help with heart disease, circulation, and blood clots. At least there's some good news to come out of this dangerous island!

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What About the Mainland?

So now that we know the golden lancehead pit viper is one of the deadliest snake species in the world, and it only exists on an isolated island, controlled by the Brazilian government. But what about the people who live on the nearby coasts of the Brazilian mainland?

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Are these populations safe from the deadly bite of the poisonous reptile? Another reassuring fact about these slithering creatures is that they don't know how to swim - phew! So, for those who are planning a trip to Brazil, there's no need to worry about running into a golden lancehead.

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Not Exactly Safe

But what about these vipers' relatives back on the mainland? Are they anything like their distant cousins? Although those who live on the Brazilian mainland are safer than anyone who dares to take a trip to Snake Island, they're still not exactly safe...

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In fact, the Smithsonian reports that lancehead snakes in Brazil are responsible for 90 percent of snake bites in the country. Although these vipers aren't as deadly as their much more vicious cousins on the island, the statistics still aren't very reassuring...

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Behavioral Analysis

Since lanceheads constitute a threat to civilians on the mainland, scientists are working hard to find ways to reduce the number of snake bite incidents. Part of their research on the island includes studying how the golden lanceheads evolved to better understand the behavior of their cousins on the mainland.

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So, although tourists in Brazil have nothing to be concerned about when it comes to golden lanceheads, the milder version of this viper can still be found slithering around any corner. So just be careful when visiting Iguassu Falls or taking a walk down Copacabana - there might be a lancehead not too far away.

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A Scary Name

And for those who still haven't been scared away by the horrifying facts about Ilha da Queimada Grande - who knows? It might be possible to catch a glimpse of it from São Paulo, Brazil. By the way, did we mention what its real name actually means?

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In Portugese, "Ilha da Queimada Grande" roughly translates to "Slash and Burn Fire" or "Big Burnt Island" - yikes. Even if it wasn't infested with snakes, we still wouldn't book a flight to a place with a name like that. But where on Earth did such a strange name come from?

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Failed Plantation

Apparently, the island is called "Slash and Burn Fire" because that's exactly how it was being prepared to become a plantation for growing, Business Insider explains. Before the project failed, a banana plantation was intended to grow out of the island's rainforest.

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But after these plans went downhill, all the island was left with was a frightening name - and perhaps that's a good thing. After all, if anything, it's a warning for what might await anyone thinking of exploring its dangerous rainforests. However, the nickname "Snake Island" would also probably suffice.

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A Beautiful Island

As beautiful as this island is, it's a pity that it's off-limits to the public. Those sailing nearby on boats could take one look at it and never guess the dangers that lurk within it. It almost seems like a perfect rest stop for those who need to spend time on solid ground before continuing their journeys.

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With its temperate climate and gorgeous features, it's easy to mistake it for a normal tropical island. So, for those sailing near the coasts of Brazil, be on the lookout and try not to make any stops along the way! It just might cost you your life...

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A Well-Earned Name

So it all makes sense now - Ilha da Queimada Grande, aka Snake Island, has definitely won the name. With the Smithsonian, VICE, and Business Insider all providing us with the most horrifying facts about this small piece of land in the Atlantic, it's hard to imagine someone daring to visit it.

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But, like we said, there are those select few who just might be daring enough to explore an unknown island with a dark but fascinating history. We just hope those people have read all the facts we've listed about the island - and are prepared for the worst.

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