The Emerald Greek island, and its poisonous snake, how it all began…

In a few weeks I will begin my 2011 European herping on the continent, this time in Portugal. But as I have mentioned in previous posts I will be doing a further trip in May, to Corfu. Although I will be there to work with the Durrell School of Corfu on their ‘‘Gerald Durrell 2011 week”, I shall be on the island prior to this for some field work with fellow herpers Carl Corbidge and Andrew Gray. I visited Corfu with Andrew in July 2009, and although we had a great time, due to the time of year we didn’t find too many interesting species. Andrew was particularly interested to see a Nose-horned viper (Vipera ammodytes), unfortunately on that occasion we were not successful. Hopefully in May we can locate some vipers so that Andrew can see them for the first time. In fact this snake is quite important to me, and is one of the animals that truly captured my imagination and helped to spark my interest in Herpetology.

One of the first snakes I ever photographed in the wild, a juvenile Nose-horned viper (C) Matt Wilson 2002

The large Nose-Horned viper (Vipera ammodytes) I tried to save from a mountain road in 2002 when I was 15 years old (C) Matt Wilson

The spot where I found my first Nose-horned viper in 2002 (C) Matt Wilson

Almost 10 years ago when I was on holiday with my mum in Corfu, she hired a car a took me around the island to help me find places where I could stop and look for reptiles. I recall driving up a mountain road and suddenly telling her to stop. The habitat at the side of the road was a perfect dry, rocky terrain for Nose-horned vipers  just like I would expect it after reading all about the vipers and their habitats in books. Eager to see my first one I left the car and started clambering up the rocks. Being only 15 years old I had no intention of trying to catch any venomous snake I might find, but would be very contented just to photograph one with my new, (now Jurassic!) Minola Z135 film SLR camera. After about 20 minutes of searching around I was about to walk back to the car when I spotted a zig-zag pattern between a thorn-bush. I froze, and then slowly moved closer to see a wonderful, tiny, baby viper basking between the gaps of the thorns. I even managed to take a very poor photograph of my first venomous snake (pictured).  I stood looking at the snake for about a minute before it realized that I was there and slithered back under cover. After going back to the car and telling my mum all about what I had just found we drove around the next bend of the mountain road and I again shouted to tell her to stop the car. Except this time it was a snake in the road, I jumped from the car to find another, much larger, adult viper sitting in the road. It was damaged but still alive, I remember another car driving around the corner and me shouting for him to slow down so that I could take the snake away from the road. Much to my Mum’s  horror, I attempted to move the injured, highly venomous snake from the road with the help of a stick. I took the viper onto the same rocky hillside where I had just seen the juvenile, sadly however after 10 minutes or so, the snake died from its injuries.  I was quite sad about this, but still very excited and still prepared to take plenty of photos with my camera of this impressive, although sadly deceased Nose-horned viper (pictured).

Since 2002 I have visited Corfu 9 times and spent a total of several months in the field on this island searching for amphibians and reptiles, usually on my own, cycling around stopping at nice looking areas where I might find the animals I am searching for. In 2005 I met a fellow amphibian and reptile enthusiast called Antonio Ventura, who had moved to the island from Italy with his family and taught me a lot about wildlife on the island, especially his beloved vipers, and I was very fortunate to visit some fantastic areas to see these snakes which sadly have since disappeared due to habitat destruction, mostly for the tourist industry.

Habitat destruction is not the only threat to the amphibians and reptiles on this island, but the much overlooked work of malicious collectors who visit the island to capture animals to take back to their respective countries and keep in captivity. In the past, local populations of Hermann’s tortoises (Testudo hermanni) have been decimated due to such individuals taking so many animals from a small population, I have even caught people in the act myself whilst in the field. Of course, some people will argue that taking the odd snake from the wild is almost insiginificant when considering the amount that are killed through fear, or on the roads. However, my belief is that these people simply do not understand what they are doing, whereas some individuals, even some people who are internationally recognised as a ”Herpetologist”  should know that taking an animal (usually without permission from authorities) is morally wrong.

Why take a rare, beautiful species such as a Leopard snake (Zamenis situla), put it in your suitcase and slowly watch it die in captivity? Why do this when you can find one in the wild, take great photographs of them and watch them disappear back into the undergrowth when you release them? Unless it is for a captive breeding programme to help save the species I will never understand ”herpetologists” who do this…

However on a brighter note, I look forward to returning to Corfu in the spring and hopefully helping my companions on the trip to see the wonderful animals that have made me go back there almost year after year.

Me with another of my favorite species on Corfu: the Four-lined ratsnake (Elaphe quatuorlineata), June 2006 (C) Matt Wilson


2 Comments on “The Emerald Greek island, and its poisonous snake, how it all began…

  1. Nice pictures Matt. It was nice to meet you last night. I think it could be a busy one tonight. Either Gordon or I will give you an update tomorrow.


  2. Hi Margaret, was nice to meet you to, and with the rain today I am sure you will have a lot of toads to move tonight. I hope I will be able to get there myself tomorrow. But please keep me informed how you get on!


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