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Charlotte Amalie
Monday, November 28, 2022
HomeNewsArchivesWhat’s All the Fuss About a Tree Boa?

What’s All the Fuss About a Tree Boa?

Dear Source:
What’s all the fuss about the tree boa? In light of recent events surrounding the tree boa, I would like to take the opportunity to explain why there should be a fuss about this snake.
The Virgin Islands is home to five species of harmless snakes; one, the corn snake, is a recent immigrant from southeastern US. Three of the snakes, the Puerto Rican racer, the blind snake, and the garden snake we share with other Caribbean islands. But the last one, the Virgin Islands Tree Boa, belongs exclusively to the Virgin Islands archipelago (including Tortola and Culebra). Its need for a forested habitat in a hot, dry climate restricts it in the USVI to the east end of St. Thomas: Red Hook, Nazareth, Smith Bay, and Bovoni. This animal, surprisingly, does not live on St. John or St. Croix.
The tree boa is a small, harmless snake rarely reaching lengths of four feet. It never bites. It is active mostly at night, when it moves through tree branches looking for a sleeping lizard for dinner. It also eats mice and small rats. This snake does not make a nest and lay eggs, instead it gives birth to tiny wriggling black and white babies. This snake can be distinguished from other native snakes by its pattern of dark brown blotches running down its back, and pale, creamy stomach. It also shines iridescent in the sunlight! It does no harm to humans and is rarely seen. And, unlike the mongoose or the tortoise, this snake is a true native Virgin Islander.
The tree boa is one of the original inhabitants of St. Thomas, and has lived here, by best estimates based on fossil records, for at least 20,000 years (the first humans are estimated to have arrived in the Virgin Islands around 7000 years ago). This species is endangered because of the increasing loss of its specialized habitat. The snake was designated as endangered under the US Endangered Species Act in 1979, and since then, it has been largely ignored. Very little of its native habitat remains, having been lost to wide-scale residential and commercial development on the East End of St. Thomas, development that shows no signs of abating.
It is understandable that people don’t like snakes. Snakes have a terrible reputation, one that is attached even to those beneficial and harmless to humans. The question is not whether we should be saving a snake, but more one of what responsibility do we have to protect a species that has been identified as being in peril of extinction by human hands?
We know the examples of the dodo and the passenger pigeon, animals that were once so plentiful and yet completely obliterated from the planet in a few short years by human activities. We may also be familiar with the case of the St. Croix racer, another native Virgin Islander that became extinct sometime in the last 100 years. Are we willing to let another Virgin Islander irreplaceably disappear?
If we allow this ancient resident to become extinct, either through neglect or mismanagement, it is a clear sign that we are all in danger. There are mechanisms for protecting the boa and its habitat, but these only work when they are applied equally to all projects, including those with important public value. The question becomes: are we looking forward to a future of living together with our natural and cultural heritage or to one where native Virgin Islanders continue to be displaced under the guise of “progress”?
The reason we should care about the Virgin Island Tree Boa is because it belongs to Virgin Islanders.
Dr. Renata Platenberg
St. Thomas

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