Matilda’s Horned Viper
During recent biological surveys in southern Tanzania by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and the Museo delle Scienze of Trento, a remarkable new species of bush viper has been discovered. It resembles the Usambara bush viper (Atheris ceratophora) but is considerably larger, differs in scalation and has a genetic divergence of the mitochondrial gene of 3.18% and an estimated divergence time of about 2.2 million years. It has been named Matilda’s Horned Viper (Atheris matildae).
Matilda’s Horned Viper is known just from a remote montane forest fragment in Tanzania’s South West. The site probably represents the remnant of a wider forested landscape, interspersed with plateau grasslands and possibly naturally isolated from other forest blocks. It is therefore probable that the viper is a highly range-restricted forest species. We have estimated an extent of occurrence considerably smaller than 100 km2 and a quality of habitat in continuing decline. According to IUCN guidelines (IUCN, 2010) therefore, it should be listed as ‘critically endangered’ CR-B1b(i,ii,iii).
Wildlife trade is now the second largest illegal trade in the world after drugs, with the global trade, both legal and illegal, estimated to be currently around US$159 billion a year. Reptiles play a large part in this and unfortunately the illegal trade – especially in wild-caught reptiles – is having a devastating effect on wild populations. So much so that in many parts of Africa it is the single biggest threat to the existence of many species in the wild. The colourful, fascinating African bush vipers of the genus Atheris are popular pet snakes in many countries, however, their natural habitat is seriously threatened and the numbers of wild caught animals destined for the pet trade continues to be unsustainable.
It is often the case that the first few specimens of a newly discovered bush viper can be worth a high price and this can have a very damaging impact on the population, In the case of Matilda’s Horned Viper, a sudden rush to collect as many specimens as possible could actually extirpate the species in the wild. To avoid the unsustainable collection of such a rare snake, we have agreed with the editor of the scientific journal Zootaxa – where the species description is published – to keep the locality as vague as possible (only very general information is given), with the possibility of more specific information provided by the authors on request, for scientific purposes only. Such a practice should be taken into consideration by taxonomists every time a new, rare species of potential commercial interest is described.
In Tanzania, the endemics for which the nation is so renowned are seriously threatened by habitat loss, disease and overexploitation for the wildlife trade. The latter is largely unmanaged, often illegal and increasingly pervasive. Collection from the wild is mostly unsustainable and has reached a level whereby it represents perhaps the biggest threat to Tanzania’s amphibians and reptiles. And yet with political will, a scientifically-derived quota system and trade that focuses on captive breeding rather than wild capture, the threat could be turned into a conservation opportunity.
Against this background, we have initiated a small breeding programme for the new viper in Tanzania. This is intended not only as ‘insurance population’ to protect the new species from overexploitation, but also to facilitate the conservation of its threatened habitat so that this unique animal can persist in the wild. We are planning to make available (gratis) the first few dozen offspring from the captive population, in order to provide the market with captive-bred specimens of the new species. The aim is to avoid collection of wild caught specimens, lower the price of the animal and encourage responsible captive breeding by keepers in the most highly demanding countries. The ultimate goal is also to raise awareness and support for an in situ community-based forest conservation programme, including community support, education and forest management. Matilda’s Horned Viper will, it is hoped, be a flagship species for the initiative.
In addition, it is our intention to apply to CITES with the aim of listing the wild population of the species in Appendix 1 and the captive population in Appendix 2. We believe that the combination of the actions mentioned above should slow down the access to the site by traders and collector and, at the same time, to move the attention of the market to captive breeding rather than to collection in the wild. Conservation success should also be enhanced by the in situ conservation activities carried out in and around the forest.
More information will follow.