Vipers of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland undergo formal conservation assessment




This article was submitted by Dr. Bryan Maritz, Regional Coordinator of the African Region of the Viper Specialist Group. Dr. Maritz is from the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. In the above photo are the editors of the Atlas and Red List of the Reptiles of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland at the recent launch in South Africa. Left to Right: William Branch, Johan Marais, Michael Bates, Marius Burger, Graham Alexander, Marienne de Villiers. Absent from this picture is Aaron Bauer.


April saw the release of the long-awaited Atlas and Red List of the Reptiles of South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland. This publication represents the culmination of nine years of work from 26 authors, 16 institutions and a successful citizen science program. The project team collated all spatial data for all 383 species or reptiles known to occur in the region, including the 13 species of vipers indigenous to the region, and performed conservation assessments for all species.

Africa hosts a diverse array of vipers currently contained in 11 genera. Two of these genera (Bitis and Causus) occur within the Atlas region and are represented by 13 species in total, four of which are endemic to the region. While snakes in general appear to be significantly less threatened than lizards or chelonians, the vipers of the region include several species of conservation concern. The conservation status assessment, using the latest IUCN Red List criteria and the best available distribution and demographic data, revealed that four of the 13 species (31%) were of conservation concern. These included three of the four South African endemic species: Bitis albanica – Critically Endangered; Bitis inornata – Endangered; and Bitis armata – Vulnerable. Bitis gabonica was regionally listed as Near Threatened on the basis of ongoing habitat transformation within its distribution in the Atlas region. Bitis schneideri, a species that was previously treated as Vulnerable, was re-evaluated as Least Concern owing to improved information on the geographic distribution and demography of the species.

Vipers possess several ecological and behavioral characteristics that make them susceptible to habitat transformation. South Africa’s vipers are no different, with habitat transformation listed as the major threat to all conservation concern species. Additionally, vipers are popular pet trade animals, fetching handsome sums of money on the black market. Indeed, illegal collection for the pet trade appears to be a significant threat to many species of Bitis in the region, and it may be the primary threat facing some species within the region. Hopefully, the publication of the current Red List will aid conservation practitioners and policy makers in actively addressing threats to South Africa’s unique viper fauna.