The northern city of Vancouver, Canada is probably not the first place that comes to mind when thinking about snakes, and especially not vipers. However, on August 9th in Vancouver, a gathering took place that was important for viper conservation across the globe. The Orianne Society hosted the 2nd meeting of the IUCN Viper Specialist Group (VSG) in conjunction with the World Congress of Herpetology, and it was the first meeting that allowed all participants to come together in the same room. This meeting laid the groundwork for what promises to be a driving and consistent force for viper conservation in the years to come.
The VSG is relatively young (formed February 2010) and was formed to address an important gap in snake conservation. Vipers represent about 10% of all snake species, yet 30% of endangered snakes are vipers. However, almost half of all viper species have not even been assessed by the IUCN Red List. Indeed, the Gaboon Viper (Bitis gabonica), the snake on the logo of the VSG, has not even been fully assessed! The Red List is the most respected database of species conservation status and is used to prioritize conservation actions for many species. The lack of assessments means that there may be an even higher proportion of endangered vipers, and more importantly, that the conservation needs of these snakes are being ignored.
Clearly, there is a lot of work for the VSG to do, and we addressed these challenges at our meeting. We had 18 members attend the meeting, and they represented nearly every continent in which vipers occur. The meeting began with Dr. Chris Jenkins (Chair of the VSG) discussing the mission of the VSG, a proposed organizational structure and a timeline for VSG actions to occur. The mission of the VSG is largely two-fold: help to facilitate species assessments as mentioned above, but also develop focal conservation management plans that will actually allow for on the ground conservation. We have also identified communication as a key component for VSG success, not only for the scientist members but for also making the case for viper conservation to the public. This second aspect especially cannot be ignored when working with a venomous snake group that is misunderstood and feared by a significant portion of the global population. We are fully aware of the real danger vipers pose to some human communities and effective conservation on these species will need to include attention to promoting health care and access to antivenom.
We decided on an organizational structure that is focused at a regional scale and facilitated by regional coordinators. These regional coordinators will be responsible for helping to identify species in need of assessment with their regions, determining priorities for conservation action plans, and gathering communication updates from regional members. This information will be then be compiled by the VSG lead personnel, who will decide the primary tasks for the group. We are currently in the process of filling out the regional coordinator positions (as well as a Red List Authority), but once decided we should be able to begin to tackle some of the difficult issues presented above.
I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the meeting attendees and their commitment to viper conservation. Many of the participants had spent much of their career working on viper conservation issues across continents and will be able to provide innovative ideas and contributions to making the VSG a globally effective organization. Based on this meeting, I have no doubt that we have a cohesive membership that will be able to work together and maintain the momentum that we have with this young group.
Conserving the world’s vipers is one of the main objectives of the Orianne Society, and our involvement with the VSG is one of the best avenues to achieving this goal. We, along with the other members of the group and other conservation partners, are looking forward to completing Red List assessments for all viper species and facilitating local conservation efforts for threatened species. Vipers are one the world’s most unique vertebrate groups and an important component of many desert, forest, and mountain ecosystems. Together, we can ensure that these special predators will continue to persist for generations to come.