Actor Nicolas Cage once quipped, “Every great story seems to begin with a snake.”
At Fort Buchanan, the story of wildlife conservation begins with the Puerto Rican boa.
The Caribbean Islands host some of the most biologically critical and diverse snakes on Earth. The Puerto Rican boa, also known as Epicrates inornatus, is important to the environment and natural heritage of Puerto Rico. However, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has listed the snake as endangered since 1970.
Fortunately for the boa, the United States Army Reserve “has its six.” Fort Buchanan – an Army Reserve-funded installation near San Juan – is leading the charge for its protection.
The Puerto Rican boa is crucial in its habitat, the lush forests of limestone hills called mogotes. Adult snakes prey on pests such as rats and invasive reptiles such as green iguanas. Boas are vital components of the food chains of island birds including the Puerto Rican lizard cuckoo and red-tailed hawk.
As necessary as it is to the island’s ecological balance, the Puerto Rican boa is vulnerable to some formidable threats.
Introduced, non-native animals such as mongooses and other snakes are competing with the boa for habitat and food. In some cases, the interlopers are turning Puerto Rican boas into meals.
Deforestation, urban encroachment and pollution have damaged the boa’s environment. As an island species, habitat loss is especially troubling for the snake. Quite simply, they have no other place to go. “Its limited geographical distribution makes the Puerto Rican boa prone to extirpation by any change created by humans or natural causes,” said Victor Rodriguez-Cruz, an Environmental Protection Specialist with the Directorate of Public Works (DPW) at Fort Buchanan.
Furthermore, poaching has contributed to the boa’s decline. Hunters have coveted the snake for its meat and skin. As early as the 1700s, Puerto Rico exported the oil from the snake’s fat as a major commodity. “[The boa was] hunted and killed due to the belief that snake oil provided relief for aching joints,” Rodriguez-Cruz explained.
If the boa faced extinction, the biological diversity on Puerto Rico would be imperiled. Natural cycles would be disrupted, and the environment would certainly suffer. Nevertheless, the people of Fort Buchanan are working to ensure a hopeful future for the snake.
Initiated in 2013 and guided by a Memorandum of Understanding with the USFWS, Fort Buchanan’s comprehensive, ambitious boa program includes the management of both the species and the land on which it lives. The Installation’s DPW and its partner agencies are capturing, measuring and tagging boas, and they are performing other monitoring activities that help wildlife biologists determine boa populations, activity patterns and habitat uses. They are also enhancing the boa’s environment through reforestation and native plant restoration initiatives.
Innovative projects are driving boa conservation forward.
For instance, Fort Buchanan is investigating the use of an advanced technology called a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag to study the boa. A PIT tag for a boa is similar to a microchip for a dog. It is essentially a “barcode” for an individual animal that can electronically transmit information on snake growth, migration and survivorship to the biologists participating in the studies.
Also, the Department of Defense Environmental Security Technology Certification Program (ESTCP) recently issued a grant to the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ Research and Development Center Laboratory to examine “soft release” for snakes that require translocation at Fort Buchanan. According to Rodriguez-Cruz, Puerto Rican boas have very cryptic habits. People rarely see them, but they occasionally venture into urban areas. Wildlife biologists must translocate the wayward snakes. With the soft release method, biologists capture boas in urban areas and move them to designated forests. There, the boas briefly live in man-made pens prior to their full release into the wild. Soft release allows the snakes to gradually acclimate to the forests and thus raises their probabilities for success. Rodriguez-Cruz said that the ESTCP project has the potential to increase the effectiveness of capture and translocation efforts and to reduce snake-human encounters. The Installation could also benefit financially since the ESTCP grant would cover all expenses associated with the soft release demonstration.
Outreach and awareness are essential components of Fort Buchanan’s boa conservation program, too. “By educating the public, we are eliminating a lot of misconceptions about snakes in general and especially the boa,” said Rodriguez-Cruz. The Installation is identifying snake habitat with signage, encouraging its residents to report boa sightings, and training contractors who work on the post on boa protection procedures – to name only a few of the efforts.
Committed to the protection of its largest indigenous snake, Fort Buchanan serves as an example of conservation to the Caribbean as well as to the entire Army Reserve and active Army, both of which play a critical role in the stewardship of our military’s lands and the world’s precious natural resources. “What we do inside of the Installation for Puerto Rican boa conservation, if deemed efficient, can be useful to the management of the snake outside of the Installation,” Rodriguez-Cruz said.
The environmentally essential Puerto Rican boa has managed to survive despite the forces that jeopardize its very existence. With the Army Reserve in its corner, the snake now has the chance to thrive, and its story will be great for generations to come.
Photo by Eneilis Mulero Oliveras, Fort Buchanan Directorate of Public Works