Forestry Stories: A Snake Odyssey

Donald Anthony was a Forestry Officer with the Saint Lucia Forestry Department from 1983 to 2009. He joined as Forestry Assistant, eventually becoming Range Officer and Wildlife Officer. He was among the lead Department counterparts on the wildlife management initiatives and researcher on the St. Lucia ParrotSt. Lucia Whiptail and St. Lucia Iguana conservation programmes. He remains an avid conservationist and advocate for the environment in Saint Lucia.

The water supply for Saint Lucia is derived from its rivers that originate in the mountainous central forest reserves. As the population in the northern part of the island grew, so did the need for water. To service the demand, a large reservoir along the Roseau River, within the forest reserve near the community of Millet, was commissioned in the mid-1990s. The reservoir was named the John Compton Dam after the then Prime Minister of the country. The island’s forest reserves and adjacent landscapes extending all the way to the coast, are divided into management units called forest ranges (click to view)’ and forestry personnel are assigned to these ranges for purposes of monitoring the health of the forests, rivers, and wildlife, and for working with the public in adjacent communities within the geographic extents of each range to help conserve forest and natural resources. The John Compton (Roseau) Dam is located within Millet Range.

Reservoir/upper Roseau River valley viewed from Tete Chemin; Mt. Gimie viewed from Tete Chemin

Donald relates his harrowing experience with a deadly Fer-de-Lance snake on an exploratory mission on the Roseau River with consultants, prior to the project.

It was sometime in 1988 when the then Chief Forestry Officer Gabriel “Coco” Charles asked me to accompany two professionals, a botanist from Trinidad and Tobago and a geologist from Canada to the site of the proposed Roseau Dam in Millet, in the central mountainous region of Saint Lucia near Mt. Gimie, the island’s highest peak (950 metres). I was fresh from studies at the Cyprus Forestry College and had assumed the position of ‘Range Officer’ in charge of Millet Range. The two men were going to do a visual reconnaissance of the vegetation and the underlying rocks and geology prior to the commencement of the development of plans for the construction of the Roseau Dam. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was excited to accompany the mission to lend my expertise on forests and wildlife in the area.

We drove to Tete Chemin, Millet, to the Forestry rest house and took the trail from the rest house that led to the proposed dam site. It was a dry day, so the trail although steep in some places, was not slippery. We eventually made our way down to the Roseau River and began walking upriver. Every now and then we would stop and the colleagues would take photos and examine the rocks and plants along the river. After walking for about one hour they decided to stop and take a rest, saying that they would head back from there. However, the river was so beautiful…the water crystal clear, the forest so pristine, and with a spirit of adventure I told the colleagues that while they rested I would explore upriver a little further and would be back soon…little did I know!

On the walk I kept to one side of the river taking in the beautiful scenery. I finally arrived at a major fork in the river where two tributaries met. This was the furthest I had ever been up the river. At that point I decided to turn around and head back to join the visitors. On my way downriver I chose to walk on the opposite bank. At one point I came across a large pool (we term locally a ‘basen’). On my way upriver when I passed this point on the other bank, the area was flat and easy to traverse, but the side I was now on was steep, so I had to climb the bank in order to continue.

There was a mass of tangled roots on the bank, and just as I reached out to grab the roots to gain a safety hold, a Saint Lucia Fer-de-lance or Saint Lucia Lancehead/Saint Lucia Viper (the highly venomous viper native to Saint Lucia known locally as ‘serpent’) lunged towards me, mouth wide open! God alone knows what happened next…I flung myself backwards in a flash and falling whole-suit in the basen, still clutching my cutlass (machete), my sights focusing on the snake on top of the roots, making an unbelievable second lunge, hitting air as if it could not believe it missed a target that was so close. Had it made its mark I would have been bitten in the chest! I remember the water was cold and my senses at that moment became so acute I could hear a leaf falling a hundred feet away and the songs of all the birds singing at the time….only then I realized how noisy the forest was! If the clarity of my senses had retained that level of acuteness, I would have been a genius!!

I was saying to myself “God have mercy; look at where I would have met my death!”

Donald handling a Fer-de-lance

I could see in the meantime the snake was coiling and fixing itself on the roots, all the while facing my direction as I pulled myself out of the water. My next thought was to catch the snake! While most will have run off at the mere sight of a snake, I actually love the animals, and I have the skill to safely handle these dangerous animals. You see, we had been agitating for some time for hazard insurance coverage for Forestry Officers but to no avail. I wanted to catch the snake as living proof for the Permanent Secretary of our ministry to show the kinds of dangers we face out in the field. I needed to get a stick with a fork at the end so I could catch the snake. I surveyed the immediate area but there was nothing I could use nearby…the closest place where I could find a stick was a clump of bamboo about fifty feet away downstream. I cut a nice piece of dry bamboo and cut a fork at one end and came back for the “vagabond” snake. You will not believe it… when I returned the snake was nowhere to be found! I looked all around, looked up the small trees nearby…no snake. After a while I thought of the guys waiting downstream but said to myself that I am not leaving that snake behind.

My attention was drawn to a bundle of dry debris and bush trapped beneath the same roots where the snake previously was. For sure if I were the snake, I would hide beneath this. So, I poked and poked with the bamboo pole in the dry debris and at last felt something soft. I poked harder and I could hear a rustling as apparently the snake was coming out. Sure enough it emerged and slithered straight to the large pool in the river. It lay coiled on the water all the while facing me. The flowing water quickly carried the snake downstream while I followed on the riverbank. I soon realized that the water would bring it to a small rapid where it could likely escape. However, before it got to the rapid, I swept the pole into the water beneath the snake, caught hold and flung it out of the water onto the riverbank. The snake recoiled on the bank facing me, coiling menacingly in and out.

Using the fork in the bamboo I carefully managed to pin the snake’s head to the ground and while reaching to grab hold of the head (at the back) with my hand the bamboo broke! I immediately jumped backwards out of harm’s way and quickly made another fork with the longest part of the broken bamboo. This time I was able to pin the snake down and grab it from behind the head and raise it off the ground. It was a big heavy snake, about six feet long! Surely if I were bitten it would have been serious as a snake that size would possess a large amount of venom. With the snake in my vice grip I proceeded downstream. When the colleagues saw me coming the Trini shouted “Wow, here have ma-pi-pee?!” (a different fer-de-lance species is found in Trinidad and is known locally by that name). I told them all that happened as we returned to the forestry rest house and our vehicle, with me holding very tightly on to the live snake.

When we got to the van, I placed the snake securely in a sack in the back and we proceeded to Castries. After taking the visitors back to their hotel, I took the sack with the snake inside to the office of the Permanent Secretary (PS) in the Ministry of Agriculture who at the time was Cosmos Richardson. I was allowed to see him by his secretary, of course her being none the wiser as to the contents of the sack. I proceeded to explain to the PS our plight in the Forestry Department in terms of all the hazards we face at work in the field; the risks we take but yet we have no life insurance coverage for work hazards, something we have been clamoring for, for a long time. Then I recounted my ordeal in the Roseau River with the Fer-de-lance and went on to tell him I had the very snake with me in the sack in my hand. Mr. Richardson immediately jumped on top of his desk in fear! Within one month all Forestry Officers had insurance coverage paid for by the government.

Donald Anthony, June 2020

Looking south over the John Compton Dam and the government forest reserve with Mt. Gimie to the right

Please leave your comments below!!!

16 thoughts on “Forestry Stories: A Snake Odyssey

  1. Anselm Gittens

    A scintillating account of an encounter with our fer-de-lance (Bothrops caribbaeus). Liked the part where the PS jumped on the desk in fear. I suspect that other snakes would have been brought to his office had he not agreed to provide insurance coverage :-).

  2. Christopher Kessell

    Great story! A friend of mine recounted how when they were clearing most of the brush at the dam up to where the water level would eventually rise to, the guys doing the clearing were coming across Fer-de-lance snakes at least weekly. He said a friend of his that had the contract (I believe it was a Devaux) brought a freshly killed one for him to see which was over six feet long and had it in the bed of his pickup.

  3. Lenn Isidore

    A brilliant and inspiring piece on a local conservation hero. Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to reading more of these.

  4. Saphira

    I’ve always heard of this story……. And always thought Donald to be mad but reading it now by his own account is fascinating!!!! I’m privileged to be taught by Donald to be a tour guide for Maria Islands!

    1. Hermine Francis-Alexander

      This is the Donald i know best wildlife officer ever very serious about his work . Blessings mr Donald.

      1. Donald Anthony

        Thanks Hermina. Let’s hope the other Wildlife Officers can take up the mantle and put St. Lucia on the forefront of wildlife conservation once again.

  5. Neil Popie Paul

    Great story…and the contributions to Forestry in St. Lucia by people like Donald ..Coco Charles..paul butler and all the forestry officers of that time…many not being recognized for their contributions…I Give thanks for their service

  6. Paul Butler

    Another great piece Donald!!!! Love the photos. Is Cosmos still around. If he if, please could someone get a message to him saying hi from me. He was always very kind to me in those days 40 years ago. Neil – thank you for the shout out. Where have all the years gone… dear friends! My heart will live permanently in Saint Lucia. It is the best place on Earth.

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