Matilda’s horned viper was first discovered by scientists from WCS and MUSE (Museo delle Scienze di Trento) in 2009 and described as a new species to science in 2011. It was named Matilda’s horned viper after Tim Davenport’s daughter who was fascinated by the snake and helped look after the first one that was found. Believed to have split from its sister species the forest horned viper over 2 million years ago, it is larger - growing up to 65 cm in length - has a different colouration and a unique scale pattern on its head. After extensive surveys WCS believes the snake survives only in a small degraded forest habitat in Tanzania’s Southern Highlands. The total range is much less than 100 sq kms and the habitat is still in decline, meaning the species is critically endangered.
In addition to habitat loss and fragmentation, the international wildlife trade is a huge threat to endangered species generally. There is particularly high demand for rare reptiles and amphibians. Illegal collection for the pet trade is a serious problem in Tanzania due to the high number of attractive and endemic species and limited law enforcement. Huge numbers of animals and species are collected from the wild - the volume exacerbated by the high proportion that die in transit. Given this risk, the location of the snake’s discovery and habitat is being kept a secret.
WCS scientists collected eleven snakes for a captive breeding program: four males, five females, and two juveniles. It is hoped that the offspring of these snakes will provide insurance against its extinction. In anticipation of the illegal pet trade, the first few dozen offspring from the captive population will be made available free of charge in order to try and encourage responsible captive breeding instead of wild capture, and keep the price lower to discourage trade. Matilda’s horned viper is also being used as a flagship species to raise awareness and support for a community-based forest conservation program.