The end of an era for Ibiza’s sacred soil

December 2nd, 2008 - 1:48 pm Posted in ibiza | Comments (1)

Here on Ibiza, no snake can survive in the sacred red soil of the goddess Tanit. It’s a fact that’s been passed on by word of mouth for generations. This was part of the reason why the Phoenicians ascribed divine properties to Ibiza’s soil more than two thousand years ago – and explains why the Phoenicians and Carthaginians used to wear amulets. Back in ancient times, wealthy people even used to be buried in – snake free – earth gathered on Ibiza. This is why Ibiza is home to the largest necropolis, or “city of the dead”, outside Carthage. But the myth of the sacred, snake free soil has come to an end…

snakes on ibizaDead snakes are lying by the side of the road from Sant Llorenç to Santa Gertrudis. It looks as if they’ve been run over by a passing car. Every now and then a driver will stop to take a look, surprised or horrified by what they are seeing. Even though the local newspapers have published the occasional report to let people know of one-off sightings of snakes, it’s much more impressive to see the reptiles in the flesh rather than read a few lines of print in the paper.

So what happened? Did some hard hearted snake lover dump his pets here? Did they escape from captivity? Is there a flourishing snake population on Ibiza? Will local residents have to watch out for these scaly creatures in future when they take a walk along the cliffs and through the woods of the island? Should we be worried – or shrug our shoulders and move on? These were just some of the thoughts that raced through people’s minds when they saw the dead snakes.

Reason enough for IbizaNOW to take a closer look at the phenomenon. Little did we know that we were in for a surprise – and an unpleasant one at that… Research carried out by the Island Council and the Palmabased Department for Hunting, the Protection of Species and Environment Education, Ibiza is now home to four known species of snake that hitched a ride to the island when olive trees were imported from the mainland.

Although the snakes are not currently considered to be a threat to residents, they do place local fauna at risk, in particular lizards, which – like birds, rabbits, rats or small mammals – are small enough for the imported snakes to prey on. “Ibiza’s lizards are not used to having natural enemies and this could end up decimating or destroying their populations,” explain concerned environmental scientists, Esteban Cardona and Miquel Vericad, when we visit them at their offices in Eivissa.

A Phoenician burial chamber at the necropolis, or city of the dead, located on the Puig des Molins in Eivissa and dating back around 2,000 years. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians both came to Ibiza to bury their wealthy citizens as they believed the earth to have divine properties that prevented snakes and poisonous creatures from thriving here…

The first snakes were spotted on Ibiza as far back as five years ago. Most of them were to be found close to garden centres that had specialised in importing ancient olive trees. Back then people assumed that they were dealing with a few isolated cases. “The information was reaching us in dribs and drabs,” says Esteban Cardona. But that was back then – today the number of dead or living specimens being recorded clearly shows that the different species are being found all over Ibiza, with a particularly large concentration in the community of Sant Joan. Only the nearby island of Formentera appears to have escaped unscathed so far.

Experts are still not in a position to judge how large or how widespread the snake population actually is. Or maybe they prefer to keep quiet about it because they don’t want to alarm local residents. Still, we have to assume that these reptiles like it here on Ibiza and their numbers are on the increase. Climatic conditions on the island play a big role in this: the heavy rainfall in May, the high humidity, the hot summers and mild winters – snakes thrive in these kinds of environment.

Over the past few years the town hall in Sant Joan has been receiving plenty of calls from concerned residents who have spotted snakes in the surrounding area. The number of reports dwindled again during the winter months – unsurprisingly enough, as many species of snake go into hibernation when the temperature drops…

The next question is obviously why these institutions failed to take action earlier. Why, for example, didn’t they make sure that the import of olive trees was monitored more strictly – or even banned altogether, given that people have known for years that snakes were being transported over to Ibiza from Andalusia in shipments of olive trees? There must have been one or two cases in the past where snakes have been spotted on commercial ferry services between the island and the mainland.

Are we to believe that the garden centres themselves never realised that they were smuggling in unwelcome reptilian guests along with their orders of imported olive trees? After all, at the time, it seemed like a great idea to transport olive trees from the Spanish mainland to flourish in Ibiza’s gardens, and by doing so save them from being chopped down “thanks” to EU subsidies (sums paid out for every olive tree not felled). It looks as if the snakes were the unfortunate by-product of an initiative to “Save the Olive Trees”.

Whatever the case may be, it is fairly pointless to start pointing fingers once the damage has already been done. The snakes are here – and a rapid and effective solution needs to be found to address the problem. Unfortunately, this appears to be easier said than done. “It’s a very complex issue,” explains Marisol Torres, Director of Environmental Issues for the Island Council in Eivissa, as we have an informal chat.

Her department has no expertise in this area. She tells us that her people are currently working together with the authorities in Palma to clarify the legal situation. It still isn’t clear whether a new law will be needed, or whether a decree will be enough to protect the island against “snake imports” in future. It would take years to pass a law, so the people involved are talking to the garden centres to try to develop an unconventional but effective solution.

However, even if this initiative were to be successful, there is still one major obstacle: private individuals would still have the right to buy an olive tree on the Spanish mainland and have it transported back to Ibiza in the same way that they would a piece of furniture. “We’ve contacted the port authorities. Until legislation is in place, we may be able to monitor the situation better through voluntary collaboration,” says Marisol Torres.

Private buyers could also do their bit by allowing the environmental scientists to examine their olive trees for snakes as soon as they reach the island. This would also be in the interests of garden owners – after all, who wants to find that they’ve pitched their deckchair next to a snake? Torres is counting on everyone involved being as cooperative as possible, yet the fact that not everyone is blessed with insight and common sense could end up scuppering the initiative despite its good intentions.

Only time will tell whether efforts like this will succeed in solving or reducing the problem. There is no magic wand that we can wave to make the snakes that have already set up home here disappear, nor can we stop them from multiplying. Snakes on Ibiza have no natural enemies. So it’s time for the islanders to say goodbye to the myth that snakes can’t survive on the goddess’ Tanit’s sacred soil and start getting used to the idea that the island has gained a few new species. After all, this is a phenomenon that can affect pretty much anywhere on earth in today’s globalised world.

According to the authorities there is currently no cause for concern. None of the species reported represents a threat to humans. However, we should keep an eye on the situation to see how it develops over time. No one can guarantee that all of the snakes that have been, or will be shipped over with olive trees from the mainland, are harmless. There are several poisonous varieties native to the southern peninsula that can pose a risk to humans.

So if you do spot a snake, you should always call 112 to report it, or get in touch with the Department of the Environment in Eivissa on 971 30 14 60. The office is open from Mondays to Fridays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. As snakes tend not to hang around until the environmental office has opened for the day, we recommend calling 112 out of office hours!

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One Response to “The end of an era for Ibiza’s sacred soil”

  1. spewdog Says:

    “if you do spot a snake, you should always call 112 to report it”