In Spain there are still people who believe that "ICONA" secretly release snakes from helicopters. Many would be surprised with the Life Project for the conservation of the Hungarian Meadow viper (Vipera ursinii rakosiensis) in the Carpathian Basin of Hungary.
This small snake disappeared from most of its range in recent decades due to the transformation of their habitats into agricultural land, becoming the most threatened vertebrate in Hungary with an estimated population of fewer than 500 individuals. In 2004, they began the program of long-term conservation coordinated by the Hungarian Society for Conservation of Nature and Ornithology (MME BirdLife Hungary), and funded by the European Commission through two consecutive LIFE projects.
During our trip to Hungary, our friend Bálint Halpern, Project coordinator, told us about their aims and work, and showed us the recovering habitat and captive breeding centre. In addition to recovering habitat, the project aims to strengthen populations and improve public awareness on the conservation of this species.
For the restoration of grassland habitat, invasive plants have been removed and tree plantations established in previous decades have encouraged the expansion of herbaceous communities. So far they have restored more than 76 acres, and the recovered grasslands are maintained by occasional grazing with goats and cows.
In this habitat, characterized by drying marsh-meadows and sandy pastures, snakes can receive the sunlight they need and find a range of prey thanks to the heterogeneity of the land. The small hills are particularly important, because they are slightly raised they are not flooded during the wettest times of the year and this is where the snakes spend the winter in rodent burrows.
In the breeding centre more than 2000 individuals were born, of which 300 have already been reintroduced into the wild, and it all started in 2004 with only 10 individuals! The breeding season begins in spring, and the young are born in late summer. Like most vipers, they are ovoviviparous, and each female usually gives birth to about 15 young each year. They reach sexual maturity in their third or fourth year.
The young feed mainly on Orthopteran insects, such as grasshoppers and crickets, while adults primarily eat small reptiles, birds and mammals. Males can reach 50 cm long and females up to 60 cm. The venom of these snakes is not lethal to humans and they rarely bite.
In the following video you can see two males fighting to mate with a female in the breeding centre:
You can find more information about this project on their website.