31 December 2010

Busting Myths about Monitors

(Photo by Ria)

In my previous post, I discussed some basic aspects about the biology of the Malayan water monitor (Varanus salvator). Despite being relatively common, and often encountered by visitors to many of our parks and coastal areas, a great deal of misinformation about this lizard exists. And despite its size, it also faces a number of threats from human activities.

Mistaken Identity

Water monitor at Sungei Buloh

The Malayan water monitor is one of the largest and most conspicuous of our remaining native wildlife. It is adaptable, widespread, and often encountered in areas frequented by people. Yet it is also unfortunately the target of a great deal of confusion, and is misidentified by many people.

a) I'm not a crocodile!

As mentioned in the earlier post, water monitors are sometimes mistaken for crocodiles; the sight of a large reptile in the water may take some people aback, who make assumptions before taking a closer look. Yet there are some who make such a mistake even when encountering a monitor lizard on land.

Water monitor swimming in Sungei Buloh (Photo by Marcus)

Estuarine crocodiles are still very rare in Singapore, and their stronghold appears to be in Sungei Buloh. Here is a page that shows visitors to Sungei Buloh how to tell the Malayan water monitor apart from the crocodile.

Estuarine crocodile in Sungei Buloh (Photo by Marcus)

b) I'm not a Komodo dragon!

Another creature that the Malayan water monitor is often mistaken for is its larger cousin, the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis). While the Komodo dragon is the largest living species of monitor lizard (and the largest living lizard for that matter), it has a very restricted geographical range, and is found only on a handful of small islands in Indonesia. Any Komodo dragons in Singapore would be in captivity.

Water monitor at Sungei Buloh

That hasn't stopped many people from assuming that they have seen a Komodo dragon in the wild, when it is merely a large water monitor.*

*Coincidentally, the 3 links are all based on sightings of Malayan water monitors at Chinese Garden.

It does get a little upsetting to see how people often appear to be more knowledgeable about animals from other parts of the world, compared to the native wildlife that we have. This leads to plenty of misidentifications. Hence, sunbirds get identified as hummingbirds, herons and egrets are called cranes, the smooth otter turns into a sea otter, and the monitor lizard is transformed into a Komodo dragon. I'm not sure whether it's just a lack of awareness or sheer ignorance, but it does get me quite annoyed whenever this happens.

Komodo dragon at the Singapore Zoo (Photo by Shirley Ng)

c) I'm not an iguana!

Monitor lizards in Singapore are also sometimes called 'iguanas', which is entirely inaccurate; iguanas are an entirely different family of lizards, and are not native to this region. Once again, any iguana found in Singapore is of captive origin.

Water monitor on Sentosa

A record of an escaped green iguana (a large lizard native to South and Central America) at Sungei Buloh can be found here. Just from the pictures alone, one can easily see that iguanas look nothing at all like monitor lizards.

Feral green iguana seen at Sungei Buloh (Photo by Ee Poh San)

Are they dangerous?

Another cause for consternation comes about from the apparent paranoia that many people seem to show towards these reptiles. Whether it stems from fear of reptiles or wildlife in general, or exaggeration of the threat to people due to misidentification as Komodo dragons, it appears that there are a number of people who believe that our local monitor lizards are extremely dangerous and have no right to live close to people.

Water monitor crossing a trail at Sungei Buloh (Photo by Marcus)

I was finally spurred to write this post after seeing this submission to STOMP:

(Photo from STOMP)
STOMPer ShockedStomper saw this creature, which looked like a Komodo dragon, swimming in the Chinese Garden lake at about 4pm yesterday (Dec 26). The STOMPer was concerned because Komodo dragons have been known to attack and eat humans.

Said the STOMPer:

"I wonder if this creature I saw swimming in the Chinese Garden lake is a Komodo dragon.

"And if it was, was it supposed to be there?

"I'm not sure, but I thought Komodos are dangerous?

"I hope the relevant authorities can look into this."

(Photo from STOMP)

The person who submitted this displayed ignorance what I personally feel is appalling ignorance on 2 counts: the first, being ignorant of the fact that Komodo dragons are not found in Singapore, and that the Malayan water monitor is very much part of our native wildlife. And this is in Chinese Garden, where the species is commonly encountered and should be familiar to regular visitors. The second, is extrapolating unnecessarily from the initial misidentification as a Komodo dragon, and hence assuming that human safety is under great threat.

The Komodo dragon is certainly large and powerful enough to look upon humans as suitable prey from time to time, and there have been 2 fatal attacks in recent years, involving an 8 year old boy in 2007 and a 32 year old fisherman in 2009. However, the Malayan water monitor simply is not adapted to take down such large animals, and so does not look upon humans as prey. There certainly is a possible risk of monitor lizards preying upon pets such as rabbits, rodents, birds, and even cats and small dogs, but as far as I know, there have yet to be any unprovoked attacks on humans that can be interpreted as a predation attempt. So far, in all my brushes with Malayan water monitors, even the largest ones have made no attempt to attack me, and most of the encounters ended with the lizard trying to get as far away as possible; this usually involved the lizard quickly dashing into the water and swimming off.

Water monitor at Sungei Buloh (Photo by Ria)

Not that the Malayan water monitor is a completely harmless creature though; it does have weapons that it will put to good use if it has to, and like any other wild animal, needs to be treated with an appropriate amount of respect.

Its first line of defence is its powerful tail. The same tail that propels the monitor lizard effortlessly through the water can be used as a whip. In this following video, you can see a monitor lizard (possibly a Malayan water monitor) using its tail when cornered by 2 dogs:

Being a carnivore, a monitor lizard also possesses a set of sharp teeth, which are continually shed and replaced. As if that wasn't bad enough, recent studies have shown that some species of monitor lizard actually produce venom (the familiar story about animals and people being bitten by Komodo dragons dying as a result of nasty bacterial infections is now disputed, and is argued to be due to the action of venom instead). While the Malayan water monitor itself has not been examined in such studies, it is likely that it too possesses similar venom glands, which would aid in incapacitating prey. A person unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of a water monitor's bite might be in for some nasty side-effects, besides the wounds and blood loss. And given that water monitors have no qualms about devouring carrion, there is also always the risk of bites becoming badly infected.

Skull of Malayan water monitor (Photo by Vaukalaka)

Apparently, there are records of people in other countries actually dying after being bitten by water monitors, although the circumstances in which people were bitten are unavailable. My guess is that these incidents involved very large monitor lizards, and the victims were unable to seek proper medical attention immediately. Whether the person was bitten as an attempt at predation or the monitor lizard reacted in self-defence is unknown, but for now, I think the latter seems more probable.

Apart from the mouth and the tail, a monitor lizard is armed with sharp talons on its limbs; 20 claws in total. These claws, which help the lizard to climb trees and dig burrows, may be put to good use if a lizard is seized; thrashing about would likely cause some serious lacerations.

Nonetheless, despite all these weapons, it appears that the Malayan water monitor is far more likely to flee rather than fight; even at Sungei Buloh, where the monitor lizards are relatively unafraid of humans, there do not seem to be any incidents in which a monitor lashed out and attacked a person. And so it seems that while the Malayan water monitor does have the potential to cause a great deal of damage in self-defence, by and large these giant lizards are quite harmless, and pose little if any threat to people, as long as we keep a respectful distance and don't attempt to harass or catch them.


The Malayan water monitor has a wide distribution, and is found across a large area of South-east Asia, as well as in the Andaman Islands, Sri Lanka, and northeast India. It is considered common in many countries where it is found, especially in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. It is listed in the IUCN Red List as a species of Least Concern, meaning that as a species, it is not under any serious or immediate threat of extinction.

Distribution of Malayan water monitor (Taken from IUCN Red List)

However, this species does suffer a heavy toll from hunting; in many countries, it is caught and traded especially for its skin, with up to 1 million skins being traded a year. It is also harvested for meat and medicinal purposes. However, it does appear to be remarkably resilient to such heavy exploitation, although populations have been reduced or extirpated in some areas, such as in India and Bangladesh.

Young water monitor on Pulau Ubin

Also, youngsters are collected from time to time for the exotic pet trade; however, given its eventual large size and need for large enclosures, and the potential to cause serious injuries if improperly handled, this species is not recommended for people inexperienced with keeping monitor lizards in general.

Captive water monitor takes a dip in the family pool somewhere in the United States of America

Here in Singapore, the Malayan water monitor receives protected status as part of the Wild Animals and Birds Act, and so catching and killing a monitor lizard is definitely quite illegal. However, there are cases of monitor lizards being captured, possibly for food; one such incident occurred in Changi in 2009, and the lizard was rescued by Nature Trekker Singapore. Another more recent case involved a water monitor that had wandered into a housing estate in Sengkang, and was captured and trussed up.

Large water monitor trapped in Sengkang (Photos from STOMP)

Fortunately, the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) intervened and rescued this lizard. Nicknamed Godzilla, it was untied and released in a suitable habitat.

Still, it seems that there are quite a number of people who seem keen on trying monitor lizard meat, whether they belong to the older generations, or have sampled monitor lizard meat overseas or as part of jungle survival courses. Unfortunately, you can find forum threads discussing catching and killing monitor lizards for meat here and here. Another example is seen here, which also shows a lot of confusion between Malayan water monitors, Komodo dragons, and iguanas. It would be hilarious if it wasn't so depressing to see so much ignorance about our local wildlife and our wildlife protection laws on display.

And after all, there's no need to try and copy Bear Grylls when you live in Singapore.

Besides poaching, other threats faced by monitor lizards include getting run over by vehicles; examples have been seen in Yishun and Pasir Ris.

Water monitor carcass found on roadside in Yishun, presumably struck by a vehicle. (Photo from STOMP)

Like all other reptiles, monitor lizards depend on heat from their surroundings, and a road is an excellent place to bask and warm up. Unfortunately, this places monitor lizards at risk of being struck by vehicles, whether deliberately or by accident. And this is why you have signs like this one all over Sentosa:

(Photo by Shawn Watters)

Since they live close to water, Malayan water monitors may also be negatively impacted by litter discarded by careless and irresponsible anglers and fishermen. In December 2007, the purpose behind a trip to clear abandoned driftnets on Pulau Sekudu was made all too clear when some of us rescued a small monitor lizard that had gotten itself entangled in a net. And earlier this year, a water monitor was spotted with a rusty hook embedded in its tail; it is not known if it suffered any long-term damage as a result.

Malayan water monitor entangled in net on Pulau Sekudu (Photo by Ria)

Challenges for the future

Despite the seemingly widespread ignorance and paranoia, and occasional persecution, the Malayan water monitor continues to thrive. Whether we are able to accept the presence of these majestic predators in our midst, and learn to coexist with them, will also affect the future of our aquatic and coastal habitats. Yes, the Malayan water monitor may not be as furry and cuddly as the otters, or as awe-inspiring as the white-bellied sea eagle, but it is very much a flagship species of Singapore's various freshwater and marine ecosystems, and an icon for our very own fascinating and unique biodiversity.


Anonymous said...

great post! Now, i understand more about this exotic creatures!

Mr Nomad said...

Today i saw this creature at Pangkor Island port,and when i asked a local about the same,he called it a Komodo :p Thank you for the relevant information ,cleared lot of my misconceptions

清水 嵐 said...

i saw a water monitor earlier this year and was reading up about it when i come across this post. definitely putting this link into my instagram post along with the video i had of the water monitor!

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