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Monitor Lizards


Monitors and Mankind Print E-mail

Extract from A Little Book of Monitor Lizards D. Bennett 1995. Viper Press, UK

Our relationship with monitor lizards stretches back over 90,000,000 years. For almost all of this time they have been the predators and we the prey. The first documented cases of predation on monitor lizards by humans date back about 40,000 years (King 1962). Today mankind's relationship with the monitors  is a complex one. They are undou-btedly the most important of the lizards to the human race.

The Monitor in Folklore and Art

Monitors are often said to have provided the inspiration for mythological dragons, but many other animals have equally strong claims. Marco Polo's description of the Great Serpents of Karazan could easily refer to a Komodo dragon:

Image"Here are great serpents ten paces in length and ten spans the girth of the body. At the forepart near the head they have two short legs, each having three claws like those of a tiger, with eyes larger than a four-penny loaf and very glaring. The jaws are wide enough to swallow a man, the teeth are large and sharp and their whole appearance is so formidable that neither man nor any other animal can approach them without terror."

The earliest known depictions of monitor lizards come from cave paintings near Bhopal made about 10,000 years ago (Das 1989). They frequently appear in ancient and modern Australian art, but they are conspicuously absent from the art of the ancient Egyptian civilisations. According to Rose (1962) monitor lizards were often depicted and embalmed by the ancient Egyptians. However the Egyptians did not begin to mummify reptiles until the later dynasties (about 4,000 years ago) when they were associated with the sun god Atum, and a search of the mummified reptiles in the British and Cairo Museums has not revealed a single specimen of monitor lizard (Bennett & Akonnor ms). The most likely reason that the varanids were excluded from the afterlife is that they prey on the eggs and young of crocodiles, which, although despised, were considered highly sacred by the ancient Egyptians.

Folklore is rich in superstitions and anecdotes concerning monitor lizards. In some places they are despised or even feared, but many cultures appreciate the lizards and some hold them in great reverence.

Stories that monitor lizards are venomous or even poisonous abound in the early literature. The siliva is considered poisonous in Bengal and in parts of Borneo they are always cooked with ginger as a precaution, because if a poisonous individual has been selected for the pot the mixture will turn black (Saha 1983; Auffenberg 1982). Mason & Theobald (in Gaddow 1901) claimed that Burmese Karens ate monitor lizards, but discarded the heads because they considered them poisonous. The secretive rough-necked monitor was believed have so venom so strong it could kill an elephant (Lekagul 1969). In Sri Lanka water monitors are often considered unpalatable whilst Bengal monitors are eaten with relish (Deraniyagala 1953). However treading on the faeces of the lizards may cause your feet to erupt with sores (de Silva, pers.comm.). The lizards' ability to prey on venomous snakes is recognised in many cultures and in Australia, Egypt and Algeria their immunity is often attributed to their habit of seeking out medicinal plants after receiving a bite (Reed 1987, Anderson 1898, Mamir, pers comm.).

ImageMonitors can bestow bad luck on people in a number of ways. In Borneo they are sometimes depicted on the shields of warriors in order to strike dread into the hearts of opponents. If one crosses the path of an advancing army mutiny may result unless the battle is postponed. If one is seen at a wedding the union is presumed doomed from the beginning (Auffenberg 1982). In parts of Pakistan it was considered essential to keep your mouth tightly closed in the presence of a monitor lizard; one glimpse of the teeth and the reptiles' spirit could infect your soul (Minton 1966). If a monitor ran between your legs in Khazakstan  your chance of having  children in the future was rated as zero (Nickolskii 1915). In parts of Thailand some people dare not even pronounce the name of the monitor lizards, whilst others use it as a term of abuse (Nutphand undated). Further south, when the moon is full, some unfortunate people break out in scales and develop a long forked tongue. These "weremonitors" prowl about searching not for beetles and caterpillars, but for warm human flesh  (Auffenberg 1982).

Many cultures distinguish clearly between good monitor lizards and bad ones. Around the Garo Hills in India water monitors with clouded markings were considered evil creatures that dragged men underwater and drained them of blood. Those with bright patterns (known as Aringgas) were supposed to be friendly and are depicted on the doors of Bachelors' houses belonging to the Atong and Ganching tribes. Another Garo clan, the Dawa, have the following story about their founder.

Once upon a time when Dawa was a young man, he came across a baby Aringga which was feeding on melon leaves in one of the village fields. He caught it and put it in a cage, feeding it with fruit. Every day the baby monitors' parents would come and visit their imprisoned child, and when Dawa saw the two enormous Aringgas he became terrified in case they decided to take revenge on him or his people while they were crossing the river. So he dressed the youngster in a yellow coat, put earrings in its ears, released it and promised the parents that he would never catch monitors again, and asked them in return not to eat any of his clan if they identified themselves before they entered the water. The young Aringga became Dawa's friend, and when it grew up used to carry him across the river on its back. To this day Garos never kill Aringgas, and always call out "I am a son of Dawa" before entering the river. If one is accidentally caught it is given some earrings by way of an apology and released (Parry 1932).

According to legend, bark canoes were first invented by Mertens' goannas, who had to learn how to climb in order to get the raw materials for their crafts (McConnel 1957). The industrious and ingenious goannas became lazy when they arrived in southern Australia. They abandoned farming and took to catching small defenceless animals, eventually resorting to stealing food from porcupines after stupefying them with honey (Reed 1987).

In Malaya it was believed that water monitors hatched from crocodile eggs, but stayed on the land whilst some of their brothers and sisters made straight for the water and thus became true crocodiles (Ridley 1899). Strangely a similar belief persisted in Egypt, where the Nile monitor was believed to be the first stage in the life cycle of the crocodile, and Herodotus (circa. 450 BC in Anderson 1898) described the desert monitors  he saw in Libya as land crocodiles.

Uses of Monitor Lizards by Man

Mankind uses monitor lizards in a number of ways; for food, as pest controllers and to make drugs and leather. In some parts of the world they are of enormous economic importance, but in a few places they are considered a menace and efforts made to obliterate them.

ImageThe diets of many monitor lizards make them ideal pest controllers, and their use as such is undoubtedly their most valuable property. They eat crocodile eggs and venomous snakes as well as huge amounts of crop-damaging crabs, snails, beetles and orthopterans. In many parts of Africa and Asia they are encouraged to inhabit paddy fields, coconut groves and other farmland to reduce crop damage (e.g. Deraniyagala 1931). Rosenberg's goanna may have been introduced to many islands off South Australia to reduce the numbers of  venomous snakes (Chapter 5) and the World Health Organisation considered introducing the mangrove monitor to rat-infested islands in the Pacific until its decided preference for crabs became apparent (Uchida 1967). The few studies conducted on monitor lizards living in agricultural areas have all indicated that their diets consist largely of animals that are injurious to crops (Auffenberg et al 1991, Traeholt 1993, Bennett & Akonnor 1995) and in many areas their habit of consuming carrion is approved of. Where monitor lizards are not persecuted they will live close to (or even within) human settlements, foraging around rubbish dumps and feeding on all manner of debris. They are a common sight around some of the largest cities in Africa, Asia and Australia and are presumably tolerated because they help to reduce the amount of food for rats, flies and other urban pests.

The juicy flesh of monitor lizards has long been appreciated. It is rich in fat and can be roasted, grilled, smoked stewed, curried or fried. If cooked carefully, it is tender and not in the least stringy or tough. The choice cuts are the liver, the base of the tail and the eggs. Cochran (1930) reports that the eggs of water monitors were considered suitable for presentation to the King of Thailand. Followers of Islam in Asia will not eat monitor lizards, but many devout Muslims in West Africa consider them a great delicacy. In some parts of the Philippine Islands water monitors are a major food item and in many parts of the world they are used to augment pitifully small protein intakes. Their use as food throughout Africa, Asia and Australia appears to be widespread (e.g. Irvine 1969). The mangrove monitor has been introduced to many islands in the Pacific within living memory, possibly as a food source (Chapter 6).

A bewildering array of tonics, medicines and potions are made from various parts of the monitor lizards' anatomies (e.g. Gaddow 1901, Auffenberg 1982, Das 1989 and references cited therein). The fat is used to treat deteriorating eyesight and for a variety of other ailments (particularly arthritis, rheumatism, piles and muscular pains). It is also used as a sexual lubricant (Saxena 1993). Dried gall bladders are particularly therapeutic, curing heart problems, impotency and liver failure as well as a number of more serious complaints. In North Africa dried heads of monitor lizards are sold to be pulverised and used for the treatment of various external and internal afflictions (Linley, pers.comm.). Amnesiacs in Sri Lanka sometimes prepare a meal of monitor lizard tongues, which is said to restore the memory to its full capacity (de Silva, pers.comm). Krishnan (1992) reports that a man who had sustained a serious thigh wound as the result of an encounter with a wild boar was treated by his friends in the following manner: Thin slices of fresh, Bengal monitor flesh were inserted into the deep wound, which was then bandaged up. The man later claimed that the wound had healed completely within ten days and exhibited a "surprisingly small" scar. As far as I am aware none of the monitors' therapeutic properties have yet been subjected to serious scrutiny.  In Sri Lanka it was also believed that a mixture of water monitor fat and flesh and human blood and hair makes a very strong poison when boiled, and that a drop is sufficient to cause the instant death of an enemy (Auffenberg 1982). Water monitors were also said to be instrumental in the preparation of the Singalese assassins' most favoured poison, kabara-tel. The raw ingredients (fresh snake venom, arsenic and various herbs) were mixed with water in a human skull and placed on a fire, at three corners of which bound water monitors were strategically placed and beaten, so that their hisses would hasten the boiling process and add to the strength of the concoction. The froth from the lizards' lips was added at the last minute, and when an oily scum rose to the surface the dreadful potion was complete (Morris in Gaddow 1901).



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Bye Bye Butaan


Butaan start to visit fruiting trees before they are large enough to swallow the fruits. They make repeat journeys to trees, perhaps to reinforce memory of the position of the tree. If the youngster survives it may continue to use this tree for many decades. Fruiting trees like this are a vital resource for entire populations of butaan. Learn more >

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The Butaan Project - Research
butaan3.jpgThe only obligate fruit-eaters among reptiles are three species of monitor lizard that live in the Philippines. Frugivorous vertebrates tend to be able to fly (almost all are bats and birds) and so these lizards have a unique ecological role as highly specialized and relatively immobile fruit eaters. Before this project started, the only studies of this unique giant and endangered lizard had involved killing the animals. We have developed a set of techniques that allow us to learn about these animals in a completely non-destructive way.


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