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Monitors and Mankind Print E-mail

According to Das (1988), killing monitor lizards with rakes is a form of sport in parts of northeastern India. Similarly, children in parts of the Kara-Khum desert take great delight in seeking out Caspian monitors and bludgeoning them to death. Because the lizards are believed to be venomous, participation and success in this sport is considered to be an act of great bravery (pers. obs.).

The ingenious and renown Mararathi warrior Karna Singh breached the walls of the Fort of Kelna by tying a rope to a monitor lizard, allowing it to scale the wall and following it up when it had secured itself in a tight crevice. Thereafter his tribe were known as Ghorpade (after the Marathi name for the Bengal monitor, ghorpad) and every soldier in the army was trained in their use (Ramakrishna 1983). Less heroic individuals used the lizards to climb the walls of houses they were burgling (Robinson in Gaddow 1901).

A number of cultures were said to allow monitor lizards to feed on their deceased relatives and thus eliminated the need to dispose of corpses by burying or burning them. In the Mergui Archipelago corpses were left on exposed platforms in the forest whilst on Bali the bodies were covered with wicker baskets that kept dogs and monkeys out and allowed the lizards to feed in peace (Anderson 1889, Auffenberg 1982). Such free and nutritious meals attracted large numbers of water monitors, Anderson reports that up to 15 specimens were seen "engaged in a ghastly meal of this kind".

ImageBy far the most conspicuous use of monitor lizards is for their skins. Traditionally used for drumheads and shields, monitor skins are in great demand in the richer parts of the world to make watchstraps, shoes, wallets, handbags and other leather goods. The exquisite patterns of the lizards combined with the durability of their hides make them the most popular family of lizards in the skin trade. Most are caught in the poorer countries of central Africa and South East Asia and are sold in Europe, North America and Japan. As far as I am aware there is no demand for monitor lizard meat in Europe, nor are the gall bladders widely available, so the demand for the animals comes only from the fashion market. The numbers of animals involved in the trade is vast and the reported numbers may represent only a small proportion of the actual trade. Until 1975 there was no international attempt to monitor the number of lizard skins shipped from country to country, but there is no doubt that in many areas a flourishing export trade has existed for well over a hundred years. Mertens (1942a) suggested that the Second World War was beneficial to monitor lizards, by providing them with some respite from intensive exploitation.

In 1973-74 the Bangladeshi Government estimated that exports of lizard skin were worth more than US$1,300,000 (Gilmour 1984). Reported trade in lizards skins from India between 1964 and 1973 was over 2.5 million kg, valued at almost 15 million rupees (Anon 1978). However trade reported to CITES during 1975 amounted to only 51,239 skins, of which 38,478 originated in the Indian subcontinent. Minimum net trade in monitor lizard skins from 1975-199* are shown below. The significant rise in numbers between the late 1970's and the early 80's is more likely to be a reflection of the increasing efficiency of the reporting system rather than a true indication of a rise in demand.

Not all monitor lizards are exploited for their skins, in fact the brunt of the trade is borne by just five or six species. The water monitor (V.salvator) is the most heavily collected species, with trade in almost 2.5 million skins reported in 1990 alone. The major exporters of water monitor skins are Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Most skins are shipped through Singapore and find markets throughout the rest of eastern Asia, Europe and North America. In Africa the Nile monitor is the most heavily exploited species with average trade in over 400,000 skins reported between 1980 and 1985. Most skins are exported from Nigeria, Sudan, Mali and Cameroon and are sold in France, Italy and the U.S.A. Large scale trade in V.exanthematicus (i.e. V.albigularis and V.exanthematicus) is also reported, with an average of 88,000 skins shipped each year between 1980 and 1985. Most of these animals originated in Nigeria (V.exanthematicus) and, to a lesser extent, Mali (V.exanthematicus), Sudan (?) and South Africa (V.albigularis). Most of the demand comes from France, other European nations and the USA.. Trade in the skins of desert monitors, V.griseus, is often reported, but  according to Auffenberg (1982) its skin is too thin to make good leather and it is considered a very poor substitute for other monitor skins. Most animal skins traded as V.griseus probably belong to the two completely protected species V.bengalensis and V.flavescens. Commercial trade in these species has been outlawed since 1975, but several countries, notably Japan, ignored the ban and continued to import large quantities of their skins until very recently. Between 1983 and 1986 over one million V.bengalensis skins were traded, mainly from India, Bangladesh and Thailand and almost all being exported to Japan. Trade in V.flavescens skins amounted to an average of  almost 120,000 skins per year between 1983 and 1986. Almost all the skins originated in India and Bangladesh and again Japan was by far the largest consumer. It should be noted that all of the figures cited above refer to whole skins only, and do not include products made from monitor lizards or transactions reported by weight (often amounting to thousands of kilogrammes per year). Nor do they include over 1.5 million skins registered by Japanese customs between 1983 and 1987 but not declared to CITES. Furthermore Varanus skins are frequently misidentified in official declarations, with Asian species exported from African countries and vice versa. Exporters must find it very easy to deceive customs and CITES officials. During my investigations several Customs offices in several countries requested photographs depicting the various species, admitting they were unable to tell the difference between them. The most recent report of worldwide trade in reptile skins (Jenkins & Broad 1994) includes a single photograph of "V.salvator", the most frequently encountered monitor in the skin trade, which is clearly misidentified and should have been labelled V.dumerilii, a species in which leather trade is unknown!

The exploitation of monitor lizards has largely been overlooked by Westerners. Most people do not consider monitor lizards to be cuddly animals and perhaps it is on account of their lack of fur that their slaughter does not incur the sympathy extended to other victims of the leather trade. As far as is known, not a single monitor lizard has been bred commercially and so the trade relies entirely on animals taken from the wild. Considering the vast numbers involved and the fact that only the skins of adults or subadults are suitable it can be presumed that the trade will eventually deplete numbers to the point that they become extinct in many areas. Recent large-scale extinctions have been suggested for several monitor lizards in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh but it is unclear whether their demise is attributable more to direct human predation than to habitat destruction. Studies of heavily exploited populations in Sumatra revealed some of the highest biomasses recorded for any lizard in the world (Erdelen 1988, 1991) and there are no clear cases of  monitor populations being decimated in any part of South-East Asia or Africa because of the activities of the skin trade (e.g. Buffrenil et al 1994, Shine et al. 1996). Habitat destruction, on the other hand, can be held responsible for reduction in monitor lizard numbers in all countries in which they occur. It is difficult to think of the skin trade without revulsion, but the poverty in Africa and Southeast Asia is much more unpalatable. The potential of monitor lizards as a very profitable and sustainable resource must have occurred to many people, but no serious attempts at farming them on a commercial scale appear to have been made. This may be due to the fact that they are still abundant in many areas, but if mankind is to continue to benefit from monitor lizards far into the future large scale captive breeding will be obligatory.

Some well meaning but misinformed people condemn eating monitor lizards on the basis not of taste, but of morality. They consider that using them for food (or indeed for any purpose) contributes to their demise, but fail to appreciate that almost all of the countries where monitor lizards occur are unimaginably poorer than anywhere in North America or Europe. Because they have very little money they experience very high infant mortality and very low life expectancy. This forces them to adopt unsustainable economic practises that result in the destruction of local ecosystems, the extinction of many animals and plants and land fit for nothing but shanty-towns and refugee camps. Of all wild animals, monitor lizards are among the best suited to sustainable use. They breed and grow very quickly and many are equally happy living in pristine forest, a field of corn or a rubbish dump. They quickly establish large populations wherever adequate food is available and they are not fussy about their diets. Their flesh is extremely nutritious and most importantly, their skins are very valuable. The price of a pair of monitor lizard shoes in Italy or Japan would feed a family for a year in most parts of  the world. Westerners who object to the use of any animal skins except those of cows and sheep often fail to appreciate that animals with no economic value are likely to find their right to existence questioned  increasingly as the populations of poorer countries burgeon.

Uses of Man by Monitor Lizards

Humanity offers food and shelter to the monitor lizards. A few large monitors will eat people when given the opportunity, but most have to be content with buried corpses that they locate by smell and exhume. In many parts of the world graveyards have to be heavily protected against monitor lizards by packing the ground with clay or coral, or by enclosing the area within a strong fence (e.g. Taylor 1963). Only a few, very large, Komodo dragons are capable of catching and consuming an healthy adult, but small children could potentially fall victim to a number of species. Monitors have an unfavourable reputation for stealing animals (usually young chickens) from man in most parts of the world and for this reason are often killed when encountered by farmers. In some cultures monitor lizards are tolerated rather than encouraged. Local customs often forbid the killing of monitor lizards for any reason, but their antisocial behaviour does not necessarily go unpunished. Cisse (1971) recalls that a Senegalese man who found a Nile monitor in his house helping itself to his breakfast eggs found himself unable to kill the intruder, but vented his anger by tying the animal up and giving it a sound thrashing with a belt before releasing it, bruised but otherwise unharmed. It remained in the vicinity, but never entered his house again.

Monitor lizards love messy campers and tidy up a great deal of their mess, including scraps of food, faeces and, unfortunately,  plastic bags and other inedible debris that smells of food. In many areas they seem aware of the habits of holiday makers, and consistently emerge just minutes after the last tourist bus has departed. Less shy individuals may actively solicit food from people and will even "beg" for food in a dog-like manner.

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Butaan Jump from Incredible Heights!
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