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The Butaan Project - Background and History Print E-mail
butaan2.jpgThe butaan was first described to science in 1845 from a juvenile specimen collected by Hugh Cuming. It was labelled only "Philippines". It was named Varanus grayi.  No other specimens came to light for over 120 years. In the 1970s Walter Auffenberg found another specimen with a location in Luzon, established that its correct scientific name was Varanus olivaceus, and undertook a 22 month study of the species based in Bicol. His study revealed that butaan occupy a unique ecological niche and have a lifestyle quite unlike any other monitor lizard. Auffenberg used local hunters with dogs to catch the animals. Of 126 butaan caught during his study, 116 animals were killed.

 

He concluded that butaan:

  • Are specialist frugivores and molluscivore
  • Feed on very narrow range of fruits
  • Forage exclusively on the ground to collect perfectly ripe fruits
  • Have very small activity areas
  • Are absent from degraded forest


As a result of Auffenberg's work the species was classified as Vulnerable by the IUCN. The only monitor lizard considered to be at risk of extinction is the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodeoensis). Whilst the Komodo dragon attracted much attention and is one of the best known animals in the world, the butaan was completely ignored. No further attempts were made to study it until 1999.

Our work on the butaan began in 1999. At the time the only study of the species had been that of Walter Auffenberg in the 1970s. Our project began as an investigation into the use of non-destructive methods to study different animal groups. The butaan posed a unique challenge.

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The main aims of this project are to
  • Develop entirely non-intrusive methods to assess populations of Varanus olivaceus on Polillo and and investigate their baseline ecology.
  • Apply these methods to other parts of the Philippines where giant frugivorous lizards may still exist.
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The Butaan Project
The Butaan Project - Conservation

polillomap1.jpgThe dark green patch at center left in this unmanipulated Google Earth image is the last remaining fragment of unlogged lowland dipterocarp forest on Polillo Island, and our main study site for the last 11 years. Less than one square mile in size (220ha) and less than 100m above sea level, the Sibulan Watershed Reserve has lost much of its secondary boundary forest over the last six years through illegal and uncontrolled agricultural activities. 

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