Monitors and Mankind

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).

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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