Published in Sanctuary Asia, XXXV No.3, June 2005
We (Rom Whitaker and I) were standing knee-deep in a stinky cesspool. The muddy water was filthy with village effluent and the body fluids of a rotting shark carcass lying just above the tide line in the mangroves. I had modified my earplugs into nose stoppers to better handle the nauseating aroma that permeated everything including my clothes. The only animals that probably found this scene appealing were the water monitor lizards arriving from further upstream. They ripped and tore into the shark carcass with gusto, fought with their neighbours over scraps and one even crawled right into the belly cavity of the fast-disappearing carcass to get the entrails. I gagged on the thought that the lizards found the putrid carcass tasty. Most of them were over 1.8 m. in length; the largest was a hefty 2.4 m. As long as we didn’t make a move towards the feast, the lizards didn’t seem to mind our presence. Taking a step forward not only stirred up the buzzing dark cloud of flies and the overpowering stench but also brought on a chorus of whipping tails, the lizards’ way of reminding me that I was intruding. The scene I was witnessing could have been out of some primeval time when humans were not even a gleam in the eye of any primate.
We were in Sri Lanka, wading through one of the numerous rivers that drain down the island’s west coast. The scene described above was to play out over and over again in virtually every single water system along this coast – Maha Oya, Kelaniya, Bolgoda Lake, Kalu Ganga, Bentota Ganga, Gin Ganga, to name the major ones. The Sri Lankans practice that endearing Indian habit of chucking any kind of garbage into the nearest river. Here there is one exceptional difference – you won’t see many stray dogs fighting over the organic scraps; instead you’ll witness huge semi-tame water monitors trying to cram as much food as possible into their already bloated stomachs. A lizard lying on the shore after one such meal is totally incapable of moving away should you approach too close. In one extreme case of grossness, the lizard’s stomach was so distended that the legs could barely reach the ground! Such satiated saurians just lie there and put on a lethargic threat display – hissing and slapping their tails. Usually this half-hearted warning should suffice to send any timid soul on his way. Should you wish to catch them, for whatever crazy reason, all you need is sheer muscle power; the lizards aren’t about to run. These overfed beasts are so powerful that it took the combined weight of two admittedly not-in-shape humans to restrain one lizard from walking into the water. We eventually did manage to measure his length and weight (2.25 m; 55 kg. should you be interested).
Meet the beast
The winning formula that goes into the making of these supremely-adaptable creatures is: keen eyesight, nostrils with valves that shut out water when its time to submerge, a tongue that smells the faintest odour of any food at least two kilometers away if the wind is blowing or the water is flowing their way, a long rudder-like tail that propels them powerfully through water and doubles as a defensive weapon, talon-like claws that provide the animals amazing purchase on smooth barked trees, and teeth more like those of flesh eating sharks than any living reptile or mammal.
Although amazingly there is no literature to support this, it is obvious that water monitor lizards can hear. I have mimicked the squeaking of a rat, the distress call of baby palm squirrels and common tree frogs and usually drawn a gratifying reaction – they turn around and fix me with their curious gaze.
As if a regular pair of sharp eyes was not enough, the creature has a pineal eye in the middle of the forehead. It has no eyeball or eyelid, although it has a functional retina and a nerve leading to the brain. The third eye lies beneath the skin and its position is merely hinted at by a slight bulge and marked by a large yellow spot. What purpose it serves is still a mystery; some scientists believe that it maintains a sense of daylight (circadian rhythm), and season. In one ghoulish, but interesting study, conducted in the 1960s, a scientist removed the third eye surgically to see what would happen to the lizard. Compared to a normal lizard, the pineal-eye-blinded lizard’s reproductive cycle and locomotor activity was speeded up, and it spent a lot more time sunning itself. Whether the lack of a pineal eye was actually detrimental to the lizard was never established.
Unlike more sedentary reptiles, monitor lizards patrol their territory actively seeking food; investigate objects with curiosity and display an exceptional level of intelligence and awareness of their world. Their bodies are not knobby and bumpy like crocodiles, nor do they unnervingly slither out of the way like snakes. Their active pursuit of anything that moves or smells is reminiscent of small carnivorous mammals like mongoose and civet cats. People seem to easily relate to monitor lizards because of all these ‘mammalian’ traits. Yet, they are reptiles more closely related to snakes than other lizards.
A Quick Tour
An hour-and-half drive north of Colombo is an endless stretch of beach resorts where planeloads of burned-out European tourists come to chill out in the sun. One such village is Waikkal, on the edge of a tributary of the river Maha Oya. The mangroves have been chopped away a long time ago and the river is crisscrossed by fishing nets. Swimming gingerly between these nets are big water monitor lizards. One popular water monitor lizard myth here is that it is venomous. In the past, warriors apparently hung water monitor lizards by their tails and collected their mucousy saliva. This ‘venomous’ substance was used to poison enemies. The truth is that lizard saliva is a suitable growing medium for several different kinds of bacteria but there is no venom. The second popular myth is that lizards can cut you badly with their tails. They can certainly slap hard with their tails and I had several red welts across my thighs to prove it but they certainly didn’t cut me up. Some lizards do get entangled in the nets and the frightened fishermen would rather hack the net than risk getting bit or cut in half by the lizards. The nets are gauntlets the lizards have to run everyday and they could easily drown if not quickly freed. We were summoned several times by local fishermen to help disentangle lizards from nets. All we ever got in return for the favour was a well-aimed tail slap from the lizards or clawed arms.
It was in Waikkal that we discovered Anthony. His house sat right on the edge of the river, the highway of water monitors. They were the bane of Anthony’s life. He took all the kitchen waste from the resorts on contract to feed his large sounder of pigs. Recently, a lizard had grabbed a piglet and Anthony’s determined wife had saved it by chasing the lizard away. Anthony stitched up the piglet’s ripped-open stomach and nursed it back to health. Two days after it joined the rest of the sounder, it got taken again and this time Mrs. Anthony didn’t see it happen. While we were interviewing Anthony, his wife burst out of the house, shrieking and we immediately understood why the lizard had dropped the piglet earlier and ran! This time she had spotted a lizard lurking around the chicken coop and went after it with a broom. By the time we could comprehend what was going on, the triumphant lizard was swimming off fast with a bedraggled white chicken in its mouth. Mrs. Anthony stood on the waters’ edge beating the water with her broom and swearing in Sinhala.
If the Sinhalese believe that these reptiles are venomous and pesky predators, why don’t they just exterminate the animals? One reason for this tolerant attitude could be the lizard’s tendency to gobble up snakes. The lizards quickly learn how to deal with venomous and non-venomous snakes. Non-venomous snakes are grabbed anywhere along the body whereas a venomous snake would be chased and then shaken to exhaustion before being swallowed like a long noodle. Sri Lankans have learnt to value this service.
While we stood there commiserating with Mrs. Anthony, we were inwardly admiring the lizard’s gumption. This was when we discovered Anthony’s regular job. A number of big aluminum pots and pans connected by pipes stood by the chicken coop, hidden from the road. He was the local bootlegger and entrepreneur. He brewed his intoxicant with choice pickings from the resorts’ kitchen waste mixed with the river’s septic water. He was making a profit with minimum investment, just as enterprising as his nemesis, the water monitor lizard. The very thought that any part of that filthy river water goes down people’s throats was too unappetising a thought. In no time at all Anthony’s place was sarcastically branded, Anthony’s Health Spa!
In the resort itself, the water monitors lead a low profile life. They hang around the tourist cottages scavenging fallen pieces of fish fingers and French fries; they lurk behind the kitchen for scraps, keeping the stray dog population down (the lizards take almost every puppy, thankfully out of sight of visiting tourists). Life is clearly as good for the reptiles as for the tourists at these resorts.
A boat ride along the River Kelaniya was another lesson in lizard resilience. Kelaniya is one of the most polluted rivers in Sri Lanka. At least Anthony’s Maha Oya was an organically septic river; Kelaniya was brimming not just with organic waste but heavy-duty inorganic effluents released by factories along its banks. Although there weren’t as many lizards in this river as the others, we tracked down the local haunt of the lizards – the effluent discharge gate of a sausage plant!
Bolgoda Lake, which has several lake front houses along its banks, comes alive over the weekends when speedboats tailed by water skis zoom around. But through the week when the owners are in Colombo, the lizards enjoy the facilities – neatly trimmed green lawns to bask on, the local fish market along the main highway for food and a choice assortment of boat houses to sleep off their eating binge.
Water monitor heaven
The cesspool in which we were standing was further south, in the middle of the village of Balapitiya. The mangrove fringe skirted a coconut plantation, which was the frequent hangout of the big monitor lizards because it was next to the bridge over the Madu Ganga River, the local garbage dumping spot. The commonest fish caught on this coast is tuna; and the river was one huge stinky garbage can for fishy leftovers. Tuna tails are too stiff and big to be swallowed by the lizards. It drove me (if not the lizards) crazy with frustration to see the lizards move their neck from side to side for hours in an attempt to swallow the damn things. Some gave up and swam around with the tails stuck in their mouths. Many a beautiful lizard photograph had to be trashed because of the fish-tail-stuck-in-the-mouth syndrome. It was also comical to see lizards whose mouths were already stuffed up with a tuna tail trying to pick up yet another tuna tail!
Lizards frequently brought morning peak traffic on the bridge to a stand still when one decided to cross the road. But once the lizard got onto the road, it would suddenly see the vehicles on either side and sit down petrified. The people waited patiently until the lizard mustered up enough courage to either cross or slink back in retreat. But some big ones just slowly ambled across like they owned the place.
Clearly, the people along the wet west coast of Sri Lanka and the water monitor lizard have learnt to live together. Although much of the island’s once extensive mangroves are gone, the absence of poaching for leather or meat allows the lizards to live unmolested. The villagers recognise the critical role the lizards play as scavengers in the ecosystem as Sri Lanka does not have any vultures to do the job.
But elsewhere in its range, the water monitor is being driven out as its habitat, the mangroves are being cleared to make way for shrimp farms. Shrimp farmers do not welcome the presence of water monitors and as a result, there is less and less space for them along Southeast Asia’s waterways. They are also slaughtered for their highly prized pretty skins. Approximately two million monitor lizards are killed every year throughout Asia for the leather industry. Indonesia alone takes anywhere between 600,000 to 1.5 million water monitor lizards from the wild each year for people who think they look posh with a lizard skin watchstrap or handbag. The only things going for the wily lizards is their resilience, their adaptability and the few people in some parts of the world that tolerate their presence.
Just as we were getting ready to leave, a boat zoomed up creating huge swells that threatened our balance in the festering waters. One of the local boat drivers had heard of our interest in the ‘kabaragoya’ (Sinhala for water monitor lizard) and had helpfully scraped up the carcass of a run-over civet cat from the highway for us. A bemused Rom took the squashed remains closer to the lizards on the shore and they began to swarm all over him. For a moment the wild creatures appeared tame but as soon as Rom began retreating, the lizards took up defensive postures ready to use their tails as weapons. I feared one of them might just decide to make his point and drench me with the unsanitary water. Thankfully that never happened and we could hear the lizards ripping and skirmishing as we withdrew.