Urban Wildlife Series: Asian Water Monitor (Varanus salvator salvator)

IUCN Redlist Status: Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)
National Redlist Status: Least Concern

With a permanent look of indifference about everything plastered over their faces (resting monitor face) and a periodic flicking of their forked tongues going on (which is how they analyze the chemical composition of the air), Asian water monitors (Varanus salvator salvator) are more than what meets the eye. Plus, the subspecies found in Sri Lanka is morphologically unique! Which means that their size, shape and the structure is completely different to the subspecies found in other countries. Locally they are called “Kabaragoya / කබරගොයා” or “Kabaraya / කබරයා” where ”kabara” means spotted and ”goya” means like a lizard.

Asian water monitors – let’s call them water monitors from now on – are quite formidable creatures and they happen to be the second heaviest lizard species in the world (komodo dragons take up first place). They are excellent swimmers, which in no small part is aided by their muscular tail as they keep their limbs tucked to their sides (similar to marine iguanas. Another example would be the Zilla from the 1998 movie “Godzilla”) while swimming. That tail not only aids in swimming, but its tapered, whip-like structure has enabled them to use their tails with deadly precision to defend themselves.

Water monitors are built for survival in their habitat, packing an impressive array of sharp claws (they are excellent tree climbers), serrated teeth, powerful jaw muscles, and a durable hide (which has found its way into the local vernacular as “කබර හම / kabara hama” to mean “thick skinned”). Speaking about their sharp claws, there are local legends about thieves using water monitors and land monitors as impromptu grappling hooks because once a monitor grabs onto something, it would die before letting go. Their grip strength is that powerful! Their keen sense of smell helps them locate carrion from far away, and coupled with the fact that monitors do not monitor what they consume (their diet includes fish, snakes, frogs, crabs, rodents, young crocodiles, and if the occasion calls for it, turtles too) has earned it good graces – and a huge respect for its personal space – with the locals, because they take their  duties as scavenger and pest control agent very seriously.

Image taken from the Urban Wildlife Map.

This buffet approach to their carnivorous diet enables them to grow to truly unprecedented dimensions, where the largest ever recorded was caught in Sri Lanka and measured 10.5 feet (that’s a half a foot less than a standard Maruti Suzuki Alto 800, if we were to scale).

If you do happen to see two water monitors engaged in what seems like an impromptu sumo match (wrestling with each other standing on their hind legs), they are not mating, or hugging, or dancing. But are most probably resolving some kind of issue – maybe one did cross into the other’s territory or vice versa. When they do mate, the male climbs on top of the female and the bodies look entwined. After copulation, the female lays a batch of five to 22 leathery eggs in a hole on level ground or a vertical embankment (batch sizes vary with the size of the female).

Water monitors are extremely adaptable, but their survival depends on the fact that there is no extensive loss of vegetation and aquatic resources, something which is dwindling faster than they can adapt. It is up to us to preserve and protect a world that both water monitors and we can call home.

If you happen to notice that one has made its way into your own garden, don’t panic! Close any entry points that lead into your house, and patiently wait until it goes away. They really mind their own business and if you try to show it the business end of a sharp stick or do anything to irritate it, it will defend itself (much like you and I would). So, keep calm and just wait it till it goes away.

Urban Wildlife Series: Test your artistic skills

We asked our followers on social media to show us their artistic talents by colouring in the otter this week. Here are the entries we got!

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