A water monitor lizard (Varanus salvator) at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. This name of this beast has always bothered my duck, as there was little to suggest why it is called thus. One G.A.C. Herklots, however, ascribes the term 'monitor' to a 'ridiculous etymological mistake' that arose from a misunderstanding of the Arabian name for lizard, Ouaran or Varan. Scientists who were uncunning linguists mistook the word for the German term 'to warn' and dubbed the creatures Warneidechsen, which was translated into English as 'monitor lizard'. Personally I like best the Indo-Malayan Biawak which has a more earthy ring and should be uttered with a sense of urgency worthy of a 8-foot long reptile.
Numerous mature individuals lounge around the visitor centre at Sungei Buloh, dining on scraps and smaller animals that underestimate the speed and agility of these modern day mosasaurs. At the reserve, they laze near the top of the local food chain, with little to fear other than the threat of large raptors, crocodiles and feral dogs. Happily, the lizards are known to feed on large, invasive suckermouth catfish (Hypostomus plecostomus) whose armoured body plates and spiny fins seem no hurdle to jaws that easily dismantle large carcasses. Other aliens are harder to handle though. A green iguana (Iguana iguana) abandoned by some hopeless herpetophile was once observed to assault a water monitor about twice its length by climbing onto the monitor's back and biting the latter's nape. After about 15 minutes, it was iguana win, monitor fail as the Varanus retreated to let the green monster claim its basking spot.
In parts of Sulawesi and the Lesser Sunda Islands, Bugis and Makassarese seafarers have a respectful tradition of regarding monitor lizards as human spirits in a reptilian body. The lizards, as well as crocodiles, are thought to be spiritual twins to men which confer protection to their bipedal kin. Such benign views have no place here, however, as swimmers and scare-mongers readily cry wolf at the sight of grand reptiles who have a greater claim to the swamps and waters into which hunters intrude with vain notions and demands for human impunity.
• Eng Kiat, Chua, Ferl Iguana attacks Varanus salvator at Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Biawak, 2007 1(1): 35-36, International Varanid Interest Group.
• Herklots, G.A.C., A Monitor Lizard (Varanus sp.) in Hong Kong, The Hong Kong Naturalist, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1930 May).
• Koch, Andre and Acciaili, Gregory, The Monitor Twins: A Bugis and Makassarese Tradition from SW Sulawesi, Indonesia, Biawak, 2007, 1(2): 77-82, International Varanid Interest Group.
• Suranjan Karunarathna, D.M.S. et al, Observed Predation on a Suckermouth Catfish (Hypostomus plecostomus) by a Water Monitor (Varanus salvator) in Bellanwila-Attidiya Sanctuary, Biawak, 2008 2(1): 37-39, International Varanid Interest Group.