The water monitors of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve suffer from few inhibitions; juveniles a mere foot-and-a-half in length bask on the trails with scant concern for the lumbering masses who brave the heat between the hides. Adults the length of a large man regard the visitor centre and its marshy perimeter as a varanid penthouse; rafts in the centre of a freshwater pond serve as sunbeds shared with sliders, while the building’s earthen nooks and sunken niches form quiet thoroughfares that allow the lizards to roam with little chance of causing alarm to visitors unused to uncaged creatures. The resident otters pose little threat to the blue-tongued horde, having the means but lacking the motivation, but of late, wiser members of the population have sought the high ground for good reason.
A stone’s throw away lies Sungei Buloh Besar, a broad (by local standards), short (by any standard) river flanked by egregious mangroves and eroding banks. A wooden bridge spans the water, linking the civil borderland to a wild network of bunds and brackish ponds. From a gazebo at the centre of the ford, one can catch a glimpse of the Straits of Johor, a tepid channel that has lost all memory of its bloody history and now merely harbours landmarks of commercial delusion. To the south, the river retreats into a shallow expanse of mud and mangal, which at low tide is reduced to a trickle of brooks no deeper than a heron’s stride.
Mullet, archerfish, green chromides and halfbeaks infest the fluid reaches of the swamp, erupting with spread fins and occasional fury when invisible bodies pierce their shoals. By and large, the panic is caused by coursing lizards or hunting otters, and excites some observers to no great degree, as there is little to differentiate one unremarkable aquatic tetrapod from another. A splash of unusual force near the west bank, however, aroused my curiosity at the tail end of an uneventful weekend walk. The culprit(s), barely visible against a swathe of grey and green, were an estuarine crocodile bearing a medium-sized monitor lizard in its jaws.
Still alive and kicking, the victim had its torso firmly ensnared by the larger reptile, which celebrated its prize with long moments of sneering calm. Whenever it could, the lizard kept its head above water, betraying little sign of its evisceration save when its captor raised a massive head to adjust its grip and trigger a futile attempt to escape a superior hunter. A potent weapon against soft-skinned foes, the varanid’s whip-like tail trashed to no avail as the crocodile made periodic forays below the surface, perhaps in an attempt to suffocate its catch.
After a prolonged submergence, the pair resurfaced south of the bridge under the shade of a wall of trees. The struggle continued as the crocodile sought to subdue the lizard with violent twists while the smaller reptile resisted death by drowning and disembowelment. The water boiled as fish scattered or perhaps scurried to the scene to feast on loose flesh. A little egret investigated the commotion, as did a common sandpiper that flicked its rump up and down the shore. By then, the crocodile had managed to manoeuvre the lizard’s head squarely between its mandibles and thus revealed the sheer inequity of a battle between the island’s two largest quadrupedal reptiles. Drawn by the brawl and the possibility of easy pickings, a second leviathan cruised down the river to inspect its kin. But there was no fight left in both the lizard as well as the larger beasts as the day waned and tide sapped the strength of the waters to welcome a waiting flock of birds intent on meals in dead pools and muddy platters.