Philippine Wildlife

Varanus - The Monitor Lizard

     The "Water Monitor", Varanus sp., is the largest lizard found in the Philippines, growing up to 2-1/2 meters, and is a cousin of the Komodo Dragon. It is locally known as "bayawak" and is sometimes called a "chicken lizard" because it may feed on chicken eggs or chicks. Monitors are opportunistic feeders and scavengers and eat a variety of small animals, insects, fish, molluscs and carrion. As their name implies, they prefer living near fresh or salt- water bodies and are good swimmers.

     Varanid lizards are widely distributed throughout the Philippines with at least two species: V. olivaceus (Gray's Monitor) and V. salvator, (Water Monitor) with several subspecies. Although fairly common, monitors are at risk due to habitat destruction and unregulated hunting. 

     According to a varanid expert, Eric Pesci:

The top photo is of the nominate Varanus salvator salvator or water monitor.  The second (middle) photo is of the majestic Mindanao Water Monitor  - Varanus salvator cumingi - reproductively isolated to Mindanao and Basilan.  This lizard is so beautiful and so close to extinction yet no one seems to care.  It has been hunted for skins and to this day - even with a government ban on reptile exports - the lizard is still obtained for leather manufacturers in Asia and Europe.

This lizard inhabits only Mindanao and a few have been found on Basilan in the Sulu.  I have reports of increased rodent and insect populations which this lizard previously kept in check.  This lizard is afforded no CITES protection because it is recognized as a sub-species of the nominate water monitor.  Having worked with this lizard for many years, I can say that a re-elevation to species status - Varanus cumingi cumingi - is not a bad idea although I need to complete additional tests before I start petitioning for species elevation.

The interesting thing about the monitor lizards in the Philippines is that there are species of monitors living on one island that are totally different from those on the neighboring island.  Panay/Negros/Cebu have V. s. nuchalis.  Mindoro/Luzon have V. s. marmoratus. Masbate/Ticao have a dark form V. s. nuchalis. Samar/Leyte/Bohol have a dark form V. s. cumingi .  Luzon has V. olivaceous.  Mindanao has the king - V. s. cumingi. All these island are so close and monitors can easily swim and populate/colonize/mix but they don't.   The endemism is awe inspring yet so fragile.

Varanus salvator salvator

Varanus salvator cumingi
Photo courtesy Daniel Bennett

Monitors captured for their skins.
Photo courtesy Eric Pesci

Eric Pesci is developing a conservation program for varanids. For more information about monitor lizards, you can contact him at: 

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