A monitor lizard basking in the sun on a tree trunk. Photo taken at Garama River, Sabah, Borneo
Known as “biawak” in Malay, the monitor lizard is a very common giant lizard found not just in Borneo, but just about everywhere from Africa to South-east Asia and Australia. This is one wildlife that you do not have to go into the jungle to see. You could be playing a round of golf and find the monitor lizard swimming in the water hazard! Now you know where your missing golf balls went.
The water monitor lizard (Varanus salvator) is the largest species of lizard in Borneo, capable of growing up to 3m. Its large size means that it is very often mistaken for a crocodile by people not familiar with this creature. However, the monitor lizard is not aggresive and will usually run away as soon as you approach it. This however, does not mean that you can pat it on its head. A friend of mine tried to hand-feed a rather tame monitor lizard once and almost had his fingers bitten off.
Human fingers though are usually not in its diet, although it will eat just about anything from fish, eels, insects, rodents, eggs, carrion and snakes. (In Sapi Island, they eat barbecued chicken wings). Hungry monitor lizards also eat faeces, rubbish and dead bodies. Okay, maybe fingers are in their diet.
Despite their lethargic look (always basking peacefully on a tree branch), monitor lizards are quite intelligent animals, and some species are even able to count. It is also a superb multi-event athlete, being a good climber, swimmer, diver (can remain underwater for 30 minutes), and sprinter. They can run faster than most humans, except for Usain Bolt and company. But then, I don’t think Usain Bolt is really human.
Oh, and they can also do the tango.