SHOULD WE DO ABOUT THE GIANT LIZARDS?
May 31, 2009
to an overstatement I read in the newspaper last week, we should all fear
the Komodo dragon, a type of monitor lizard that reportedly can run almost
20 miles an hour. It was described has having teeth like serrated kitchen
knives and venom that "can kill a person within hours." Some
of the scary hype about these magnificent predators is undeserved and
probably indicates a slow week of international news.
indeed the largest lizards in the world and do have redoubtable teeth.
And two people have died from Komodo dragon bites in the last two years,
which is a tragedy for the victims and their families. But these magnificent
reptiles occur naturally in only one place on earth, the Lesser Sunda
Islands of Indonesia. Not much of a threat to most of us. Far more people
are killed by dogs and horses in the United States every year.
is to be expected if the point is to make the case that these animals
are something to fear. Anyone in the close vicinity of a Komodo dragon
should certainly have a healthy respect for it and exercise some common
sense. This is a large carnivore, with impressive teeth, and a bite from
one can be serious because of bacteria in the mouth that can lead to infection.
But implying that Komodos have venom more potent than that of some snakes
is, at best, hyperbole. Venom is not injected and is unlikely to be a
cause of human death.
some can run as fast as stated in the article I read. However, according
to Walter Auffenberg, a scientist who studied these giant monitor lizards
on their native islands many years ago, they can run up to 11 miles an
hour. Most people would be faster than they are. Climb a tree and you
will be safe from the big ones. I take issue with indicting a free-ranging
reptile in its native habitat for doing what comes naturally.
I know someone
who has been to Komodo twice and actually seen these impressive lizards
in the wild. Cris Hagen of the Savannah River Ecology Lab has photographed
them, had one try to lumber into a cabin he was staying in, and watched
several of them as they scavenged a dead goat. But if you stay a safe
distance from the big beasts, the same way a person visiting a ranch gives
bulls a wide berth, you should be quite safe.
who want to use Komodo dragons as evidence that our dominion over the
beasts of the field is being threatened, I suggest they turn their attention
to Florida and the Nile monitor, a native of parts of Africa with habitats
and climate similar to Florida's. These close relatives of the Komodo
dragon have gained a foothold in southern parts of the state and have
now established breeding colonies.
have a constantly flicking forked tongue and long claws. They reach lengths
of seven feet and can stand up on their hind feet to survey an area. Nile
monitors are formidable creatures. They are able to climb trees and have
a rudder-shaped tail for swimming. They dig burrows to avoid extremes
of weather, hot or cold, and use the burrows as nesting sites, where a
female can lay up to 60 eggs. Nile monitor populations appear to be expanding
rapidly. They reach adulthood in only three years and are increasing in
some places to more than 200 adults per square mile. Because of their
predatory nature, large size, and reports that they are very intelligent
and hunt cooperatively, Nile monitor lizards are considered by some conservationists
as a major threat to Florida's native wildlife, not to mention small pets.
to media accounts demonizing animals such as Komodo dragons that are simply
behaving in a natural and normal manner in their native habitat. The case
of the Nile monitor, however, may be a bit different. Although they, too,
are behaving as they have for the past hundred million years, one might
plausibly argue that humans should have the right of way in southern Florida
because they arrived there a couple of centuries before the big lizards.
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