by Whit Gibbons

May 31, 2009

According 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.

They are 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.

Exaggeration 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.

Also, maybe 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.

For those 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.

Nile monitors 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.

I object 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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