Monitor Lizards

There are four species of monitor lizards in India and they are all exploited for their skins: the Common Indian monitor is widely found in forest areas and surrounding villages; the Water monitor is found along coastal mangroves (Orissa, Sundarbans, etc.) and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands; the Yellow monitor is found in north India from Punjab to West Bengal; and, the Indian desert monitor or sanda is found in dry regions covering Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Punjab.


Monitor lizards are called guishaap/goshaap in Bengali, gui-xaap in Assamese, udumbu in Tamil and Malayalam, udumu in Telugu, uda in Kannada, goh in Punjabi and Bihari, bis-cobra and ghorpad in Marathi. It is said that during battle, Shivaji’s general Tanaji tied a rope to a ghorpad and climbed up the wall of the Sinhagad fort.


Hunting them attracts the provisions of Schedule I of the Wild Life Protection Act – no different to hunting a tiger. Nevertheless, poachers trap and immobilise monitor lizards by breaking their limbs or even backs. Their blood is consumed along with rum; their fat converted into ghee which is eaten for strength; their flesh is in demand for so-called medicinal benefits; and their skin commands a high price.

 

A 2013 study published in Herpetological Conservation and Biology by Indonesian and German researchers states that despite all species of giant lizards being protected under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), illegal trade exists. Monitor lizards are the third largest group of reptiles (first crocodiles, second giant snakes) that are poached for their skins. Handbags, belts, watchstraps, and the pet trade (two-thirds of those captured die en route) are responsible. For example, every year 450,000 water monitor lizards are killed in Indonesia to provide skins for luxury goods for the western world, and it is feared that if current levels of trade continue, over-exploitation and extinction will follow.


People often feel that a watchstrap is such a small piece of leather. Below are five sound reasons why one should not overlook and use it:

  • A small piece of skin can not be obtained. The whole monitor lizard’s skin is removed and then cut, so the lizard is first caught and killed.
  • A small piece looks small on a wristwatch placed on a human hand, but it is a big portion of the living monitor lizard’s skin.
  • Slowly but surely watchstraps are driving monitor lizards to extinction.
  • They will not be killed any way. There is a growing demand from the luxury goods market so by purchasing watches with monitor lizard straps consumers are indirectly supporting killing for illegal trade.
  • Being the skin of a killed creature, it emits negative vibrations which are harmful for the wearer.

  • Killed for Meat, etc.


    Monitor lizards are killed for their meat and other products for different applications, like monitor lizard fat (extracted by boiling) is used by rural folk for curing several ailments. Although illegal, monitor lizard skin has landed up being utilised in the making of fashionable accessories. And, ghumot, an earthenware pot covered with the skin of the monitor lizard, is used as a drum in Goa. The wildlife officials probably also overlook the use of udumbu another type of large lizard whose skin is stretched over one side of the wooden frame of the kanjira/kanjari percussion instrument used for Karnatic and folk music.

     

    Unsurprisingly, some conservationists (who consider wildlife more precious than domesticated animals) have suggested that for the ghumot, monitor lizard skin should be substituted with goat skin. BWC strongly condemns this suggestion because our organisation has an equal amount of respect and compassion for both the species.


    The Forest Department has caught immobilised monitor lizards with their tails wound round their necks, after a newspaper reported “chunks” of ghorpad meat being sold for Rs 200/- to Rs 400/-. In January 2010 as many as 40 monitor lizards were discovered with a person who used to poach them at Dausa (Rajasthan) with the aim of selling them in New Delhi for as much as Rs 2,000/- each for their skin, nails, meat and oil. (It is said that the monitor lizards found in Rajasthan are venomous only during the monsoon.)

    Sanda oil is claimed to be an aphrodisiac, good for massage and a cure for arthritis. (Incidentally a warm castor oil pack is said to be a wonderful remedy for such aches and pains.) Decades ago, the oil from lizards, whose backs had been broken so they couldn’t escape, used to be extracted on the roadside with a large group of men surrounding, watching the cruelty, and waiting to buy the oil.

    In 2017 the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau with the help of some NGOs who did undercover investigations, caught traders of hatha jodi (claimed to be the root of a plant, but actually the dried penis of a monitor lizard) saying it imparted good luck and mystical powers. Male lizards having hemi penis are captured from the wild. The area around the living lizard’s penis is burnt so it protrudes. It is then excised with a sharp knife and sun-dried. It resembles a joined hands hence called hatha jodi.


    Poaching and Rescue


    Unnoticed by the Forest officials, in 2012 live monitor lizards kept in cages were sold at the fish market in Machilipatnam, Andhra Pradesh. The price varied on demand of the day but was in the region of Rs 1,000/- per lizard. People who bought them believed that their meat was good for treating hip and back-aches and oil for arthritis.

    However, the highest number of monitor lizards sold occurs on the Sunday before Deepavali. The ones available at this time of the year in Tamil Nadu’s Kancheepuram market are no more than 1½ kgs in weight and yield 300 grams of meat.

    In 2013 three monitor lizards were found on two men from Tamil Nadu, trying to sell them in Bengaluru. The lizards were rescued by the Police and handed over to the Forest Department.


    Poaching monitor lizards occurs every now and then. At the Bhadra Tiger Reserve in 2014, seven poachers were caught. A full grown live monitor lizard was found in their den in the forest. They had planned on killing and cooking it for dinner.


    Later that year a giant monitor lizard strayed into a house in Bareilly. Four feet in length with a foot long tongue, it hissed like a snake making people think it was small sized alligator. Unlike earlier, when a similar lizard had been caught in the area and released on the banks of the Ramganga, this time the Forest ranger who came to catch it returned with two construction workers and with their help illegally speared it to death and took away the body. Typically, the Sub-Divisional Forest Officer denied knowledge of the incident!


    In June 2015 seven persons were arrested for poaching monitor lizards in Maharashtra’s Chandrapur forest range. The forest officers caught the poachers red-handed while chopping up the lizards for their meat.

     

    Rescue and rehabilitation has however occurred elsewhere. For example in 2015 a monitor lizard was successfully rescued from the campus of La Martiniere for Girls, Kolkata. In another incident also in 2015, a two foot long monitor lizard was rescued from a water tank in an industrial area of Vasai near Mumbai. It had laid 16 eggs in the tank of which 13 could be recovered.


    Tokay Geckos


    West Bengal is known to smuggle not only cattle but also wild life across the border. Tokay geckos, turtles, Himalayan Mynas, and others are routinely smuggled out of India in hundreds. While Tokay geckos (colourful lizards) are common in Manipur, the others mainly originate from UP where they are bought for as little as one-fifth the price sold. Demand is mainly from countries like Thailand, Malaysia and China with the transit route being Bangladesh. These creatures are killed and consumed for culinary, medical or religious reasons.

    Tokay geckos which are listed in Schedule III of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, are also smuggled out from Bihar to Nepal.

    The trade in Tokay geckos is increasing:
    2014: 39 seizures worth Rs 2.21 crore
    2015: 61 seizures worth Rs 11.16 crore
    2016: 65 seizures worth Rs 46.62 crore
    2017 (till August): 82 seizures worth Rs 187.69 crore


    After capture the low-weight geckos are injected with mercury to make them heavier and therefore costlier. That they suffer and die in a couple of days’ time is of no concern whatsoever of the smugglers who are not only criminals, but cruel criminals.


    Illegal Import and Export of Wild Life Items


    In September 2011, FIAPO approached BWC for guidance on stopping advertisements in publications such as Vogue and sale of such animal products ranging from fur and feathers to python skins.

    This reminded BWC to again draw the attention of the Ministry of Environment & Forests about wild life skins such as those of snakes, pythons, crocodiles, monitor lizards, and feathers and furs of endangered species that are imported into India. (These genuine wild life skins should not be confused with similar looking imported imitations.) They come in as finished goods consisting of footwear and handbags costing lakhs of rupees, to watchstraps of expensive wrist watches, even mobile cases. The advertisements and brand promotions target those Indians seeking such ill-conceived status symbols.

    In fact, these branded goods are brazenly advertised in high-society magazines such as Vogue, Hello, and some times in unexpected ones like Businessworld. Quite often the "price is available on request" and an order needs to be placed after which the item is imported for the purchaser. The products are therefore not on display at their outlets so government raids would not give the desired results.

    It was further pointed out that the government should not feel that it does not concern India because the skins are not of Indian origin. Imports should be clamped down upon and not overlooked because such imported items result in more poaching of wild life here. BWC feels that just like the ban on trade in ivory of Indian and African elephants which falls under CITES can be implemented, trade of other wild life skins can be stopped, and not only on paper.

    BWC has therefore requested that government warn outlets against promotion and import, and the Customs authorities spot and take action against importers of such illegal items.

    We are eagerly awaiting positive action and response from the government. Meanwhile, letters are being written by animal activists to Vogue asking “Is animal cruelty so much in vogue?”

    Imports of such wild life items that surreptitiously land in India need to be clamped down upon and not overlooked because they positively result in more poaching of wild life here. It should also not be forgotten that many leather goods made in India are exported to designers abroad and should they ask for say snake skin, the Indian manufacturers may oblige and declare the items as calf leather embossed to look like reptile skin, but on reaching their destination, the items would be labelled as genuine snake skin.

    Wildlife poachers have already begun to illegally use India Post to smuggle products out of the country. Deer antlers, reptile skins, elephant-ivory and tiger-nails have been intercepted, but unfortunately a high percentage of parcels have left the country undetected. Moreover, the culprits have not been located because the senders’ addresses on the parcels are fictitious. We therefore alerted the Department of Posts and suggested that each and every parcel that goes abroad be rechecked at the Foreign Post Offices via screening prior to onward despatch out of India.

    In May 2013 BWC wrote to the Minister of Finance requesting that appropriate action via the Central Board of Excise and Customs be taken. By then a few got round the law by importing reptile skin like that of anaconda (similar to python) and got the items discreetly mentioned in articles covering luxury goods. Some stores, having got away with bringing in items without difficulty, began stocking “Limited edition for India” goods like alligator and ostrich clutch bags, whereas other brands continued with their customisation “Made to Order” exclusive and expensive offers of crocodile and other exotic skin “masterpieces”.

    Page last updated on 12/10/17