Monitor Lizards


Text and photographs Nick Evans

There are a number of beautiful and fascinating lizards occurring in the Krantzkloof Nature Reserve and surrounding areas, but one of the most fascinating, and the largest, is the Nile Monitor Lizard (Varanus niloticus). Also often referred to as the Water Monitor, Likkewaan (Afrikaans), or uXamu (isiZulu).

Many people identify them incorrectly as other reptiles. Below are two common examples.

They are confused for the largest lizard on the planet, the Komodo Dragon, from islands off Indonesia. I wished they occurred here, but they do not. They too, however, are Monitor Lizards, so they are related.

‘Iguana’ is also what they are referred to, but we don’t have indigenous, wild Iguana’s in Africa (they were common in the pet trade before being declared an invasive species, resulting in the ban of keeping and trading them unpermitted). Iguana’s typically have what look like long ‘spikes’ running down their body.

Nile Monitors are big, impressive and powerful reptiles that can reach lengths of 1,5m or more. In saying that, during the lockdown period, I captured an absolute monster of a Monitor on the Bluff. I lay down next to it as a size comparison, and it was pretty much as long as I am tall, and I’m 6 foot. To my great disappointment and annoyance, I didn’t measure it. It’s honestly one of my biggest regrets in life! It was most likely a record breaker.

The potential record-breaker

Nile Monitors are beautiful lizards. Juveniles are especially pretty, with vivid black and yellow markings. As they grow up, adults usually aren’t as boldly coloured. They’re more of a grey colour, still with yellow on the sides. The tails of these lizards are banded.

Monitor Lizards have beautifully coloured patterns

Their tail is rudder-like, laterally compressed, which helps them to swim exceptionally well, certainly faster than us! They tuck their legs in, like a crocodile, while swimming. They are usually found along rivers or dams, where they hunt along the banks. At any sign of danger, they’ll leap into the water, and that’s it gone. However, they do not only live along bodies of water. The actually can venture far from rivers. I frequently catch them in strange places, hundreds of meters or more from water. Like this one, below. This was another large specimen, around 1.5m, which ended up in a bathroom.

Not an everyday sight!

“Dangerous Crocodiles”?

No, these lizards are not crocodiles! Although I get many calls where people tell me there’s a crocodile in their pool, or my favourite, a crocodile in their roof. Crocodiles do not climb into roofs, and do not occur in Krantzkloof Nature Reserve. Although if they did, that would make river breaks, while out on a hike, a bit more exciting.

Many people fear Monitor Lizards, especially when they see an adult specimen in their property. But don’t worry, they do not hunt or attack people!

Should a Monitor Lizard see you approaching, it will be absolutely terrified, and flee for the nearest cover or escape route. They are incredibly fast runners! I had to chase one a while ago, in an undercover parking lot. It wasn’t an easy chase, and I got lucky in catching it! Often they’ll just duck down a hole, which in properties, usually leads under a paved area, where they are then nice and safe. Or, as mentioned earlier, they’ll head to the water.

Swimming away!

However, should you corner one of these lizards, it will defend itself if need be. They’ll hiss loudly, which I can tell you, gets the adrenaline going. If you step too close, it will ‘whip’ you with its tail.

There’s a popular myth, whereby people say that if this lizard whacks you with its tail, it will break bones. This is completely false. It’s like a hard slap. I’ve been hit, many, many times by their tail, and while it’s pretty sore, it’s not unbearable.

Should you ignore the first two warnings, and grab it, it will try to bite you. I have never been bitten by an adult Monitor, but I’ve been bitten by baby ones. They clamp down hard, and hold on! It’s not comfortable. I’d absolutely hate to be bitten by an adult. It would be really, really painful. Adult Monitors have short, somewhat rounded, but still sharp teeth, and yes, a strong bite force. They’d also scratch you with the sharp, long claws on the end of their powerful legs. This hurts!

My clothes didn’t stand a chance against the claws of a large monitor

When I was a teenager, I caught a big Monitor in someone’s garden, and it dug into my arm

Last, but not least, their most effective defensive method – projectile poo-ing! This is not something you want to experience. It smells ghastly, like rotten fish and dead animals combined. And it will go all over you! It’s not the easiest smell to get rid of either.

I hope I have made grabbing/attacking a Monitor Lizard sound as unpleasant as possible, because you should just leave them alone. If it’s in the garden, enjoy the sighting. If it’s in a place where it is best removed, maybe it’s in danger, then call a professional.

It is a protected species, on the Threatened or Protected Species (TOPS) list, so it can’t just be captured and released wherever one wants. As a reptile rescuer, I’ve had to get a permit to remove these lizards, and whenever I am called for one, I inform Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife of where I am called to, and where I feel is the best place for release.

Regarding pets vs lizard…

I have seen many cases where a dog has attacked a Monitor Lizard, small or large. The lizard is usually left with fatal wounds, while the dog is usually fine. I’ve seen one dog get scratched in the face by the lizard, but nothing serious. So no, I wouldn’t consider them a threat to dogs. It’s the other way around.

This poor Monitor was bitten by a dog, and sadly passed away soon after I picked it up

Regarding cats, I don’t know of any confirmed cases of a Nile Monitor Lizard killing an adult cat. I have seen a photo of an Australian Monitor Lizard species feeding on a young kitten. I would say this is possible with our Nile Monitors, however, I have not had a call about this, or seen any pics or videos. If you see this lizard in your garden, please call your dogs away.

Not fussy feeders!

Monitor Lizards will pretty much eat anything smaller than them. Rats, frogs, snakes (including venomous species such as Puff Adders & Cobras), crabs, other lizards, birds, and they love eggs – whether they be chicken eggs or crocodile eggs!

Monitors under threat

Unfortunately, these awesome animals are not viewed as that by many. Monitor Lizards are killed on a frequent basis. Sometimes, they are killed out of fear, but most of the time, they are killed because people want to eat them, or use them for traditional medicine (muthi). Slowly but surely, we are seeing less of them.

For example, in one reserve in Durban that I was always in as a child, I’d always see Monitors. I knew where they hung out and hid, all along the river. Nowadays, I hardly ever see them. Maybe it’s constant pollution spills in the river, but that’s been going on for years. In the past there’s been men walking up and down the river hunting eels (illegally), and I suspect they would have killed the Monitors. Of course, that’s just a suspicion, not a fact.

Below is a pic of a horrible scene I witnessed up in the Tugela River. Someone had set a trap, to presumably catch Monitor Lizards. They’d left massive hooks with dead rats hanging off them, and clearly, they worked, because one large lizard took the bait, and had swallowed the hook. We were far away from civilisation, and on canoes, with nothing to restrain or contain the lizard. We couldn’t really do anything other than cut it free. It should survive, even with the hook.

At the beginning of this year, I was called to help this juvenile Monitor, in a bad way. Some despicable human had stuck a fishing hook through its chest cavity. Why, you may ask. I couldn’t tell you. Maybe to catch a bigger Monitor. I’m really not sure. I took the animal to the Dangerous Creatures and veterinary teams at Ushaka Marine World. They managed to rehabilitate it, and I’m pleased to say, it was released!

I acknowledge these are not nice photos to see. But this is the reality of what is happening to these lizards. I feel it needs to be known. Of course, this torture and killing is highly illegal.

As mentioned earlier, many are killed by dogs. We also lose many of these lizards on the roads, as they get run over while crossing. It’s really sad. While they are not endangered yet, we need to conserve as many as we can, to avoid them going on the endangered list, or worst, the extinct species list! They’re truly amazing animals, that absolutely deserve to be conserved.

Author photo: Pat McKrill

About the author

Nick Evans runs KZN Amphibian & Reptile Conservation. He spends most of his time teaching people about snakes across the province, and removing unwanted snakes from homes in the Greater Durban Area. But he has always had a love for chameleons, and spends many evenings looking for them, whether it’s just for ‘fun’ or whether its to survey populations.

Website: KwaZulu-Natal Amphibian & Reptile Conservation

Facebook: @KZNHerpConservation

Instagram: @nickevanskzn

Twitter: @nickevanskzn

Youtube: Nick Evans – Snake rescuer