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Monitor Lizards: Nature's garbage trucks, or real life dragons?
Published on: Sunday, July 09, 2017
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SERGIO Guerrero-Sanchez is one of the world's dreamers. Growing up in southern Mexico, he recalls that "Borneo was in the imaginarium like the mystic dense jungle located some where in the end of the world".

"Then, when I grew up and started to understand concepts such as conservation and biodiversity I knew that the island is considered as one of the worldwide hotspots for biodiversity."

That dream has taken Sergio all over the world; now, he lives his dream in a small research outpost perched on the edge of the Kinabatangan river. Sergio is a wildlife veterinarian, currently based at the Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC), pursuing doctoral research on the ecology and health of monitor lizards.

Water Monitor Lizards

Water Monitor Lizards, to give them their full name, are some of Borneo's most magnificent creatures.

Growing on average to around 1.5 metres in length – although males have been reported to grow up to 3 metres – it is the second-heaviest lizard in the world, after the Komodo Dragon.

Like their larger cousins, water monitors have a dangerous bite and fierce reputation.

They reminded Sergio of the dragons he imagined in his childhood stories. Coming to Borneo, he said:

"I thought maybe I found the place where dragons lived"! But water monitors – whose Latin name, Varanus Salvator, means something akin to "beastly saviour" – have a more complex relationship with their homeland than that.

Today, Sergio sees water monitors in a different light: "I like to call them the forest cleaners of Borneo".

Water Monitors are generalists. They will eat anything and everything, and their voracious appetites have enabled them to flourish in almost every clime; from the mountains and treetops of the Bornean jungle, to the waterways of the Kinabatangan.

"In some countries they are a bit of pest," Sergio admits, "since they used to search for food nearby the human settlements, looking into the waste but also grabbing domestic chickens and eggs, or competing for fish, ripping the fishermen's nets.

"But in some other places they are quite tolerated since they are seen like pest control, eating the rats around the villages."

But beyond acting as Borneo's unofficial waste management system, water monitors have a very important place in our understanding of the Bornean ecosystem. Monitor Lizards are an indicator species: in other words, their characteristics and behaviour can tell scientists a great deal about the ecosystem they inhabit.

Sergio explains: "Due to the biological resistance of the lizards and their wide ranged diet and distribution within the landscape, it could be an important indicator of the animal community's health".

Biawak Project

In addition to his regular work as a vet, Sergio is the leader of the Biawak project, studying monitor lizard adaptation to the fast-changing constitution of the Bornean biosphere.

What is particularly fascinating to Sergio and his team is the adaptability of the water monitor to an increasingly fragmented environment.

Sergio's work involves capturing, measuring and observing water monitors in their natural spaces, before fitting them with a lightweight radio collar that allows the team to track their movements.

In this way, Sergio can paint an ever-clearer picture of how individual lizards move from one habitat to another, often crossing industrialised or urban areas that humans have changed utterly in just a few years.

Industrialisation and agriculture, especially the palm oil industry, are both great movers of social progress in Borneo, and great threats to its natural wealth.

By observing the small shifts in the behaviour and biology of indicator species such as water monitors, scientists can begin to build a real-time model of how human activity is influencing the natural world around it.

Shifts in habitat areas, population movements, chemical buildup in the lizards' bodies, and changes in diet, can all provide crucial evidence for the ways in which different human activities affect the planet.

Furthermore, the Biawak project has enabled DGFC to train up a new cohort of scientists, vets and volunteers.

This brings the work of passionate environmentalists like Sergio ever closer to the local and international communities who might learn something from their work. One of the most encouraging outcomes of his work, Sergio says, is the way in which it seems to inspire future conservationists, scientists and even ordinary members of the public, to take a fresh look at their own homes and habitats and think about the ways in which they rely on – and contribute – to the living world around them.

Role of the Rainforest

"Every people in the world has to understand that we are closely linked to the wildlife", Sergio tells me.

"The tropical rainforest is a huge lung that cleans the air and provides a huge amount of water that is carried by air around the world, contributing to the Earth's thermal equilibrium".

Among this, animals such as the water monitor have an essential role in conserving the natural cycles of the forest.

"All these games of dispersion and predation bring a dynamic balance into Nature.

There is an ancient proverb which says 'without the forest, the jaguar will disappear; without the jaguar, the forest will disappear too'". The solution to the world's environmental problems will not come from scientists, but from ordinary people.

"We need inspiration from real people," Sergio goes on. Not from conservationist "heroes" or "warriors".

"But from real people… acting and showing you that dreams can come true."

DGFC, he says, is "the result of passion and dedication" from "the people in here, it is like a big family".

Bringing together scientists, volunteers, conservationists and media, from Borneo and beyond, has made Danau Girang a beacon for international conservation work – and makes the future for Sabah's natural wonders steadily brighter and better.

Borneo Jungle Diaries is produced by SZtv and follows environmental photojournalist, Aaron 'Bertie' Gekoski as he investigates life behind-the-scenes at the Danau Girang Field Centre.

All episodes have Bahasa Malaysia subtitles and be released on SZtv's website, YouTube and Facebook.

What's more, viewers are encouraged to take part in the competition that is being held;

All you have to do is answer five questions from the episode correctly each week to win a 4-day / 3-night stay the Danau Girang Field Centre. There will also be a grand prize at the end of the 10-series Borneo Jungle Diaries for those who get all questions correct across all quizzes.

For more information, check out Borneo Jungle Diaries on SZtv.



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