Monitor lizards need a stable forest environment to achieve full ecological functions

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KOTA KINABALU: The sturdy monitor lizards popularly known as Biawak to Malaysians, although found in abundance across Borneo, need a stable forest environment so that they can utilize their full biological functions.

Scientists who studied the iguanas that live in the floodplains of Kinabatangan and near the oil palm plantations found that the monitor lizards’ biological functions were fully fulfilled when they were in natural forest habitats.

The four-year study by researcher Dr. Sergio Guerrero-Sanchez, recently published in PloS One magazine, found that while oil palm plantations provided a large amount of food for the water monitor, environmental conditions such as lack of low vegetation, large open sky areas and trees helped these large lizards fail to achieve their full ecological functions.

The study also observed that monitor lizards were unable to climb trees around oil palms and against their natural forest conditions.

“These locations were inconvenient to perform all of their biological functions. Therefore, the surrounding forest plays a fundamental role in the dynamics of the population ecology of water monitors,” the research found.

“For more than four years, my team and I have spent a lot of time catching monitor lizards, sampling them, and tagging them with GPS tags to answer several basic environmental questions.

“It found that the number of lizards that inhabit the forests of the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary is much larger than the number of individuals that live in the oil palm plantations.

“Our study also suggests that the forest around the oil palm plantations provides the necessary protection to avoid enemy encounters and to mate and breed,” added Sanchez, a former PhD student at Cardiff University and the Danau Girang Field Center (DGFC), added. He is currently a research fellow at the University College Sabah Foundation.

DGFC Director Professor Benoit Goossens said the study reaffirms the need to protect the natural forest around the plantations and also highlights the urgency of creating forest corridors within the lands in order to balance animal community dynamics in the floodplains.

“We believe our results could be an example of what happens in other species with similar preferences, but also that this could have some impact on the prey community,” said Goossens, who co-authored the paper.

Silvester Saiman, chief officer of the Sabah Wildlife Department, said monitor lizards were protected under Appendix 2 of the 1997 Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment and that a permit was required to hunt and collect.

“Hunting monitor lizards is not common in Sabah and the species is abundant across the state. It happens that the department has to intervene in small conflicts, especially in urban areas, and move animals to safer (forest) areas, ”added Saimin.

A large monitor lizard that was caught on one of the camera traps on the edge of an oil palm farm. – Photo courtesy of Danau Girang Field Center


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