Wild at heart

The recent capture of monitor lizards in Lumpini Park raises questions on how best to control the protected species' rapidly growing population

The scene at Lumpini Park on Tuesday was chaotic. Twelve park officers were on duty to catch monitor lizards following a Bangkok Metropolitan Administration directive to improve the landscape of Bangkok's biggest park and to control the reptiles' population.

A large gathering of Thai and international media were present to observe the mission -- apparently the biggest news of the day regardless of the country's political and economic situation. The first 30 minutes in pursuit of the animals were futile. It seemed the beasts got wind of the hunt -- they could run but they couldn't hide. To catch the lizards, catfish were used as bait, a long pipe with a lasso was put in place to loop the neck. Once grabbed, the animals tried to wrangle for freedom before succumbing. The staff then used a rope to tie its jaw, while the legs were pulled back and tied to the body. The reptiles were then placed in sacks and moved to temporary storage before being transported to a wildlife centre in Ratchaburi the following day.

Park officials recently captured 40 monitor lizards from Lumpini Park and relocated them to a wildlife centre in Ratchaburi.

As the curious looked on, some approvingly and others not, officers caught about 40 monitor lizards. Eighty-seven of them had already been moved out of the park in the last two months. The estimated monitor lizard population is 400 in this 360 rai park, which exceeds the park's capacity to contain and thus the reptiles have become a pest that disturbs visitors, according to an officer.

The BMA's controversial monitor lizard relocation operation has sparked an environmental debate. Is it possible for the species, listed as an endangered and protected animal, to co-exist peacefully in the city's green area? Are they a living symbol of healthy environment in our concrete jungle? Or have they become a pest and a sight for sore eyes among joggers?

The dinosaur-like reptile -- also known as water monitors or scientifically Varanus salvator -- has become an unofficial mascot of Lumpini Park. Visitors can see them roam freely, swim in the ponds, or lay down on the grass to sun themselves. With its size and appearance, the reptile provokes fear in humans, not to mention that its Thai name, hia, has long been used as a vulgar swear word, and thus the species is associated with curses. Nonetheless, the lizard rarely attacks people unless being approached. Many park users believe the reptile is a part of the park and prefer to have them around.

"We're not planning to relocate all of them as we know they benefit the ecosystem," said Suwanna Jungrungruang of BMA's Environmental Department. "They help get rid of waste. But with the excess in number they can frighten park users as well as harm the environment. They destroy bushes, flowers and banks.

"But how many of them should be left in the park is a good point. We still don't have the answer. We'll continue consulting with experts."

To remove them from the park is one way to correct the lizards' overpopulation. The officer believes this is the best they can do at the moment. Meanwhile the National Park Wildlife and Plant Conservation suggests removing the reptiles' eggs as a better alternative.

Monitor lizards prefer to live in wetlands. Therefore, they can be found anywhere in the country, especially in areas adjacent to water.

"The presence of monitor lizards is an indicator of how abundant an area is," said Rujira Mahaprom, a researcher at The Zoological Park Organisation who specialises in the species. "The animal is at the top of the food chain in Lumpini Park. They eat pretty much everything as well as dead animals. If the lizards are totally gone, chances are that other animals including snakes and rats will increase."

The lizards caught on Tuesday are starting a new life at the Khaoson Wildlife Breeding Centre. A 2 rai area at the centre is reserved for monitor lizards and surrounded by brick walls. Small swamps are scattered around the area. Some plants have grown to imitate the environment preferred by the animals.

Not every monitor lizard at the wildlife centre comes from Lumpini. The reptiles have posed problems in Samut Songkhram and Samut Sakhon where they feed on shrimp and fish from farms, causing economic losses.

"The monitor lizards should be able to survive at the wildlife centre but it's not the most suitable environment for them," Rujira said. "The soil at Khaoson is dry but the species prefers a wet environment. Another issue is that there is not much natural food there compared to the park. Therefore, they're being fed by staff but the centre has a limited budget."

A monitor lizard lays 30-50 eggs once or twice per year that have an 80% survival rate. The species' natural lifespan is 10 years. In short, its population can grow rapidly.

In the past the species was extensively hunted and farmed for the export of its skin. But in the 1990s a wave of conservation efforts prompted the inclusion of Voranus salvator in the protected list, meaning that by law it cannot be hunted, collected or kept in possession. The protection worked and now the animal's numbers have greatly multiplied.

However, researchers are calling for a revision of the rule: the species, some say, should be listed as a protected animal that is allowed to be bred in line with Appendix II of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.

"Protected animals that are allowed to be bred are still protected. Only those with permission from the National Park Wildlife and Plant Conservation will be able to breed and sell animals for commercial benefit," explained Rujira. "This can be one of the reasonable ways to solve the overpopulation problem. However, before the decision is made, research and data on the population number has to be collected to specify the suitable amount allowed to breed as well as regulations put in place. If it's not strictly controlled, the result of the new category could make them endangered again.

"If the animal ends up categorised as protected animals allowed to be bred, the money earned from the business could also be a fund for solving monitor lizard problems, for instance, to build a more suitable shelter for them."

The problem of stray monitor lizards may affect a number of city people who live near the animal's habitat. To some conservationists however, the issue is more complicated and concerns the complex equation between urban development and nature.

"There shouldn't be just people, buildings and pets in the city. The urban environment needs balance," said Athipat Wusilpakit, environmental communication officer of the Green World Foundation, which has a campaign to promote co-existence between animals and humans in the city. "The presence of some wildlife that adapt themselves to live in the city are important to create a balanced ecosystem."

At Lumpini Park, that balance is put in question after "operation monitor lizard".

"I'm here for running four days a week. I see them around but I don't think they are problem to me. If it's in my way, I'll just step aside," said Wichai Khaemajitpichit, an interior designer.

"The park can be a place for both people and animals. The monitor lizards never hurt us. I don't see the point of relocating them at all," said Nipon Boonyapattharo of the We Love Lumphini Park Foundation, who has biked at the area for the past decade.

Rujira, the researcher, says the animal is representative of urban wildlife that can share space with humans in the park.

"At the moment, I don't buy the idea of relocating them as I don't think the estimated population is accurate," he said. "The authorities should study both the number of monitor lizards as well as the lizards' prey animals. And if the authorities claim to be doing this for the sake of park users, what they should do is to conduct a public hearing first.

"Sterilisation may be one way [to solve the problem]. Or if there's really the need to move them, there are breeding centres across the country that may have a more suitable landscape for the monitor lizards such as in Nakhon Pathom and Pathum Thani. But if they are not over-populated, my suggestion is the park can study the animal's behaviour and use the opportunity to give the park another function as a monitor lizard learning centre."

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