A monitor lizard in Raigad, Maharashtra, in March 2019. Photo: Shantanu Kuveskar/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Last week, an image of a monitor lizard seen outside a New Delhi home went viral on Twitter. The photograph, shared by IPS Officer HGS Dhaliwal, shows off the reptile’s tough exterior and long tail as it walked on a concrete garden verandah.
Spotted at someone’s home in Delhi!! pic.twitter.com/4HG9vMhQ7V
— HGS Dhaliwal (@hgsdhaliwalips) July 9, 2020
Within hours, thousands of amused users on the social media had shared the image and commented on it. Many even contextualised the visual with a Jurassic-Park style storyline of dinosaurs breaking into people’s houses, labelling the home itself ‘Jurassic Niwas’. Others exclaimed that giant lizards roaming freely in the city had cemented their resolve to stay indoors during the lockdown, or in high-rises, for the rest of their lives.
Soon enough, the frenzy reached my personal WhatsApp groups. I work in wildlife conservation, so the more reptile-fearing of my peers demanded answers. Were Komodo dragons loose in New Delhi? Were they scouting for humans to eat? Is 2020 the year truly anything can happen?
As it happens, a quick round-up of the region’s ecology suffices to answer the first two questions (nothing may suffice for the third). The image, of course, showed a monitor lizard, not a Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis). The latter species is endemic to Indonesia, while the monitor lizard (Varanus bengalensis) exists in diverse habitats across South Asia. And no, they definitely weren’t “scouting” for humans. Their varied diet consists largely of invertebrates and other small animals like insects, rats, toads, etc.
However, the opposite is true: monitor lizards are illegally hunted, trafficked and consumed across India, and they’re endangered. In fact, as a Schedule I species under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, they’re entitled to the same level of protection as tigers.
In 2017, International Fund for Animal Welfare, Wildlife Trust of India and India’s Wildlife Crime Control Bureau investigated and found monitor lizards are hunted for their flesh and organs. Their forked penises are thought to bring good fortune. They are shy animals and wary of humans; if you spot one, simply ensure the creature has a clear path to an exit, or call a rescuer if it enters a building and won’t leave.
Finally, they are certainly not dinosaurs. I’d shrugged this question off as a joke at first. But when I spoke to wildlife conservationist and animal rescuer Shaleen Attre, she said she has answered numerous rescue calls for monitor lizards in Delhi, from residents complaining about “dinosaurs in their gardens”.
Though they are threatened, monitor lizards are found in many pockets of Delhi NCR. In fact, they are sometimes sighted in villages around the Aravalli pockets of the Chattarpur area as well, and many residents have reported that they are harmless creatures, probably more afraid of people than the people are of the lizards.
However, even though they’re a fairly common, native wildlife species in the region, much of the conversation about the latest sighting on the social media spiralled out into bizarre tangents.
Wildlife sightings in cities are often hyped up on the social media, and sensationalised through eyeball-grabbing headlines in the press, like “man-eating tiger” or “bloodthirsty leopard”. These stories subsequently reach our smartphones as WhatsApp forwards, replete with emojis and exclamation marks, and quickly feed preconceived, over-dramatised notions about wild animals.
Media coverage of this nature promotes warped narratives about wildlife and their behaviour, attributing unnecessary ferociousness or terror to animals. It’s understandable that many have a deep-seated fear of reptiles, or of wildlife they haven’t directly encountered before. But reactions not tempered by knowledge and empathy further vilify wild animals in the public eye – and often ones that are in need of better conservation.
Consider Gurugram, a city replete with offices for large companies and real-estate expansion. Before Gurugram, the region was part of the Aravalli forests of Haryana that housed various birds and animals, many of them endangered, like the leopard, striped hyena and golden jackal. Today, the animals are confronted with a concrete jungle in the same geography – a situation that’s to be found adjacent to most of India’s urban centres.
Wild animals tend to remain wary of people; sometimes they’re sighted and make the headlines. Many of them are often killed in road accidents on the Gurgaon-Faridabad road, which cuts through the Aravalli forests. Even then we pay attention to dead leopards and perhaps civets. It’s hard to tell how many other smaller mammals, reptiles and amphibians die without anyone noticing.
This said, wild animals adapt remarkably well to human-dominated landscapes even as they stay out of sight. In Mumbai and Shimla, researchers have studied wild leopards that survived in the heart of the cities. In the former, resident and reproducing individuals lived on a diet largely of dogs.
In Bengaluru’s sprawling university campuses, researchers have spotted the shy primates called slender lorises, and even the elusive smooth-coated otter.
In Gurugram, I have heard of people spotting and killing rat-snakes on occasion, even though they’re not venomous, and even favoured by farmers because they feed on rats. There are conflict situations at times, when confrontations between people and animals become tense – but it’s important we know that they’re not the norm.
Stories of animal adaptation and ecology are more fascinating than any articles with clickbait headlines, usually edited to cause fear. Just last week, a video of bright yellow Indian bullfrogs went viral on the social media. Soon enough, Twitter was abuzz with mindless discussions about whether these ‘alien’ frogs and their seemingly sudden appearance had anything to do with the novel coronavirus or locust swarms.
Have you ever seen Yellow frogs. Also in this number. They are Indian #bullfrog seen at Narsighpur. They change to yellow during monsoon & for attracting the females. Just look how they are enjoying rains. @DDNewslive pic.twitter.com/Z3Z31CmP0b
— Parveen Kaswan, IFS (@ParveenKaswan) July 13, 2020
Neither of course is true. These frogs mate during the monsoons. The common male bullfrog – usually a dull, greyish animal – turns yellow as part of its courtship rituals, and croaks loudly hoping to woo a mate. They are a common sight during monsoons and no reason to panic. They’re best left alone, or observed from a safe distance.
People and animals have continued to coexist across the country, even in landscapes with high human population densities. Harbouring a curiosity about their behaviour and ecology may help us build an appreciation for the creatures we share spaces with, while also curbing the spread of fake news that only maligns the public perception of animals.
Vaishali is a writer and wildlife conservationist. Her graduate thesis focussed on urban wildlife in Gurugram, Haryana.