All ears on the Bornean Earless Monitor Lizard
By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
We turn a deaf ear to many things that seem inconvenient, especially when it comes to the environment, but don’t turn a deaf ear on the Bornean Earless Monitor Lizard as it is one of the rarest creatures known on earth.
In Latin, Lanthanotus borneensis means ‘hidden ear from Borneo’ and despite its name, the earless monitor lizard is capable of hearing.
Coming from the family Lanthanotidae (a group related to the monitor lizard), Lanthanotus borneensis is about 20 cm in length, has reduced eyes and limbs, a thick body, a forked tongue and keeled scales.
“It is a burrowing, nocturnal animal. They are difficult to spot as they look like their environment. They are rare because we do not see a lot of them,” said ecologist Rambli Ahmad from Sarawak Forestry Corporation during a talk on the Bornean Earless Monitor Lizard at the Sarawak Biodiversity Center on May 14.
Due to its cryptic nature, the species remains unknown to the world, thus making it so rare and even more mysterious than it already is.
First encountered and described in 1887, only about 100 specimens have been collected up until now and even that is rare.
Perhaps the most famous collector in Sarawak is former Sarawak museum curator Tom Harrisson who managed to keep 30 live specimens in 1963 by offering financial rewards to whoever found them.
The earless monitor lizards were only known to be found in Sarawak until 2008 when a social survey team conducting an assessment for oil palm plantation certification reported sightings of these fascinating creatures in Landak, Kalimantan, Indonesia.
While they insisted on not giving the GPS location of where they found the animal, it was enough to attract interested collectors and initiate collection expeditions.
In the TRAFFIC report ‘Keeping an ear to the ground: monitoring the trade in Earless Monitor Lizards’, the earless monitor lizard has been a totally protected species since 1971 and is now included in the list of ‘Totally Protected Species’ in Sarawak’s First Schedule of the Wildlife Protection Ordinance of 1998.
Not only that, it has also been protected in Brunei Darussalam since 1978 (even though there have been no reports of earless monitor lizard sightings in Brunei) and in Indonesia since 1980.
Under the Sarawak’s Wildlife Protection Ordinance, trading in monitor lizard is prohibited and fines of up to RM25, 000 and two years imprisonment can be imposed.
Under Malaysian law, any earless monitor lizard existing outside is obtained illegally.
“We can protect the species from going out, and if the person responsible is found they can be charged under our law, but when it reaches outside and bypasses our security, we cannot do anything,” said Rambli.
Reports from TRAFFIC detected international trade of this species has been massively carried out online since 2013, where earless monitor lizards are illegally sold in Japan, Ukraine, France, Germany and the Czech Republic.
In 2015, reports on social media covered a German national being arrested at Indonesia’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport for attempting to smuggles out eight earless monitor lizards.
Last year also saw the first documented incident of an advertisement posting on Facebook by a Malaysian seller offering ‘a bunch of Bornean earless monitor lizard, export available’.
While there are laws preventing this in Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, there is however no international law that protects them.
Currently, Lanthanotus borneensis is not protected internationally as they are not listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), an international agreement between governments aim to ensure international trade of wild animals and plants do not threaten their survival.
“It has not been an issue before, and it now has become a current issue that people are collecting it from the wild. And that is the reason why we want to propose it under the listing as we see that this is happening,” said Rambli. “Due to this, other countries will not be able to help Malaysia and Indonesia.”
In the upcoming 17th meeting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (CoP17) in South Africa this September, the Malaysian government will be proposing to have the Lanthanotus borneensis listed under CITES in an effort to protect the Borneon Earless Monitor Lizard.
This seems like a new step to ensure the survival of the earless monitor lizard that is considered the Holy Grail of herpetology.