A cursory Google search will tell you that the Varanus exanthematicus, otherwise known as the savannah monitor, is a medium sized species of monitor lizard native to Africa. But that doesn’t really tell us why this creature is gaining popularity among those who fancy exotic pets.

By Charlene Bobis
Photos by Jeffrey Lim

Animal Scene sat down with fancier Lester John de Jesus to ask some of the basic questions about this fascinating species.

1. Can you give us a basic introduction to the savannah monitor, for an audience of animal fanciers who may be familiar with them as pets but who may have a few misconceptions about them? (For example, do they bite?)

Without the proper handling, Savannah monitors can bite, tail whip, and scratch. It is recommended to buy savannah monitors at an early age so that they can get used to being handled and build trust with their owners. Slow and constant interaction is advised so that your Savannah monitor will learn trust and confidence when he approaches you, Giving food rewards by thongs is one way to bond with your lizard.

2. How did you get into savannah monitors? What for you is their appeal?

Muscular, tamed personality, and hardiness were the reasons I enjoy taking care of savannah monitors. They also look like prehistoric dinosaurs when they reach their maximum growth. Being a dinosaur aficionado, that sealed the deal for me.

3. What would you say to someone who is interested in keeping a savannah monitor as a pet? Can you give them things to consider before taking the plunge?

Keep in mind their size, enclosure, and husbandry requirements. Their diet is also vital in keeping them healthy, Variety should be observed in order to fulfill your monitor’s nutritional requirements. I feed raw meat, mice, worms, insects, and eggs.

4. Who would make ideal owners for savannah monitors? Are they better suited to aficionados who want to study them? What should their owners have (like a large yard, lots of time, access to live food, etc.)?

They are for experienced hobbyists because of their size and behavior. They do need a large enclosure to roam around in and constant interaction to maintain their friendly demeanor. Keepers should also keep in mind their sharp nails and powerful bite; since they are not domesticated, the risk is always there.

5. In your experience, what are the best things you’ve learned on how to care for savannah monitors?

They learn to interact with their keepers. Like dogs, they enjoy being handled and sometimes come to you for food. I also like the fact that they are clean animals, They usually defecate on their water dish, making maintenance easier.

6. What are the top misconceptions about savannah monitors that you would like to change?

Savannah monitors eat a lot. A responsible keeper should maintain a balanced diet and not overfeed them. Top cause of death is obesity. They are not venomous and their saliva does not contain harmful bacteria like that of Komodo dragons.

7. What food is not good for the savannah monitor; what should you avoid feeding them?

They eat everything, but everything should be given in moderation. I feed mine 2-3 times a week. My monitor’s diet consists of mice, raw meat like ground chicken, hard boiled eggs, gizzard, liver, and insects.

8. Can they be kept together in groups or should they be kept alone?

It is advised to have them kept alone because they have the tendency to fight each other.

9. What kind of habitat does the savannah monitor need?

They should be kept in an enclosure with soil to dig in, with high humidity and access to natural sunlight if possible. If not, basking lamps and UVB lamps should be provided.

10. How do you tame a savannah monitor?

Constant handling and building trust slowly is the key. I give food every time I handle my savannah monitor so that he can associate me as a food source and not a threat. By doing this, they feel comfortable with me around and eventually let me touch them even without food rewards.

11. How did the savannah monitor come to the Philippines? How did they become popular with those who like exotic pets?

They are imported, They became popular because of their size and behavior.

12. What are the mistakes first-time owners of savannah monitors make, and why are they mistakes? How do you correct these?

Overfeeding is the common mistake everyone makes. Feeding them 3-4 times as juvies and 2-3 times as adults is the feeding schedule that I follow.

13. How come they are called ‘savannah monitors’?

Because they are found in West Africa. They are also known as Bosc monitors.

14. What are the ideal characteristics of a healthy savannah monitor?

Active tongue, clear eyes, mouth, and nose. They are also very curious about their surroundings, A healthy monitor’s feeding response is strong.

15. What signs should you watch out for to know it’s sick?

When they are lethargic, don’t eat for a long time, and have bubbles on their noses. One early sign that a monitor is sick is when they do not roam around their enclosure and have their eyes shut almost the whole day.

This appeared in Animal Scene’s February 2015 issue.