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Enter the dragons

Amid the burgeoning city of Cape Coral, a new resident has established a clawhold: the 7-foot-long, carnivorous Nile monitor lizard.

COLETTE BANCROFT
Published September 26, 2003

CAPE CORAL - Gregg Klowden is bracing himself halfway down an overgrown canal bank when the wire cage trap begins to rattle. A low, loud hiss erupts through its layer of tree-branch camouflage.

"Somebody's home," he says, bending down to put his face against the ground and peer into the 4-foot-long cage.

The canal is part of 400 miles of watery gridwork framing the clumps of new houses and vast empty lots of Cape Coral, Florida's fastest-growing city.

People are moving there in such a hurry the population grew by 10 percent from 2000 to 2002. But not all the new neighbors are human.

One of them is the creature in Klowden's trap: a big, extremely unhappy, carnivorous lizard. At just under 41/2 feet long, this Nile monitor lizard is nowhere near full grown.

An adult Nile monitor can measure 7 feet. The lizards can climb trees and walls, dig burrows and tunnels, swim long distances even underwater.

They eat, Klowden says, "anything that fits into their mouths" and can devour oysters and turtles, shell and all. Females can lay up to 80 eggs at one time.

The Nile monitor is native to Africa, but you can buy them in pet stores all over Florida, no permit required. There are hundreds of them living wild in Cape Coral, maybe more than 1,000.

Residents find them in their swimming pools, on their roofs, sunning on their sea walls. Folks say the stray cat population is declining. There are unconfirmed reports of missing dachshunds and plundered koi ponds.

Klowden, a doctoral candidate in biology at the University of Florida, is part of a team of scientists conducting research on the Nile monitors in Cape Coral: Where are they, how many are there, what do they eat, what is their impact on native species?

At the same time, they're trying to do something scientists rarely do to their research subjects: eradicate them.

The lizard in the trap will be euthanized within a couple of hours. Klowden says, "I have a lot of respect for animals like this that can conquer the land, the forest, the underground, the water. They're beautiful. I hate having to kill them.

"But they don't belong here."

"Not little lizards eating bugs'

Todd Campbell, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Tampa, is in charge of the effort to study and control Cape Coral's Nile monitors.

He conceived the project and secured a year's funding, about $60,000, from two private groups, the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The city of Cape Coral is providing facilities and other help. In addition to Klowden's part-time work, Campbell expects to hire a full-time trapper within a few weeks.

"We don't know yet what's true," about the lizards, Campbell says. "We don't know how long they've been there, how many there are, who introduced them.

"One thing we do know: These are not little lizards eating bugs."

The Nile monitors in Cape Coral are most likely an accidentally introduced species, Campbell says. His best guess is that a breeding pair or a pregnant female escaped from a pet owner or was released.

The Nile monitor, or Varanus niloticus, is one of more than 30 species of monitor lizards, variously native to Africa, Asia and Australia. The largest and best-known monitor species is the Komodo dragon of Indonesia, which can grow up to 10 feet long, hunts deer and has been known to kill humans.

Nile monitors do not take well to domestic life, Campbell says. "These guys are vicious and big. Because of that, they are incredibly highly likely to be let go."

Here they found just the scaly toehold they needed. "If you were going to make prime habitat for these animals," Campbell says, "you would build Cape Coral."

Meet the neighbors

Cape Coral covers 114 square miles, the second-largest area among Florida cities; only Jacksonville is larger. (Tampa is about 110 square miles, St. Petersburg just under 61.)

Washed by Matlacha Pass and the Caloosahatchee River, Cape Coral wears a thick hem of mangroves on much of its shoreline. The city's huge network of canals was dug back in the 1970s, and thousands of acres were cleared. But development went bust, and for years much of the land sat vacant.

Now, wedged between bustling Fort Myers and the resorts of Sanibel and Captiva, Cape Coral is playing out its destiny as a bedroom community. In 1980, the population was about 32,000. By 2000, it had exploded to 102,000, and last year it was just shy of 113,000.

The combination of large areas of undeveloped land, water, woods and diggable banks is Nile monitor paradise, and research in their native Africa has found that, though they eat everything from roadkill to other lizards, their favorite food is eggs: birds' eggs, snakes' eggs, even the eggs of crocodiles.

Campbell first came to Cape Coral years before he heard about the Nile monitors, to help with a survey of the burrowing owl, a species of special concern (meaning it may be on the road to endangerment) in Florida.

Cape Coral has the most dense population of burrowing owls in the state. The owls nest on the ground, laying their eggs in small burrows: a virtual Nile monitor buffet.

Kraig Hankins, an environmental biologist for Cape Coral, was the first person to track Nile monitors. Campbell heard about the animals from Hankins and Ken Krysko at the University of Florida Museum of Natural History.

Hankins, whose work focuses on water quality, says, "I just started keeping track of these reports because I thought somebody should." The city first got reports of "a Komodo dragonlike thing" in 1990 or '91, and occasional reports came in throughout the '90s.

After stories in local newspapers about a year and a half ago, Hankins says, the reports increased. It soon became clear the animals were already all over the city.

Sightings have been most numerous in Cape Coral's southwest quadrant. Hankins says, "The last burrowing owl survey showed they had declined in the southwest cape. Is it the monitors? Is it development? We don't know."

The only way to determine the lizards' impact is research. "We need bodies to prove they're here," Hankins says. And that is why Klowden spends 80 hours a month sloshing through ponds and scrambling down canal banks with a cooler full of reeking squid.

"The one we saw was bigger'

On a sweltering September day, Klowden is checking a dozen traps around a pond in a half-built development.

Recently, in the same spot, he saw the biggest lizard he's observed in the two months he's been trapping them.

"It walked right across that road, 61/2 feet long. Looked like an alligator. I almost ran over it with my car."

But he would rather trap it. The trapping is an ongoing experiment; no one knows what works best.

The bait they've had the best results with so far is a mix of small fish, such as herring, and chopped squid. This week's batch is floating in a brownish broth of squid guts in a blue cooler. After four days in the trunk of Klowden's car, the bait cooler's aroma could knock down a buzzard.

Klowden's road-worn Saturn with a "Darwin loves you" bumper sticker zigzags through the streets of southwest Cape Coral. Because of the canals, he may have to drive six or eight blocks to reach two traps set right across the canal from each other.

In one, set in a thicket of palmetto at the corner of two canals, he finds the first of two monitors he will trap this day. This one is about 31/2 feet long.

As Klowden brings the trap with the writhing, hissing, black-and-gold lizard into the open, Stanley and Marie Amilowski peer from their screened porch, then come over for a look.

The Amilowskis, who are from Staten Island, have lived in Cape Coral for eight years. Marie comes close to look at the lizard and coos, "Oh, he's beeyootiful. Poor thing."

Stanley keeps his distance. He says, "We read the article in the paper, so I called when we saw one. He walked along the sea wall and up the side of the house. He climbed both these trees," he says, pointing to a pair of palms in his back yard.

Is this the lizard they saw? "No, the one we saw was bigger, about twice this size."

Marie says, "Last year I was ironing and I hear this noise . . . so I open the blinds. And there's this big lizard looking in at me. He sticks out his tongue, like this." She makes a face, looks at the lizard again. "Poor thing."

The Amilowskis aren't the only ones with mixed feelings. At another site, as Klowden walks out of the brush, a couple of construction workers in a dusty little car pull up.

The passenger calls, "Hey, man, what you doing? Hunting lizards? What's the tape for?" Klowden explains that the strips of pink surveyor's tape fluttering from branches mark the trap sites.

The man curses. "Sometimes I wish I'd never told them there were 10-foot lizards in there. What, do you get paid by the lizard?"

"No, I get paid by the hour."

The driver asks, "What do you do with them?"

"We kill them." He starts to say something about there being no other option.

"Aw, man." The passenger is dismayed. "You'll never get rid of them. They come across that channel." He shakes his head. "Look the other way, man." The dusty car scoots away.

The next habitat

"If they're eating rats, people say, fine," Hankins says. "Say they're eating owls, people get a little more interested. If you say they're on Sanibel in the middle of the bird rookeries, people will get upset."

Campbell says he has already heard from people who disapprove of the project. "Animal rights groups say, "It's not the lizards' fault.' It's not, but it's not the burrowing owls' fault either. In this situation, which animals do you protect?"

The veterinarians in Cape Coral who have volunteered to euthanize the trapped lizards are so wary of problems with animal rights groups that they will not talk to reporters.

Campbell has one of the trapped Cape Coral Nile monitors, a 5-footer called Thumper, in a big cage in his yard. A few other animals have been sent to other scientists for research. But Campbell says they should not be readily available as pets.

"I am so mad at the pet trade for putting me in the position of having to kill these animals."

At a pet store near his home, Campbell says, a saleswoman told him that a Nile monitor for sale there would grow to no more than 4 feet and could be kept in a 55-gallon aquarium. She told him the lizards were "feisty" as babies but mellowed out as they grew up.

"Incredible," he says.

"They're worthy of regulation. I would hope that would be the end result of all this, 10 years down the road, that Nile monitors would not be legal to own."

Campbell says introduced species are the second biggest threat to environments worldwide, after habitat loss.

The problem with human reaction to introduced species, Campbell says, is often too little, too late. By the time their impact on native species is evident, it may be impossible to reverse it. "We study them, but we don't get on the ball and try to eradicate them," Campbell says.

By studying the Nile monitors, "We're trying to get a handle on if we can even think of eradicating them. We may not be able to get rid of them. We need to find out how we can manage them."

So far, trapping has caught 13 lizards. "They're hunted pretty heavily in Africa for food," Klowden says, but remain abundant. "Who knows what kind of hunting pressure they can withstand?"

The burrowing owls of Cape Coral are not the only concern, Campbell says. Development puts more people in contact with more lizards.

"If kids find one trapped in a garage or something, and they corner it, it will hurt somebody.

"No kids have been hurt yet, and I hope that never happens. But it could, easily. And then the formula will change."

Perhaps most ominous is the potential for the Nile monitors to expand their range into one of the most fragile of ecosystems.

The Cape Coral population could move south and east to Big Cypress National Preserve and end up in the Everglades, Campbell says.

If the Nile monitors established themselves there, the Everglades' birds and even alligators could be their next course.

"These guys are major competitors of the second-largest reptile on earth, the Nile crocodile," Campbell says.

"These guys eat their babies, and they have to get around the mama croc to do it."

- Contact Colette Bancroft at bancroft@sptimes.com or 727 893-8435.

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