Over the last several days a consortium of people interested in herpetology, weird animals, animal lore, and special effects have worked together to help resolve an incredible and bizarre ‘mystery’*. People in Indonesia (and perhaps elsewhere in tropical Asia) are modifying live monitor lizards to make them look like gargantuan Tokay geckos Gekko gecko.

* I’m putting ‘mystery’ in quotes for the benefit of those people who are already aware of the phenomenon discussed here, worked out what was going on, and made comments about it online. Well done on realising what was going on before the rest of us.

From a personal perspective, things began when my good friend and colleague C. M. Kosemen alerted me to an online video in which a man (apparently based in Indonesia) was filmed posing with a live lizard of surreal appearance. According to the man concerned (we’ll call him Satria), the lizard was discovered on a geological survey and is now for sale (thanks to Karl Shuker for translating the text associated with Satria’s video).

As you can see from the screengrabs here, Satria’s lizard is a slow-walking, clumsy beast with a spotted dorsal patterning, grey background colour, and cylindrical tail. It has blunt-tipped toes without obvious claws, and you should be able to see from the screengrabs here that it has five digits on both its hands and feet. Furthermore, its digits are right in proportion and position for a lizard (showing that it isn’t a weird crocodile or salamander). What makes it incredible is both its size (138 cm in total length: Satria even demonstrates this with a tape measure) and its oversized, broad, blunt-snouted head.

Needless to say, any gecko this size would be a record-holder. The largest known gecko – the recently extinct Delcourt’s giant gecko Hoplodactylus delcourti (generally thought to be endemic to New Zealand, though this has been questioned) – has/had a total length of c 60 cm, and the Satria animal is more than twice as long.

The animal just doesn’t look right. It’s gargantuan fat head looks somehow out of proportion compared to the rest of it, and it has a blundering, clumsy gait that doesn’t look like that of a normal lizard. At one point during the video, the animal quickly shakes its head. This looks aggressive, but also looks like the action performed by an animal trying to shake something off its own body. We never see an open mouth and eyes are not visible.

This ‘blundering’ gait and huge, blunt-snouted head actually makes the creature look somewhat like a giant salamander, but that would be equally incredible: not only are there no salamanders of this sort in tropical Asia, the animal has – as we’ve just seen – five fingers (salamanders have four) and its tail is cylindrical in cross-section, not laterally compressed as is typical for giant salamanders.

As usual, there have been a few cries of “CGI!”. But, no (budget, shadows, motion tracking. As Mike Keesey says, it’s more parsimonious to assume that it’s a real lizard). In fact, there is a very approximate similarity with the rather short-snouted, fat-headed Delcourt’s giant gecko. Furthermore, the Satria lizard is Tokay-like in several respects, plus we already know that Tokays are remarkably variable and able to reach surprising sizes (up to 51 cm in total length) and proportions under some circumstances. Could the Satria lizard, then, really be a gargantuan Tokay: a freak individual, or a member of a hitherto overlooked population or closely related species? Well, no.

As noted by Br?i? B?l?kh?, Raul Epiblast Diaz and other commenters, the animal’s body and limb proportions, gait and behaviour are all un-gecko-like; additionally, Brian Engh has noted that the toes don’t curl upwards with each step as is normal for Tokays and other adhesive-toed geckos, and why don’t we see the animal gaping its mouth and preparing to bite when it raises its head? The enormous golden eyes should probably be visible if this were a real Tokay. The tail is long and slim, not fat and pseudo-turnip-shaped as it is in many big geckos. Herpetologist David Kirschner noted that the cautious walk and the way the animal is raising its forelimbs high as it steps indicate that it cannot see well or at all.

Based on all of these bits of data, we seem to be seeing a lizard that has been kitted out to look like a giant Tokay. It’s a lizard in some sort of ‘gecko suit’. I must point out that this was my immediately favoured option. Within a few seconds of watching the footage, and having ruled out the other contenders that came to mind (giant salamander or genuine fat-headed giant gecko), I was immediately thinking “non-gekkotan lizard kitted out to look like a giant Tokay”. And I’m hardly the first, or only, person to come up with this suggestion, as you can see if you look at the comments attached to the original video (sorry, only available on facebook and not shared here).

What’s especially damning is that there is precedent. Brian and others were able to find a few other videos online of lizards that are transparently non-gekkotan lizards (most likely varanids) modified to look like gargantuan Tokays. Yes, this is a thing. People are modifying varanids (and other big lizards?) to make them look like enormous Tokays. In one video (titled ‘47 inch Tuko‘) – it shows a modified varanid that’s about 1.1 m long – the people modifying the lizard have stuck flattened flanges of some sort (maybe made from cardboard) onto the toes to make them look more gecko-like. The lizard in this video has a more realistic head than the one in Satria’s video, but its long tail, body shape and proportions demonstrate that it’s definitely a varanid modified to look like a giant Tokay.

In another video (titled ‘Giant Tokai Gecko, Higanteng Tuko, Real or Fake?‘) we see what is very obviously a varanid (or other large lizard) in another ‘gecko suit’. The animal is restrained by a collar and leash attached to the roof of the vivarium. Empty coke bottles are aligned alongside the animal to provide scale, and we’re told that it’s 1.4 m long.

Why are people doing something that I cannot help but regard as an act of extraordinary and horrible cruelty? It seems that the primary motive is profit: these tortured lizards are for sale, and they’re being fraudulently offered for purchase as novel, valuable animals. I am sad; I feel sorry for the lizards that are being abused here in the pursuit of profit. What happens to them at the end? If they really are encased in the ‘gecko suits’ described above, they’re unable to feed or drink, and are going to die slowly, in stressed and uncomfortable fashion.

However, there’s some underlying and fascinating cultural anthropology going on here that I’m intrigued about. As Memo and others point out, there’s an existing ‘tradition’ whereby people fake images of gargantuan Tokays, a thing they do partly because Tokays are symbols of luck, prosperity and good health. Karl Shuker wrote a whole article on this issue here.

In fact, an extraordinary number of modern myths surround these lizards. They’re said to be able to see into a person’s future, to bring great luck, to be the direct descendants of ancient dragons, and, perhaps most remarkably, to somehow cure AIDS. For all these complaints about profiteering and unethical treatment of animals, could there be some ‘well intentioned’ adoration of geckos here? If so, can it be redirected to better benefit geckos as well as Indonesian people? I mean, it’s all too easy to point fingers and appoint blame, but can we somehow use this ‘cultural significance’ to benefit geckos and their conservation?

Many thanks to everyone who discussed this issue with me and used their own expertise to bring this curious phenomenon to attention, in particular Br?i? B?l?kh?, Markus B?hler, Brian Engh, Mike Keesey, David Kirshner, Ethan Kocak, C. M. Kosemen, Richard Nicklin, Mark O’Shea, Kevin Schreck, and Karl Shuker. Geckos and monitor lizards have both been covered on Tet Zoo before. See…