Is New Guinea home to gigantic monitor lizards? (© Dr Karl Shuker)
The surname 'Drake' is derived from 'dragon'. Consequently, it is nothing if not appropriate that revealing a real-life dragon was one of the goals of 'Operation Drake'. This was a two-year-long international voyage of scientific discovery spanning 1978-1980, which was mounted by the Scientific Exploration Society and led by intrepid world explorer Lieutenant-Colonel (now Colonel) John Blashford-Snell, featuring a global team of Young Explorers (aged 17-24), and named in honour of the famous Elizabethan circumnavigator Sir Francis Drake. As for the sought-after dragon, this was the much-dreaded Papuan dragon or artrellia said to inhabit the jungles of New Guinea. But let us begin at the beginning of this modern-day search for a veritable medieval monster.
Since the end of the 19th Century, reports of gigantic, often tree-climbing reptiles have been emerging quite regularly from Papua New Guinea (PNG, but known prior to the end of World War II as Australian New Guinea). This is the country occupying the eastern half of New Guinea – a vast island mini-continent that boasts a land area of more than 300,000 square miles, and constitutes the world's second-largest island (only Greenland is larger). Said to be up to 30 ft, possibly even 40 ft, long (thereby far exceeding the length of even the biggest Komodo dragons – see later) and, in the case of mid-sized specimens, given to dropping down from overhanging branches onto unsuspecting creatures (and sometimes humans) walking by underneath, these 'dragons' are termed the artrellia by the New Guinea natives - who, understandably, live in considerable fear of these great beasts, and liken them to giant arboreal crocodiles or lizards. They have been given a number of local names, including the artrellia (also spelled variously as artrelia, atrela, otrelia, otrila, etc), the piako, and, in Neo-Melanesian Pidgin (Tok Pisin), the pukpuk bilong tri – a name that loosely translates as 'tree-climbing crocodile'. Many Westerners have also seen them.
Some monitors are very adept arboreally (Wikipedia copyright-free image)
During the three Archbold Expeditions of 1933-1939 to New Guinea, sent out by New York's American Museum of Natural History but financed and led by American zoologist and philanthropist Richard Archbold, the expedition members were consistently warned by their native helpers to beware of gigantic man-eating lizards that dwelt in the depths of this island's unexplored jungles.
In World War II, moreover, a number of British, American, Australian, and Japanese soldiers stationed in what would become PNG claimed to have spied huge lizards estimated at 15-20 ft long. Similarly, in 1960 David Marsh (at that time District Commissioner of Port Moresby, PNG's capital) stated that he had made two sightings of such reptiles during the early 1940s in western PNG. Also in 1960, two administration agricultural officers, Lindsay Green and Fred Kleckhan, succeeded in obtaining the skin and jawbone of a New Guinea 'dragon'; they had discovered these relics in a native village near Kairuku, 70 miles northwest of Port Moresby. Moreover, a report in Brisbane's Courier Mail newspaper for 22 January 1960 quoted PNG Patrol Officer Ian Gibbons as stating:
Wherever I have gone in the coastal districts of the territory where wallabies are common, I have found natives who know of these dragons. In several places I had natives do drawings of the dragons. The drawings were amazingly similar and looked very much like a photograph of the Komodo dragon.
A Komodo dragon Varanus komodoensis, the world's largest lizard currently known by science to exist today © Dr Karl Shuker)
Most exciting of all, and at the same time that these above-noted reports from 1960 were being publicised, Rachel Cleland - the wife of the then-Administrator at Port Moresby – claimed that in August 1959 she had actually seen a living specimen in captivity in the remote Daru district, during a visit to a mission station near Balimo, and that she had been told by a missionary there that the local natives had seen some 20-ft-long specimens. As far as I am aware, however, no photographs of the captive specimen were taken, nor any record documented of its fate (and that of its remains if it died in captivity rather than being released back into the wild at some point).
In 1961, explorers David George and Robert Grant encountered a giant lizard in the Strachan Island District of southern PNG. According to their description, it stood almost 4 ft high, was grey in colour, with a 3-ft-long neck, and a total length estimated by them to be approximately 26 ft. Not surprisingly, they kept their distance from this leviathanesque lizard, watching no doubt with great relief when it disappeared into the surrounding jungle.
Journey Into The Stone Age by David M. Davies (© David M. Davies/Robert Hale Ltd – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)
The trail of the artrellia was evidently growing ever warmer, and fresh findings continued to be made as the years rolled by. In his book Journey Into The Stone Age (1969), traveller David M. Davies recalled being shown by some primitive valley-inhabiting PNG natives an unusual native drawing on a cave wall, which appeared to depict a huge lizard running on its hind legs, and of which his native companions were evidently very afraid:
The rain continued to pour down, and we noticed some scratches on the walls, so we turned our attention to these. We could make out some crude drawings of birds which showed that these people, like the Papuans outside the valley, had a bird complex. But there was also a queer creature drawn very large on the wall. It seemed to represent a huge lizard which was running on its hind legs. I remembered the reports of [Jim] Taylor and [Ivan] Champion, early explorers in Australian New Guinea [see below], who had seen these lizards and described them as very large and living in trees. On one of the expeditions Champion spoke of a local man who had been killed by such a lizard, which had dropped on to him from a tree. John (one of the missionaries) said he had heard something about them from the New Guineans themselves, but had never met anyone who had seen one. As we pointed at the drawing our hosts drew back, the whites of their eyes flashing. It seemed to be the only thing of which they were afraid.
Sent forth by Lieutenant Governor Hubert Murray to do the honours for his Papuan administration, during the late 1920s North-West Patrol Officers Ivan Champion and Charles Karius found fame by becoming the first white explorers to traverse New Guinea across its widest point, crossing from the headwaters of the Fly River to the Sepik River. After being thwarted by a seemingly impenetrable mountain wall on their first attempt, they successfully achieved this impressive navigational feat on their second, which concluded in 1928. Champion published full details of their epic journey, what they encountered, and all manner of interesting native testimony in his book Across New Guinea From the Fly to the Sepik (1932). As for explorer Jim Taylor, he famously led expeditions into Australian New Guinea's Highlands during the 1930s.
Location of Fly River in PNG (© Roke/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)
A major artrellia breakthrough occurred less than a decade after the 1969 publication of Davies's book when, in December 1978, news emerged concerning the successful filming three months earlier of a 2.8-m- (9-ft-) long New Guinea dragon by Jean Becker and Christian Meyer near the Fly River. Apparently, it was just one of a population of such creatures believed to exist in southern PNG, and which seemed to be monitor lizards. However, it was still not clear whether they constituted a new species.
That issue was finally resolved during the South Pacific phase of 'Operation Drake', via an expedition in December 1979/January 1980 to the PNG swamplands, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Blashford-Snell. As he subsequently documented in his book Mysteries: Encounters With the Unexplained (1983), he had heard numerous native stories of these enormous beasts, and was regaled with tales of their ferocity and the danger to anyone seeking to capture one of them. Notwithstanding this, he was so intrigued by these reports that he became determined to resolve this longstanding zoological mystery once and for all - by revealing conclusively both the reality and the zoological identity of New Guinea's fearsome dragon.
Lieutenant-Colonel Blashford-Snell (© Centre for Fortean Zoology)
Sadly, however, his expedition's attempts to achieve these goals consistently met with failure as the natives were very loathe to participate in the pursuit - until he resorted to an age-old but universally successful ploy. He bribed them! And sure enough, on 12 December 1979 in the coastal village of Masingara, west of Daru in PNG's Western Province, he was duly presented with a real-life artrellia, which had been shot by a villager but was still alive when brought back into camp. True, it was far from the 30-ft monster that the expedition team had been hoping for, measuring instead a mere 6 ft 1.5 in (which included a 4 ft-1.25-in tail). Nevertheless, the natives were still palpably nervous of this dying mini-dragon, and assured the team unhesitatingly that it was a genuine artrellia, albeit a very young one (on 11 January 1980 its formalin-preserved body was presented to PNG's National Museum in Port Moresby).
When it was examined by the team's zoologist, Ian Redmond (destined to become a world-renowned conservationist), he recognized its species straight away. It was a frequently arboreal lizard known zoologically as Varanus salvadorii, Salvadori's monitor (not to be confused - although it often is - with the similarly-named salvator monitor Varanus salvator). Moreover, he confirmed that this was indeed only a very young specimen - so to what size could fully-adult ones grow? Handsomely marked with black and gold spots, it was equipped with a fiery-colored flame-thrower facsimile for a tongue continually flicking in and out of its mouth in faithful homage to those conflagrating dragons of legend, and explaining Papuan native testimony that the artrellia breathes fire. Certainly, Salvadori's monitor is a visually impressive species and is known from fully-confirmed records to exceed 10 feet in total length quite regularly when adult, thereby making it the longest species of lizard alive today in the world.
Salvadori's monitor (public domain)
Worth noting here, incidentally, is that the title of the world's longest species of lizard is often, but erroneously, ascribed to a famous relative of Salvadori's monitor - the Komodo dragon Varanus komodoensis, native to Komodo and a few other small Indonesian islands. In reality, however, the Komodo dragon is not the longest, because it rarely exceeds 10 ft - but it is the largest. The reason for this distinction is that whereas at least two-thirds of the total length of Salvadori's monitor consists of its very slender tail, the tail of the Komodo dragon only accounts for half of its total length - so the Komodo dragon is much sturdier and heavier than the more svelte, lightweight Salvadori's monitor.
Adding further support to this latter species being one and the same as the legendary artrellia, it has long been known that natives inhabiting the Fly River area of PNG commonly refer to Salvadori's monitor as the tree crocodile. It is the largest of the seven varanid species known to exist on New Guinea, and inhabits lowland forests as well as coastal mangrove swamps, but usually in fairly remote, largely inaccessible localities, making field studies of this impressive species difficult to undertake.
The Fly River (public domain)
Based upon the sizeable number of reports describing quite immense artrellias in New Guinea, it would seem that Salvadori's monitor can far exceed even the longest officially verified record for its species - that of 15 ft 7 in, recorded from a male specimen measured over 30 years ago by researcher Michael Pope. So far, however, no-one has captured a 30-ft or 40-ft artrellia (not even a 20-ft specimen, in fact), but sightings continue. In the more remote jungles and swamps of New Guinea (of which there are a very great many still in need of scientific investigation, not only in PNG but also in this vast island's western, Indonesian half - formerly known as Irian Jaya), which are little-frequented by native tribes and scarcely explored at all by Westerners, thereby constituting sanctuaries for larger forms of life, it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility that extra-large artrellia specimens do indeed exist, undisturbed and free from human persecution.
During that same 'Operation Drake' expedition, Ian Redmond had a brief but direct face-to-face encounter with what may well have been a sizeable Salvadori's monitor. He was later interviewed on-screen concerning his experience for an episode of the very popular television series 'Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World' (first screened in 1980) that dealt with a wide range of mystery beasts from around the world (the episode in question was entitled 'Dragons, Dinosaurs and Giant Snakes'). Here is his verbatim account of that notable confrontation:
We were staking out water-holes, because the lizard has to come for water every day, and some of the water-holes are in a creek bed. So you're below the level of the forest floor, in a creek bed, by a pool. And one day, there were two of us, a few hundred yards apart - I was sitting by one pool, another chap by another pool. And I'd been sitting there for several hours, and nothing happening, it was about 10 o'clock in the morning. And I heard these footsteps. It's a forest floor, so there's lots of dry leaves on the floor. This is quiet, softly scrunching of dry leaves. Now, if you hear a lizard moving through the forest, it's a scurrying sound, it doesn't sound like footsteps. And I thought it must be either the other chap coming over - whether he was playing about and trying to sneak up on me, I didn't know. But it sounded very stealthy. So I was sitting down there, and I hear this coming up behind me. And obviously, you decide, at some point you've got to have a look. So, as they were getting closer, I thought: "Well, person or animal, I'm going to see what it is". So I slowly sat up and looked around. And about 10 ft away – my eyes were about on the level of the bank – about 10 ft away, there was a log, and just over the log was this great lizard head. Now, I couldn't see the whole body, but I could see that the head and shoulders were a lot lot bigger than the one which had been shot. So I went down for my camera again, and as I went down to get my camera the lizard moved away.
And here is the episode itself, currently uploaded and viewable on YouTube – Ian's interview begins at 13 min 30 sec into the video:
I have known Ian for some years, and when I mentioned to him that I was preparing this article he very kindly sent me his unpublished field notes concerning the search by him and others during 'Operation Drake' for the artrellia, and he gave me full permission to cite anything from them in my article that I so wished – thank you very much, Ian! This has enabled me to incorporate a number of important details throughout this article that had not previously been publicly available, and I now have a specific date for Ian's famous sighting of the lizard head above the log – 16 December 1979. Moreover, in view of his sighting's great significance in the search for the artrellia, I feel that it would be very valuable and insightful to read Ian's account of it in his field notes for that date, especially as it includes some very interesting additional information not previously revealed, so here it is:
16th December 1979
10.00am: Sitting in creek bed beside small pool. Hear what sounds like the cautious step of a bare-foot human approaching from W (rear); slowly raise my head above bank and see at approx. 8-10m [possibly meant 8-10 ft, which would then correspond with his TV interview's 10-ft statement, or vice-versa?] the head and shoulders of an ATRELA – it freezes, I reach down for my camera but it moves away (not hurried, at the same pace) out of sight but not far. Nothing further heard – perhaps up tree? Seemed bigger than 6ft 1.5in specimen – perhaps 8ft? total length.
Round bend in creek bed, found firm clay pig wallow with tracks of large monitor, some complicated by overlying tracks of smaller one. Fore-foot tracks were 8-9cm long (not clear palm of hand) and 4cm wide; heels of hind-foot very clear (imprint of scales visible) and were 24cm apart (between centre of left heel to centre of right heel). Footprint minus toes was about 10.5cm by 5.5cm, and very clear length of outer toe to heel of left foot was 13cm. If the ratio of outer toe/foot length to total length of the 6ft 1.5in is the same as for this individual, it would be approx. 302-345cm total length.
The pool and creek bed featured in Ian's sighting were located just outside the village of Tati, which was a two-and-a half-hour walk northeast of Masingara, where the 6-ft-1.5-in specimen had been shot four days earlier.
Close-up of the head of a Salvadori's monitor, revealing this species' characteristic bulbous snout (Wikipedia copyright-free image)
Local reports often claim that the artrellia will sometimes rise up onto its hind legs, and that in this position big specimens can stand 10 ft tall, looking positively dinosaurian in appearance. On 1 January 1980, Ian had been walking back to Masingara from the village of Giringorede with a native hunter named Buwae Gire. In the Giringorede dialect, the artrellia is known as the piako, and Gire informed Ian that an old man had actually sat on top of one such beast, having mistaken it for a fallen tree trunk until it moved and then abruptly reared up onto its hind legs. The piako didn't attack him, but not surprisingly he fled away in terror. In his field notes for that day, Ian recorded the following additional information given to him by Gire:
[The old man] estimated its length to be 12 paces (he [Gire] paced the length for me) – i.e. about 36 ft.
Biggest one seen by Buwae himself was about 16 feet (I measured the distance along the ground indicated by him). He sometimes eats smaller ones; they are quite common in the area – while walking he would expect to see one every hour or hour and a half. They eat animals that they catch by jumping from a tree. I asked if he had ever seen this, and he said yes. I asked him what the lizard caught on that occasion, and he replied, “One of my hunting dogs!” This had the ring of truth about it, and I saw no reason to doubt his observations.
As recorded by a number of herpetological observers and researchers down through the years, including John Netherton and David P. Badger in their book Lizards: A Natural History of Some Uncommon Creatures (2002), it is well known that some species of monitor – including Salvadori's – will indeed raise themselves up like this to scrutinize their surroundings. They can even briefly run bipedally too, on their hind legs alone, should the need arise. Such behaviour could also explain the cave drawing reported by David M. Davies.
Artistic representation of an au angi angi (© William M. Rebsamen)
Finally: Another mystery monitor reported from New Guinea but far less familiar, cryptozoologically speaking, than the artrellia is the au angi angi. Whereas the artrellia is said to be terrestrial and arboreal, the au angi angi is reputedly amphibious, a freshwater form inhabiting a number of swamps and rivers, and allegedly measuring up to 27 ft long, thereby indicating that there could be exceptionally large specimens of water monitor still awaiting verification on this mini-island continent too. Moreover, along the banks of New Guinea's Casurina coast is said to live a monstrous form of lizard larger than the Komodo dragon and known by the natives of that region as the cuscus (but not to be confused with the possum-related New Guinea – and Australian – marsupials of that same name).
Over the years, I've noted on a number of occasions that just like most things, mystery beasts have a tendency to go in and out of fashion. At present, the artrellia seems to be one that is very much out of fashion, inasmuch as it rarely rates a mention in surveys of mystery creatures even of passing interest to cryptozoologists, let alone ones that are actively being sought by them in the field. This may be due to the revelation by the 'Operation Drake' team that the artrellia belongs to a species already known to science, with the attendant implication that seeking it further is therefore no longer of cryptozoological –or even of mainstream zoological – interest.
Head and neck of an adult Salvadori's monitor – a veritable dragon of Papua? (copyright-free Wikipedia image)
Yet if native testimony is to be believed (and the capture of the young artrellia in December 1979 confirmed that such a creature did indeed exist and was not merely a myth), there are huge artrellia specimens still out there in the jungles and swamplands of New Guinea awaiting formal confirmation of their reality – a reality that may in turn affirm that the Komodo dragon is not the largest living species of lizard after all, that instead we should be handing over this longstanding record to some truly gargantuan Salvadori's monitors instead. That should be exciting enough, surely, to warrant new quests for such goliaths of the reptile world. Then again, that may perhaps equally explain at least some of the reluctance to go forth in search of them. After all, to seek veritable dragons, we need a literal St George, or at least a modern-day Sir Francis Drake, and such brave, determined heroes may well be as difficult to locate in today's unadventurous times as the dragons themselves!
I wish to offer my very sincere thanks to Ian Redmond for sharing with me and permitting me to utilize for this article his field notes from the 'Operation Drake' PNG expedition as well as an unpublished paper incorporating them that he co-authored with the late Mark K. Bayless. Mark was an extremely knowledgeable herpetoculturist from California who was also a longstanding friend of mine, having swapped a considerable amount of cryptozoological information with me down through the years relating to herpetology, and whose untimely death in November 2006 at the age of only 46 devastated me. RIP Mark, you are greatly missed, and I am dedicating this ShukerNature blog article of mine to your memory.
POSTSCRIPT – 10 September 2020
Today I received the following fascinating email from Jordan Beck who as a missionary's son has lived and grown up among the tribal people in Indonesian New Guinea (the western half of New Guinea). Here is the very intriguing information contained in his email to me:
Hi I recently read you article Drake and the Dragon [a hard copy version of this online ShukerNature blog article] and I was really fascinated by it. I am a missionary kid in Papua Indonesia and I live in the lowland swamps. Our tribal people have stories of lizards that eat people, boars and cassowaries. When I showed them your article they all pointed to the Komodo Dragon and said that's the lizard that eats people. When I asked them if they had seen it they all said that they had and they said if you see them run. When I asked them how big they get they said roughly a size of 15-19 ft. When I showed them the Croc monitor [Salvadori's monitor] they said the large man eating lizard was black like the Komodo Dragon not spotted. On another account we were up river on a[n] adventure and on the beach I found 6 inches wide monitor foot prints in the sand [-] when I showed our guide he told us that those were the foot prints of the large man eating lizards and that we should keep a careful watch on the surrounding jungle.
Could it be that there is an extra-large version of Salvadori's monitor inhabiting this section of New Guinea that is not spotted? Such a lizard would superficially resemble the Komodo dragon, and therefore explain why the New Guinea tribal people questioned by Jordan selected photos of this latter non-native species as resembling the dreaded man-eating giant lizards claimed by them to exist here.
Alongside a life-sized Komodo dragon model (© Dr Karl Shuker)