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Here Be Dragons

China’s five biggest reptiles are more delicate than you might think


Here Be Dragons

China’s five biggest reptiles are more delicate than you might think


While dragons are the stuff of imagination, China boasts tangible—and substantial—reptilia that can both chill the blood and tug the heart strings of empathetic animal lovers. Reptiles come in many forms in China, including grand survivors and niche monsters. From one of the only species of alligator in the world to turtles from antiquity, China has a rich diversity of reptilian giants trying to eke out an existence in the modern world; however, with habitats disappearing, prey dying off or just ending up in a local diner, the size of these animals is largely a curse. Many of these often critically-endangered beasts are under threat of becoming just as mythical as their legendary cousin, the dragon. Spine-chilling snakes and leviathan lizards may seem scary, but they are far more important to a  delicate ecosystem than, say, a web designer. However, while the Chinese alligator boasts less than a few hundred, for some reason, web designers abound. Tragically, there were many animals that could have been included in this list but no longer exist, such as the Yangtze soft-shelled turtle. Hitting the scales at around 100 kilograms, it deserves a mention. Sadly, this turtle likely no longer exists in China in the wild (with only four known to exist in captivity all over the world) and is in serious danger of becoming extinct forever due to habitat destruction and poaching. So, while many of these large reptiles may be in danger of fading into history, remember that earth’s truly cold-blooded monsters appear to be in catastrophic abundance. Nevertheless, a few of these large reptiles have survived humanity’s march. Pay attention; they might not be around for long.


Five-Fingered Golden Dragon

Wǔ zhǎo Jīnlóng

Size: 1.5-2 meters
Weight: 20-50 kilograms
Food: Crabs, birds, snakes, small mammals, carrion
Location: Southeast Asia, South China, Hong Kong

More commonly known in English as the water monitor (水巨蜥 shuǐjùxī), this animal is endemic to many countries, including China, and thanks to their extraordinary ability to adapt and eat just about anything—living or dead—they exist in strong numbers and in a variety of habitats in Southeast Asia. Though it’s arguably the smallest on the list, the average adult weight is about 20 kilograms. It can be found in burrows, swimming, on land and even in trees. That’s bad luck for people who can’t see the beauty in this scaly survivor and would rather run; it’s even worse luck that this lizard can likely outrun them with its powerful legs. This comes in handy because, when hunting, they tend to chase prey rather than ambush like most reptiles. While not necessarily dangerous to humans, these animals do have a reputation of having a nasty temper, hissing, opening their mouth and flicking their tongue at threats. With its amazing adaptability, it is one of the most common large lizards in Asia. Such malleability means they are in no danger of going extinct any time soon, but the story in China is somewhat more harrowing. The China Species Red List (《中国物种红色名录》Zhōngguó Wùzhǒng Hóngsè Mínglù) claims this creature is critically endangered in China, on the brink of extinction in the wild. Despite claws for climbing, strong legs for hunting and a huge tail for whipping threats, it seems the one adaptation this creature is missing is one that guards against the GDP.



Yangtze Alligator

Yángzǐ’ è

Size: 1.5-2 meters
Weight: 35-40 kilograms
Food: Snails, mussels, fish
Location: Zhejiang, Anhui and Jiangsu provinces

As one of only two species of large alligator in the world and the only large crocodilian native to China, this armored reptile is perhaps less well-known (and smaller) than its North American cousin, but they are nonetheless fascinating and the closest thing China has to modern dragons. It is the only crocodilian to hibernate, and, unlike those in Florida, Chinese alligators are completely armored, including their underbelly. Their relatively small size prevents them from being a danger to humans—despite their fierce reputation in the West. However, judging from the character 鼍龙 (tuó lóng), this alligator was mentioned in the famous Journey to the West as the rebellious nephew of the Dragon King of the West Sea; he disguises himself as a boatman to sink the ship and eat the pig and the monk, thwarted by the Monkey King. Perhaps the most interesting mention is a saucy tale in In Search of the Supernatural (《搜神记》Sōushénjì) from the 4th Century when a man invites a panicked, sexy woman onto his boat for bawdy thrills; the next morning he wakes up to discover the woman he slept with was actually the spirit of a Yangtze alligator. Unfortunately, all of this biological wonderment and mythological acclaim hasn’t helped their survival. It is quite possibly the single most endangered large crocodilian in the world due to habitat degradation and being hunted to near extinction. Appearing on the IUCN Red List as “critically endangered” (one step from “extinct in the wild”), this species is in big trouble. More than 10,000 of these alligators live at the Anhui Research Center for Chinese Alligator Reproduction near Xuancheng. The disturbing news is that many of them are raised for their meat, largely due to there not being enough natural habitat left. Current estimates are at 100 to 200 in the wild.


Asian Giant Soft-Shelled Turtle


Size: 1.3-2 meters
Weight: 50 kilograms
Food: Crustaceans, mollusks, fish
Location: Southeast Asia, India, East and South China

This is often called Cantor’s giant soft-shelled turtle, but long before it was discovered by Western science, it was well-known in China. In Journey to the West the protagonists were carried across a river onits back, and legend has it that a general in the Warring States Period (475B.C.-221B.C.) used alligators and these turtles to build a bridge to march his armies across. The reptile’s strange appearance is due to the fact that this 50-kilogram monster spends most of its life just beneath the surface of a thin layer of mud. Even though it doesn’t look like much, this creature has a secret talent for catching prey: a lethal strike, an extremely fast attack that can snatch quick moving prey. However, this marvel is often a victim itself, frequently from poachers looking for a slow, easy target. Beyond its legendary good taste, traditional belief has it that consuming this particular freshwater turtle can make you strong. Once, long ago, Chinese people kept these strange looking animals as pets in their gardens, but now they are so rare that even catching a glimpse of one is newsworthy. The all too familiar story of illegal trade and habitat destruction hold true for this lonely animal as well as many of the other large reptiles in China.


Burmese Python

Miǎndiàn mǎng

Size: 4-5 meters
Weight: 90 kilograms
Food: Birds, small mammals, deer, hogs
Location: South China,
Hong Kong, India, North America and Southeast Asia

Despite what the name might suggest, these reptiles are endemic to South China and are likely the python of many Chinese legends. Often caricatured as a veracious beast, Chinese myth doesn’t think too highly of these particular snakes. In one myth, a python/dragon named Bashe (巴蛇) swallowed elephants whole, a myth that inspired the phrase 巴蛇吞象 (bā shé tūn xiàng) which literally means “snake gulping down an elephant”, an idiom used to describe insatiable greed. Much like the water monitor, these snakes are survivors, becoming an invasive species in areas such as North America. But despite the myth surrounding these modern dragons, even exceptionally large pythons are afraid of humans; however these monsters have deadly potential, meaning—as if you needed to be told—it’s important not to manhandle or mistreat them. Of course, there are those who keep these animals as pets. Famously, a Chinese man in 2012 was noticed taking his eight foot-long albino Burmese Python for a walk (and swim) in a Changzhou park. The snake’s massive size and reputation make them a prime target for poachers, some hoping to capture them as pets to sell, but, in China, they often end up as food. Despite being in no real danger of going extinct, its dominance is dwindling in China.


Green Sea Turtle

Lǜ hǎiguī

Size: 1.5-2 meters
Weight: 135-190 kilograms
Food: Sea grass
Location: Warm waters of the world, Guangdong Province

Sea turtles are sacred to many as gentle giants and weary travelers. In China, they’re perhaps most well-known for their ability to travel, famous for traveling over 2,600 kilometers just to nest. In fact, the popular term haigui (海归) refers to Chinese students who study abroad and still decide to return home. While these beautiful animals call many counties in the world home, there is only one nesting site left for these travelers in China—in Guangdong Province at the National Huidong Sea Turtle Reserve. The numbers there are classified by the reserve authorities for some unknown reason. The green fat underneath the turtle’s shell (its namesake) was considered a delicacy in ancient China, and people from Hawaii to the Bahamas have been using this animal for its skin, meat and eggs for hundreds—even thousands—of years. The toll has been the making of an endangered species. Today, they are in danger of boat strikes, poachers and the complete destruction of their precious nesting areas. Unlike the Chinese students to which they are compared, these peaceful colossi often don’t have homes to return to. In a famous Chinese story (now the idiom 井底之蛙 jǐng dǐ zhī wā) in the book Zhuang Zi (《庄子》) a wise sea turtle peeks in a well that houses a frog. The frog thinks the well is the entire world and that he has no need to leave. The sea turtle, the great traveler, tells the frog of the sea, its vastness and immortality, ending his tale by saying, “Not to be affected by the passage of time or the wax and wane of the tide, thus is the great joy of living in the Eastern Sea.” The story made the frog think about how small his world really was. If that turtle was around today, perhaps he would tell us of the wonder of nature and the diversity of species that it had seen; then we would realize how small—and lonely—our world is becoming.


 Chinese You Need

massive        jùdà de                       巨大的

prey              bǔshí                           捕食

survivor     xìngcún zhě               幸存者

reptile         páxíng dòngwù        爬行动物


Reptiles are cold-blooded.
Páxíng dòngwù dōu shì lěngxuè de.

Pythons prey on birds.
Mǎngshé bǔshí niǎo lèi.