Savannah Monitor (Varanus exanthematicus) Care Sheet
Basic Savannah Monitor Husbandry
A few important facts: The initial cost of these animals is minimal, the cost of their upkeep can be quite expensive; enclosure build, heating costs, relatively expensive MVB bulbs if the keeper chooses to provide them, feeding, vet bills as and when needed. Then there is the problem of finding someone to take proper care of the animal/s when you are not there. All these things must be properly worked out before getting the monitor. This is a long term commitment, possibly for the next 15 to 20 years. Please be aware of the potential damage they can inflict with both teeth, claws, and even the tail, they are extremely powerful animals, and with their nervous/wary dispositions, can revert to defensive behaviors in an instant.
Acquiring Your Monitor
When selecting a Savannah monitor, it is best to look towards captive born and bred (CBB) from a reputable breeder if at all possible, unfortunately, the cost at which Savannah Monitors are imported, there is very little value in breeding, and for this reason, the huge numbers that are available are wild caught (WC), or captive hatched/captive born (misleadingly labeled CB).
Select a monitor that is lively, and even appears aggressive (it is not aggression, just defensive behavior), a monitor that is docile and calm, allowing you to handle it may seem like the better choice, but it may be a sign all is not well health wise.
In our opinion, it is usually best to avoid older animals, or those in need of rescue, unless you have some previous experience of raising varanids long term, or know the animal has been receiving proper care previously, as these individuals may be in bad condition internally without showing obvious outward signs, and the cost to the keeper, and stress to the monitor can be great when trying to get the animal back to good health.
Some pet stores may plead they didn't know the animal was sick, yet quickly replace these individuals with another if a complaint is made (it was a sale, which in some cases is all they are interested in, unfortunately).
Males can get to over 120cm (4feet) in total length, with the females being somewhat smaller, perhaps 90cm (3 feet) ToL. There are accounts of them reaching nearly five feet ToL, we believe this to be either an extreme case (possible), more likely an exaggeration, however, one should always plan to house at the maximum sizes.
The most important factor in owning a monitor of any species is having an appropriate enclosure. It must be able to accommodate the size of the lizard, and of course, all the conditions that the monitor needs to thrive must be in place BEFORE the animal arrives.
Due to the requirements that have to be met, a custom made enclosure is necessary. Making one yourself is definitely the most cost effective way.
Typically constructed of ½ inch to ¾ inch plywood and 2 x 4 inch frame work, it is in effect a box with a front opening window.
Another popular method is to use the metal/plastic feeding troughs to hold the substrate, and build the wooden top to attach to that. That basically means it's in two parts, very useful when moving a relatively large enclosure in/out of the room/house!
Size: For the size of an enclosure, a good rule of thumb is twice the total length (ToL) of the lizard, and at least one times that length in width, so a footprint of 250L x 120W x 120H (8 x 4 x 4 feet) as a minimum is recommended, bigger is always better. It is not true that the smaller/younger monitors will get lost, be unable to find the heat, cool, light, dark, food and water, if housed from the beginning in the "adult sized" cage, they should thrive.
Moisture: The enclosure should be able to withstand high levels of moisture without deteriorating in a short time. Many people use polyurethane, epoxy paint, or even waterproofing paint intended for masonry products. Below the substrate level, it is best to line with FRP (fiberglass reinforced paneling) applying silicone to the seams, or have it coated in fiberglass. This extra layer of material will protect it from the claws of a digging/scratching monitor. of course if the feeding trough is used, it is already waterproof, though obviously the wooden top still needs sealing.
Substrate: The purpose of using 2 x 4’s on your enclosure other than for stability, include being able to sustain the weight and pressure of tons of dirt/sand mix. Substrate should be a soil/sand mix (tamped down firmly), moist enough to hold a burrow, and approx 18 to 24+ inches deep.
The benefits of deep substrate are many, it allows for burrowing to achieve higher humidity levels (helping to prevent dehydration), security in being able to dig said burrows for privacy, etc.
If feeder bugs are available throughout, the monitor is able to properly forage for food, and it will probably become the biggest source of exercise and stimulation you can provide for the animal.
Should the individual monitor be female, she will most certainly cycle, and nesting sites will be necessary. Deep substrate covers this issue, and it is always good to offer another option in the form of a "nest box" on top of the soil. If a female cannot find a suitable site for depositing the eggs, it can cause many reproductive issues, and may ultimately cause the death of the monitor.
Ventilation: Because of the relatively high humidity requirements, little ventilation is required, however, a small vent close to the substrate level will result in very little loss of heat or humidity, although air exchange will obviously occur during normal cage cleaning, water changes/feeding, etc..
Avoid: Things to avoid when building or having an enclosure built:
Screen tops, or too much ventilation are a serious health risk, dehydration kills.
For the hatchlings being housed in raise up enclosures (though that is not necessary), avoid top opening styles, as all interaction will be coming from above, just as a predatory bird.
Particle/press board materials are not suitable for the construction, they are not good for withstanding the moisture, and deteriorate very quickly if the sealer is penetrated.
Example Monitor Enclosures
Humidity & Water
Savannah monitors are tropical animals, and as such they require moderate to relatively high humidity, ranging from approx 50 to 70% throughout. Percentages may be lower within the beam of a basking light, as well as higher in the burrows, which is inevitable and acceptable.
Clean water should be available and changed daily. A water tub should allow the monitor to fully submerge. Installing plumbing for a drain may be preferred, as it may turn into dozens of gallons being changed many times a week. Other feasible options include a shop vac or siphoning into buckets. Some keepers have ventured into filtration systems with some success to reduce frequent water changes. Supplying a smaller water bowl for drinking may eliminate its use as a toilet.
Much debate on the captive diet abounds, but an agreement among the authors of this care sheet is that no food is suitable or "best" should the conditions in the enclosure not fully support the monitor.
Whole foods should be considered superior. If offering the foods directly to the monitor, tongs must always be used, never held in the hand/fingers. Invertebrates readily available and acceptable include crickets, mealworms, super worms, silkworms, various roach species, fiddler crab, shrimp, etc. Vertebrates readily available and acceptable include various rodents, quail and their fertilized eggs, anoles, small freshwater fish can be offered if the monitor will take them, too. Many of these feeders are easily bred, and can cut down on expenses.
The hatchlings/juveniles should be fed daily, as much as they will eat, though care must be taken to reduce the total amount fed as maturity is reached, remembering the tiny amount of exercise they usually get in captivity. Obesity is unhealthy, and ultimately leads to an early death as is seen all too often. Most of these animals were being kept under metabolized; being the true cause of many (most?) health problems in captive varanids.
Supplements If whole vertebrate prey are regularly fed, supplementation should not be necessary, if you choose to feed an invert only diet, it will be lacking somewhat, and calcium and a vitamin D3 dusting may be necessary (the latter depending on whether UVB irradiation is offered, either regular natural unfiltered sunlight, or the better quality UVB lamps).
Daniel Bennet of Mampam Conservation was the guest speaker during a chat session on kingsnake. This is an excerpt from the chat logs.
AskDaniel: what is the best diet for a captive savannah monitor
daniel_bennett: whole animals, no processed meat, in the wild they only really eat invertebrates, but a mixture of insects and mice seem to work fine
daniel_bennett: in fact its probably the most specialized of the African monitor lizards as far as its diet is concerned
View the Daniel Bennett Chat Log
A leader within the monitor community, Daniel Bennett (owner of Mampam Conservation) specifically states that invertebrates are the true food of the Savannah Monitor though captive species can be fed mice. The decision to feed mice, considered an unnatural prey item, is left to the owner of the Savannah Monitor. Those who do choose to feed mice as part of a varied diet must ensure they are meeting or exceeding the requirements of the species as indicated within this care information to prevent obesity.
Temperature & Lighting
Ambient (air) temperatures should be approx 24c (75f) in the coolest parts (hides/burrows), up to a SURFACE temp at the basking site of between approx 50 to 60c (120 to 140f), the smaller monitors heat up very quickly, and those are the only two temps to worry about. The relatively high surface temp is critically important to allow proper digestion and normal activity. This can easily be achieved with a bank of two or three 40 to 50 watt halogen (flood) lamps in a row, covering the snout to vent length at least, and this type of lighting will not dry out the air as the high wattage bulbs can do, making it much easier to control the humidity.
Being diurnal, they benefit from bright light. Often a 6500k fluorescent tube that spans most of the enclosure is used along with the basking lights, normal household tubes can also be satisfactory as supplementary lighting.
A nighttime drop to the low to mid 20`s C (70’s F.) is fine, and offers the monitor an opportunity to slow it is metabolism overnight, and depending on location (climate), it may be necessary to use either an infrared bulb, or a ceramic heat emitter at night.
A digital thermometer with a probe and a "Temp-gun" are necessary for taking accurate surface measurements at the basking site and elsewhere in the enclosure. The analogue and stick-on aquarium thermometers can be very inaccurate; also, a digital hygrometer is a must to measure both air temps and the humidity level.
Some comments on "taming" these animals; we prefer to use the word "tractable", it can indeed happen with many properly supported monitors, though there are never any guarantees.
This must only be attempted after the monitor has fully acclimated to the enclosure, until that time, absolutely no forced handling, it is best to leave the food for them and just carry out cage maintenance. After acclimation, tong feeding can commence (never use fingers to hold the prey), their responses are extremely quick and even the youngsters can give a painful bite. The only way is with lots of time and patience, and the best "tool" the keeper has is food.
Finally, it is not about "luck", it's about what you actually DO to support them that will bring success.
Articles Of Interest
Author: Stefan Windsor & Randy Koladycz
Savannah Image Main - © Susan Wyldrose
Savannah Image 2 © Aja Michelle
Savannah Image 3 © Aja Michelle