Lizard theatre

(No.1, Vol.2, Jan 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Relating to James Gordon's interesting article on the July-August, 2011, edition, I can confirm that the cute-voiced _tắc kè _does indeed chant among the cacophony of HCMC’s alleyways. I inhabit the very centre of the city and oft have I lain awake at night enchanted by his call. One day my wife announced to me that one of the neighbours had caught one and immediately added it to a bottle of rice wine. It put me in mind of the
legend of the Duke of Clarence in English history and Shakespeare who was supposedly executed by being drowned in a butt of malmsey, a sweet fortified wine. Despite this the calls of ‘tắc kè’ continued. My book on Asian reptiles* informs that the tắc kè tends to live in family groups. Around six months ago the calls eerily ceased. With human predation and predilection for tắc kè wine (I must add here, in order not to receive complaints from the Hungarian embassy, that this has nothing to do with Tokay, an excellent fortified wine from the said country). It seems the city habitat spells a short life expectancy for this small beast.
A cousin of the tắc kè does however dwell and coexist among us with much greater ease. Anyone who has been here more than a few days will be familiar with the house lizard. I have lived in the tropics for more than half of my fifty six years and can tell you there are different species in different countries. As a child of no more than two I can remember being terrified of the Singapore ‘chit chat’ on the wall at bath time. In Mozambique, where they are not so common, my local houseproud wife discovered one behind a picture frame and despite my protestations uttered the words ‘not having that in the house’ and promptly squelched it. In Saudi Arabia they have a transparent, beady-black-eyed form which makes them look like a cross between a tadpole and an alien.

Now, the reason I tried to stand in the way of the execution of the house gecko above is not merely because of a respect for life but because as many people know they are useful in keeping down the insect population in our homes. Not only do they reduce the number of irritating mosquito bites we suffer but they are also effective in minimising the risk of dengue fever, which mosquitoes carry and which can be fatal to children. In providing this service they more than pay their rent.
Yet, for anyone with more than a modicum of curiosity, they do more than that. These nocturnal creatures also provide us with entertainment. When the TV is boring I have at times switched it off to watch them. Sometimes we need to get real. Why watch the Animal Planet channel on the screen when we have these little acrobats on our walls? They spend most of the time clinging to the surfaces with their feet that are almost like hands. They remain in a fixed position for long periods eyeing their prey. Hence their Latin name ‘Hemidactylus frenatus’, which I shall translate as ‘Motionless half-finger’. What masters of stealth they are! They make no sound as, by stops and starts, they edge closer to their victims and finally pounce. By some means they are able to walk on the ceiling and this for envious human beings is perhaps their most endearing feature. Discussions with learned folk lead me to believe it is not yet fully understood how it is done. Some say by suction pads but they also have a sticky substance on their toes. Researchers and manufacturers of adhesives are anxious to learn more. I once watched as one fell from the outside of a sixth floor when a burst of rain broke out. It might have had its stickiness diluted as the water streamed down. There is also a theory that geomagnetism plays a part. There surely could be also an application for rock climbers and mountaineers. Possibly Gecko-man would make an effective cleaner of windows on high-rise buildings. All said, we may get more than entertainment from them as we consider their ways.
I raised the topic of house geckos with a class of fairly advanced students. Often I am met with stony silence when I try to get a class to speak but this time they leaped into it. You would think that living in houses these reptiles would be free of predators. After all, there is a saying ‘as safe as houses’. Not so! The students had not heard of anyone eating them but I did hear from my Vietnamese wife that plucking them off the wall and eating them alive is a cure for asthma. I would imagine collecting a few and frying them in batter as the English do with sprats might result in a tasty meal. I hope I am not giving anyone any ideas. One young lady in the class reminded me that there is an inhabitant of our homes that would dearly like to get its paws on them and namely the house cat. She told me her cat is seldom successful and once even lost one of its lives as it jumped to get one, missed and went flying down the stairs. You do see a number of these lizards without a tails and I wonder if they are able to grow new ones. In certain cases this could be due to the action of a cat but I rather suspect they are their own worst enemies. They appear to very territorial and I have often seen fights break out. I have also observed them mating and can tell you it looks more like violence than sex. Another student told me her family tried to raise them as pets. They found some eggs in a cabinet but their efforts resulted in nothing but a bloody mess. I am out of contact with own country but I am told they are kept as pets in London, a former Mayor of London, Mr Ken Livingstone, being a famous owner.n
* Snakes and other Reptiles of Thailand and Southeast Asia, by Cox, Van Dijk, Nabhitabhata and Thirakhupt. Asia Books, 1998.

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