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Indonesia: Here be (Komodo) dragons

Tony Whitten's picture

I thought that seeing zoo animals would have prepared me for seeing these unfettered beasts at close quarters, but I was completely wrong. They are HUGE.

I’d seen the video, read the book, heard the David Attenborough podcast, written the box, gone to the zoos, got the T-shirt. So I thought I knew Komodo Dragons pretty well, even if I hadn’t seen them in the wild.  I’d seen many other types of monitor lizards in forests and along rivers all over Asia and Australia, and didn’t think that seeing a larger one would be an especially great way to use up a precious day of vacation.

So when we landed in Flores in the dry Lesser Sunda islands of southern Indonesia, we were in two minds whether to bother to go to Komodo National Park which for nearly 20 years has been a World Heritage Site. There are certainly other things to do in western Flores such as trekking the Mbeliling forests, visiting the remarkable highland village of Waerebo, snorkelling/diving, and vegging out in some interesting hotels such as the EcoLodge.  Eventually, on the grounds that it would be faintly ridiculous to be so close to such a famous site and not to take a day to go, we rented a boat for the two-hour trip to the park’s Tourist Zone. (Mind you, I believe I’m one of the very few people ever to have gone to Agra and not seen the Taj Mahal.)

The Park is the site of one of the ever-interesting biodiversity projects of the International Finance Corporation.  Started in 2005 and planned to last seven years, it has set up the Komodo Collaborative Management Initiative and established a tourism company owned jointly by The Nature Conservancy and a local tourism company. The new company is authorized to set and collect user fees, establish and monitor carrying capacity limits and in conjunction with the park authorities ensure the site’s overall ecological integrity.

Their heads were most impressive. So broad, so heavy, so muscular, so much bite-ability lodged into a mean-looking face emphasized by the heavy, frowning eyebrow ridge.

We paid our entrance fee and the $15/foreign person ‘conservation fee’ and were introduced to our knowledgeable guide who took us for a two-hour walk. Almost immediately after paying one is rewarded by the first views of the dragons because some are attracted to the headquarters by the smell of food and by the deep shade created by the wooden buildings.  One is allowed to approach to within about 5 meters – though some idiots try to get closer. While we were looking at the somnolent animals it was hard to believe they could easily change from dozing to running or that they have been clocked at 18 km per hour.

We then hiked off into the Park. We were at Komodo during the dry season, just after the period when males fight for mates and the females lay eggs in the soil having dug several decoy holes. Our guide took us to some of those egg-laying sites and we saw females eyeing us as they guarded their eggs. I thought that seeing zoo animals and other species of monitors would have prepared me for seeing these unfettered beasts at close quarters, but I was completely wrong. They are HUGE; not especially long perhaps, but huge.  Their hooked claws and large feet were remarkable, but it was their heads which were most impressive. So broad, so heavy, so muscular, so much bite-ability lodged into a mean-looking face emphasized by the heavy, frowning eyebrow ridge.  They are also wonderfully camouflaged and can easily surprise an unwary villager or tourist.

Komodo dragons are also wonderfully camouflaged and can easily surprise an unwary villager or tourist.

The prey of the larger Komodo dragons is predominantly deer and pigs, but they also take water buffalo, long-tailed macaque monkeys, snakes, palm civets, giant rats and goats. Their saliva used to be thought to contain just toxic bacteria, but a recent paper has shown that the dragons also have complex glands in their jaws, which excrete venom. These prevent blood clotting and lower blood pressure in their prey. The paper also shows that the dragons’ bite is not so strong (though I’d not want to test it) and that their bitten prey die even if they run away from their predator through venom-induced shock and blood loss.

Their appetite is prodigious, being able to eat 80% of their own body weight in food in a single day. Interestingly, almost all their major prey species have been introduced to the islands by man in historical times and it is not clear what the dragons ate in prehistoric times. Perhaps it was the small Pleistocene stegodons (early elephants) – which were found here until a few thousand years ago. Perhaps, more intriguingly, it was also the small early hominids, the ‘hobbits’, which were unearthed in 2003 in a cave in western Flores. If one were not much over a meter tall, watching out for a slavering giant lizard would have caused serious blood pressure problems. 

We are thus extremely pleased that we went across to Komodo National Park and to have visited somewhere of which it can truly be said, “Here be Dragons.”

Comments

Submitted by Sarwat Hussain on
Dear Tony, Greetings from Tshwane, and thank you for this very informative and lucid account of your visit to Komodo National Park. I thoroughly enjoyed the commentary and the picutres, but do hope that you'll take time off and visit the Taj - after all, cultural heritage of the built kind has its own merit and is worthy of our attention too! Best wishes, Sarwat

Submitted by zaza on
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