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Dragon Spotting

Visiting the island of Komodo in Indonesia; home of the world’s largest lizard

By Matt Scott

February 8, 2009

As I crouch down the plastic bag in my pocket rustles loudly. The five creatures I am observing suddenly wake from their slumber and several pairs of eager eyes look in my direction, each one questioning: Are you food? I have a feeling that few people must experience in this day and age: what it’s like to be pray. I am in little danger, but I stay perfectly still, shocked at such an impressionable first view of these ancient creatures.

About eight meters away lie five komodo dragons; while they do not breath fire they are the largest lizards in the world and are every bit as fearsome as their mythical namesakes: fierce claws, curled into the dirt at over an inch long, sharp eyes surrounded in a long, stock body with a whip like tail and a long, forked black tongue surrounded by a ferocious mouth, dripping saliva.

While four quickly return to sleep, realizing dinner is not on the menu, one stirs. It pushes up its long, scaly body with its squat muscular limbs and takes short lumbering steps towards me. Its leather like skin hangs in folds under its neck and limbs, peeling in large grey flakes. Its tail sways in turn with its head, as if it is slowly scanning the area, its forked tongue laps the air. Black eyes, ringed by a hint of yellow scales, seem to stare straight through me.

Komodo dragons inhabit just a few small islands in the east of Indonesia, with Komodo Island and Rinca Island having the largest populations of approximately 1,700 and 1,300 respectively. Early morning is the best time to watch the dragons as once the temperature rises they become lethargic and seek shade; either in the forest or their burrows. However, regardless of the time of day there seems to be a continual presence under the huts at the rangers’ station, as if there to greet visitors.

‘Please this way’ says Silva, our guide, who gently pulls me away from the approaching creature. He stands to my side with a forked stick held out in front of him; our only protection should the komodo fancy a quick snack.

While komodo dragons present little danger to humans the locals are still weary in their presence. A vice like jaw contains jagged teeth that is home to over 50 different kinds of bacteria. Without treatment the smallest bite would quickly lead to septicaemia but deaths are rare. “ The last was about ten years ago when a ranger went missing. All they found was his watch” explains Silva.

A komodo dragon’s regular diet consists of deer and wild pig but it will also feast on water buffalo, wild horses (which have led to their near extinction on the island), small lizards and birds or even baby komodo dragons. The islands of the Komodo National Park are some of the few habitats where lizards, and not mammals, are top of the food chain.

As Silva guides us away from the rangers’ station, he shows us a nest of Komodo eggs: a small patch of disturbed ground with several recently dug holes- resembling a small rabbit warren.  A female komodo can lay as many as 30 eggs and buries them two or four meters (6 - 14 feet) below the surface. Only one hole leads to the clutch with the others serving as a distraction for dragons that are keen to enter for an easy meal. Once hatched the baby dragons scurry into the trees for its first few years of life to avoid the cannibalistic jaws of its relatives.  Only when it is large enough will it hunt on the forest floor.

We spot a small Komodo trundling through the forest. At about 80cm long its small enough to have only recently started hunting on the forest floor, any smaller and it would be easy prey for its cannibalistic relatives. With its small size and green-and-yellow speckling- that it gradually looses with age- it is a less fearsome creature than those we have just seen, but nonetheless dangerous.

Komodo dragons can smell pray from several kilometres away, using the Jacobson’s gland on their roof of their mouths which process taste and smell. “ They see very badly and cannot hear well, but he will still be able to smell you when we have finished our walk”.

We continue to walk through the monsoon forest, a mix of coniferous and deciduous woodland, most distinctive of which is the lontar palm: several of which have died off after flowering and leave behind a canopy of thin grey branches- as if the tree has been pulled up and the thrust into the ground upside down. Tamarind and jujube trees are alive with a rainbow of colourful birds: cockatoos, imperial pigeons, megapode birds and collared kingfishers. In between the lush foliage are the grey, rotting skeletons of prickly pear cactus; recently killed off by an infestation of cactus moth. The contrasting flora seems appropriate for an island with prehistoric inhabitants. 

Once we reach higher ground the forest thins out into savannah grassland, home to only the occasional palm and small shrubs. Lying under a nearby tree is the largest Komodo dragon we have seen: almost three meters long with a huge girth indicating it has recently eaten. “They can eat almost their whole weight in one meal. I don’t think he will eat for a while” says Silva, indicating two deer grazing close by.  When a komodo feeds it will ingest the entire animal; skin, bones, hooves and even antlers will be consumed so there will be little evidence left of it last meal.

Komodo dragons rely on surprise to bring down their pray; hiding in long grass or thick forest cover they try and bring a victim to the ground with a whip of its tail. Then using its claws the animal is usually eviscerated, with its entrails being consumed first.  With an animal as large as a water buffalo the komodo will rely on its deadly bite: its potent saliva attacking the immune system and destroying internal organs. This slow and painful death can take up to a week and dozens of dragons will feed on the corpse. Komodos will often fight over food but their thick skin acts as protection against an opponent’s claw and dragons are not affected by another’s bite.

Fossils resembling komodo dragons have been found that date back 30 million years and it is thought that they once roamed over much of Maritime Southeast Asia. While they are not descended from dinosaurs as is often assumed, research has suggested their ancestors date back anywhere from 50 - 200 million years.

We walk to the top of a nearly hill which is the remains an ancient volcano which created the island. From here you can see the home of an entire species: a few small islands ringed with mangroves, white sands and pristine coral reefs. These islands sit atop a join in the Sahul and Sunda plates - an active seismic area. While at present there are no active volcanoes in the area, with an entire species occupying such a small area, these prehistoric creatures could all too easily go the way of their Jurassic family. 

More Information

Getting There

By far the easiest way of visiting the island of Komodo and Rinca are by private tour- public ferries to the island are incredibly limited.

The most popular gateway to the islands are either through Labuan Bajo in the west of Flores or Bima in eastern Sumbawa.

The closest airport is on the island of Lombok, with flights from most major Indonesian cities. Prices are around $100 for Bali to Lombok one way.

It is possible to make the journey overland from Bali, or even as far as Jakarta. The journey will involve several changes from buses to ferries (and vice versa), but is very straightforward with through tickets available. Cost is typically about $20- $30 from Bali, but bargain hard.

Tours

Day, overnight or several day tours can easily be arranged with guesthouses or tourist agencies in Lubuanbajo and Bima (as well as further a field). Many tours will include snorkelling and Scuba Diving is a popular addition to excursions. Tours range from luxury sailing boats with all the amenities, to simple fishing boats, with none. Prices start at about $30-50 for a day trip and double for overnight. For scuba diving add at least an additional $50 for each dive.

Many people also choose to visit the islands on a weeklong cruise from popular tourist areas such as Bali. Boats are generally small but comfortable and will usually stop over at several places en route. Ultimately you will only spend a few hours on Komdod (or Rinca) but will see other islands and snorkel almost every day.  Prices start at around $200-300 for the week.

Accommodation

The towns of Lubanbajo and Bima are overloaded with accommodation options- from basic and budget to fairly luxurious (all of which are privately owned- you won’t find any Hilton Komodo or similar).

There are no hotels on the islands of Komodo or Rinca, but there is Ranger accommodation or rooms in the local village for stranded travellers.

Prices start from as little as one or two dollars a night, but don’t expect luxury.

Links

The Komodo National Park Official Website:

www.komodonationalpark.org


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