3 December 2012
Face to Face with the Komodo Dragon
Without a doubt, the Orangutan along with the Komodo dragon represents the wildlife highlights of Indonesia.
They are unique to this geography. If you want to see them in their native habitat, you have to get on a plane (or boat) and travel here. That’s part of what makes a trip to Indonesia so rewarding.
On paper, the Komodo dragon wowed me with its impressive traits. In real life, the Komodo captivated, entranced, and even frightened me.
Basic Facts about the Komodo
The Komodo dragon is the largest species of lizard on earth. It can grow up to 3 meters long and weigh 70 kilos). It has a ferocious bite: complete with serrated teeth and toxic saliva. Komodos have attacked and killed humans.
These giants are only found on four islands of Indonesia and are protected in Komodo National Park. Existing in a 1:3 female to male ratio has proven interesting for the males, who fight to the death over mating rights. July and August are mating season. In September they lay eggs. Females often eat their own babies after they hatch. Born scared, hatchlings run immediately up trees and stay there to live for about the first seven years of their lives. Another thing, the male Komodo has a penis that branches into two (known as a hemipenis).
How did the Komodos become so big?
It’s an evolutionary process called Island gigantism. The size of animals isolated on an island becomes dramatically bigger in comparison to their mainland relatives.
The Komodo is an example of a giant insular carnivore. These islands were too small to support much mammalian competition, and the Komodo just reigned as top predator for ages, snatching birds and little monkeys as it pleased. With the arrival of humans and associated predators, many giant island endemics have become extinct. Let’s hope we can protect the Komodo.
Day One visiting the Komodos of Rinca Island
The day's visit took us to the island of Rinca, little more than an hour's speed boat ride from the port at Labuan Bajo. Rinca is part of Komodo National Park where about 2200 Komodos live. Besides the lizards, the park has water buffalo, macaques, and spitting cobras.
By the end of the day I was a little disappointed. We only saw three Komodos and due to the heat of the afternoon, they were just lying about under the houses of the national park staff.
While visiting Rinca, the park staff guided us along the short loop trail. We learned that Komodo dragons sometimes team up together and hunt water buffalo. They gorge themselves, eating the bones and all and can follow these feasts with two months of lounging about. You can see piles of their white feces, colored so from the digestion of bones. Sometimes they'll settle for a small goat or a macaque for a snack.
Along the hike we saw a nest of a female Komodo. They use the abandoned nesting mounds of the Orange-footed Scrubfowl. They have some peculiar seasonal arrangement in which the birds move out just before the huge lizards move in.
Day two on Komodo Island
I would remain optimistic for the following day. We hopped into a speedboat and cruised over, this time to Komodo Island. Here there are about the same number of Komodos as on Rinca. The species total numbers in all are about 4,600, the park’s director, Susedyo Iriyno informed us, when we chatted later that evening back in town.
We asked him about the future of the park and the fate of the Komodo. He seemed optimistic. We wondered about the impacts of tourism.
“Right now we only see about 300 visitors per day, 100,000 per year. Ninety-five percent of those guests are foreign.”
There are only two sites open for viewing the Komodo Dragons, but a third will open if tourism continues to grow.
“But won’t that impact the habitat of the Komodos?” we wondered.
“There are three conservation zones, so the majority are well-protected and do not have daily contact with tourists.” He continued. The Komodo is currently listed as a “vulnerable” species, just above endangered status. This means if the animals and their habitat are not cared for, they are at risk for being downgraded to “endangered”.
At Komodo Island we docked and stepped ashore. I was disappointed to learn we wouldn’t be trekking today (a downside of group travel). Hard to believe that we made such a great effort to reach this remote-island national park and would just be hanging around the park buildings and photographing the dragons there.
The big park map displayed a number of short hikes through the areas where it may be possible to see one of the numerous Komodos—only with a ranger of course. These lizards are dangerous, and a bite from their bacterial saliva could be fatal. If one were able to hike, the rangers both lead and follow the visitors with a split-end shaft, which keeps the lizards from attacking.
Instead of hiking, we hung around the main area, close to shore, photographing three of the beasts. Unfortunately, it felt like a zoo until we caught sight of one down on the beach. We were lucky because they don’t normally venture there. But we took advantage of the incredible photo opportunity.
Visiting the Komodo dragons does take a lot of effort, but combining the chance to see such an exotic species in its native habitat along with the possibilities of world-class diving and snorkeling that surround Flores, I’d recommend getting here sooner rather than later.
How can I visit the Komodo Dragons?
First you’ll have to head to Indonesia’s Flores Island. Situated three big islands east of Bali, flights take about an hour from Denpasar’s airport. The town of Labuan Bajo, on Flores, has developed as a base for expeditions setting out to visit Komodo National Park as well for diving and snorkeling. Here, you’ll have to hire a boat or join a group traveling out to the islands to see the Komodo dragons.