3 December 2012
Close encounters with the dragons of Komodo
Some people will tell you, sincerely, that the movie King Kong was inspired by an expedition to Komodo Island. Others will tell you, with as much conviction, that the island was the basis for Jurassic Park. Neither is necessarily wrong, neither is necessarily right. Regardless, stepping off the boat, walking down the small wooden pier and into the forest feels like a trip back in time – to a land where the lost animals of history rule supreme.
The Komodo dragon exists only in this one part of the world – on four small islands in the Komodo National Park, in the southern part of Indonesia. The animal’s isolation from the rest of the planet is what has ensured its survival for so long. It had no predators and was not discovered by the Western world until 1910. Quarantined and indomitable, evolution largely overlooked these dragons.
As I walk into the main camps of the two islands I visit – Rinca and Komodo – I can see some dragons laying on the ground. They seem docile and slow… but with sharp teeth and large claws, I keep my distance. A group of rangers with forked wooden sticks are there to protect us.
“We use the stick to push them away”, one tells me. “But when they are aggressive that’s not enough. Then we have to run.”
The Komodo dragons do strike out at people occasionally and there are a few attacks each year on locals who live on the islands. Normally, these are defensive but humans are a potential food source.
The most common foods of the Komodo dragon are deer, buffalo, goats, and birds. Sometimes they can attack their prey and then eat it whole, right there and then. Other times they will bite and then wait patiently. Their saliva contains bacteria that will eventually kill another animal so they will stalk it, sometimes for as long as three weeks, until it dies and can be devoured.
I see a demonstration of the dragon’s power on Komodo Island, when a couple of them suddenly run across the ground at a high speed. Jaws snap and blood-tinged saliva oozes out the side. After 20 million years, these animals know what they’re doing. They are lethal when they want to be.
As a visitor, there isn’t much danger, though. In fact, it’s less like Jurassic Park and more like a stroll in the park. Although there are about 4,600 dragons across all the islands, I saw less than a dozen. This is not a zoo and the animals are not always going to be in pre-designated viewing areas. They are wild and they come and go through the forests. They are also generally well-fed and will spend their time resting and conserving their energy.
The rangers will look after you during a visit. They’ll tell you stories of living and working with dragons and they’ll show you some interesting things – such as the nest of dragon eggs and the mother guarding it. You’ll have a chance to walk around the islands and see the animals in their natural habitat. A few days before my visit, some tourists saw a group of dragons attack and eat a water buffalo.
Personally, it is quite a special experience to come to Komodo and Rinca Islands in Indonesia. Knowing that this is the only place in the world I can see these animals in the wild; knowing there are only a few thousand of them; knowing this species has been around for 20 million years; and knowing that only the tiniest fraction of the world’s human population has ever seen them here. And I am now one of those people.