MYTHS AND THE MON­I­TOR

The Ko­modo dragon has fired imag­i­na­tions for mil­len­nia and even today con­tin­ues to be mis­un­der­stood while be­ing very much the apex preda­tor in the group of is­lands it calls home.

Action Asia - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Mark Eveleigh

The Ko­modo dragon re­mains a mis­un­der­tood must-see.

“A BIG ORA KILLED A GOAT RIGHT HERE IN THE VIL­LAGE JUST yes­ter­day,” said a Ko­modo el­der, us­ing the is­lan­ders’ tra­di­tional word for the is­land’s fa­mous dragons. “In 2007, a 10-year-old boy was killed while play­ing soc­cer in the vil­lage so we’re very care­ful that the chil­dren don’t stray far.” Just 10 min­utes be­fore I had ar­rived a dragon had been seen prowl­ing around the old Mus­lim grave­yard at the edge of the vil­lage and the warn­ing call – “Ora! Ora!” – had sent the chil­dren scur­ry­ing home. The old man, who in­tro­duced him­self as Pak Man, was sit­ting on the steps of his stilted hut as he re­counted the un­usual risks in­her­ent to daily life in Ko­modo vil­lage. Most of the huts here are raised on stilts, and for good rea­son: in 2014 a dragon at­tacked and se­ri­ously in­jured a ranger in­side the of­fice at the Na­tional Park HQ on neigh­bour­ing Rinca Is­land. In re­cent years the Ko­modo archipelago has be­come one of In­done­sia’s most pop­u­lar tourist draw­cards yet few of the trekkers, sailors and divers who travel to Ko­modo Na­tional Park ever take time to ex­plore the lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties who have made a home in the lair of the dragon. Lo­cal folk­lore has it that the is­lan­ders were orig­i­nally trans­ported here as rebels, sent into ex­ile by a king of Sum­bawa. It seems un­likely that the is­lan­ders of Ko­modo and Rinca would share a com­mon ori­gin if even their names for the dragons (surely a com­mon topic of con­ver­sa­tion) dif­fer: the rep­tiles are known as ora on Ko­modo, but as mbau on Rinca. The story goes that the king nat­u­rally as­sumed that the dragons would kill the ex­iles but they found a way to sur­vive (mostly) even while the mighty dragons’ hunt­ing skills al­lowed them to bring down wild horses and the 600-kilo­gram wa­ter buf­falo that graze on the is­land. It had been five days since I had first climbed onto the pol­ished teak deck of my pala­tial float­ing home, the Du­nia Baru, in Bali. Lom­bok slipped past un­no­ticed in the dark­ness as we sipped cock­tails on the stern that first evening. Dur­ing the next few days, we stopped sev­eral times to ex­plore re­mote com­mu­ni­ties among the chain of is­lands along the north coast of Sum­bawa. Dol­phins leaped in our bow wave, whales breached on the hori­zon and we dined one evening un­der a crim­son sky that was pep­pered with the dev­il­ish sil­hou­ettes of sev­eral thou­sand fly­ing foxes, flap­ping about on me­tre-wide wing­spans. “For any­one with an in­ter­est in wildlife and a love of ad­ven­ture in gen­eral this area’s hard to beat,” the ship’s Cruise Di­rec­tor, Se­bastien Pierre, said as we passed Sangeang Api vol­cano the next af­ter­noon. A wisp of smoke feath­ered the cone of the vol­cano and the lower flank was shrouded with

gasps of steam as molten lava slumped into the sea. We skipped on un­der a full head of sail as the fa­bled Ko­modo Archipelago loomed on the hori­zon. For many of the thou­sands of vis­i­tors drawn each year to Ko­modo, its at­trac­tion is mul­ti­plied by vis­it­ing it on board a grace­ful phin­isi such as the Du­nia Baru. A style of craft built in In­done­sia for cen­turies, the phin­isi of­fers an ‘age-of-ex­plo­ration’ feel as well as a chance to dive the Coral Tri­an­gle, the recog­nised global cen­tre of marine bio­di­ver­sity. The Caribbean is con­sid­ered one of our planet’s great­est div­ing ar­eas, yet it boasts just 50 species of coral: the Coral Tri­an­gle, com­prised largely of In­done­sian waters, boasts 750 species (of the es­ti­mated world to­tal of 850). Pri­mar­ily though, vis­i­tors are lured by a once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity to see Varanus ko­mo­d­oen­sis, the world’s big­gest lizard, in its nat­u­ral habi­tat. This was my fifth trip to the is­lands of Ko­modo Na­tional Park but still I strained my eyes for the first glimpse of those dra­matic, sa­van­nah-cov­ered hills, dap­pled with the tou­sled heads of lon­tar palms. Ar­riv­ing in this strange land al­ways brings a tin­gle of ex­cite­ment. It’s not just the dragons that mark it out as some­where spe­cial: the en­tire en­vi­ron­ment of Ko­modo, Padar and Rinca is­lands, as well as the 26 smaller is­lands en­com­passed by the park, is dis­tinct from those of the larger neigh­bour­ing is­lands of Sum­bawa and Flores. Ly­ing in the rain-shadow of these two huge is­lands, Ko­modo’s dry hills are dis­tinct from the jun­gle-clad vol­canic peaks of Sum­bawa and a world away from the riot of veg­e­ta­tion of the Flores high­lands. At first glance the sparse land­scape is more rem­i­nis­cent of Africa – per­haps fit­ting as a land where the res­i­dent preda­tors have such a hold on our imag­i­na­tion. Old sail­ing charts were some­times marked with the fore­bod­ing words: ‘Here be Dragons’ and it is said that the flick­er­ing tongues of the Ko­modo dragons gave rise to the first Chi­nese myths about fire-breath­ing dragons. Even today, mod­ern myths abound. In 1969 the Amer­i­can nat­u­ral­ist Wal­ter Auf­fen­berg watched buf­fa­los dy­ing after be­ing bit­ten by dragons and, without any real ev­i­dence, sug­gested that they had died be­cause of deadly bacteria in the dragon’s bite. “Ex­tra­or­di­nary claims re­quire ex­tra­or­di­nary ev­i­dence,” says Dr Bryan G. Fry, a sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Queens­land and a world author­ity on venom. “Bacteria-as-a-weapon would have been an un­prece­dented form of pre­da­tion strat­egy. Yet, it was in­stantly ac­cepted sim­ply be­cause it was en­chant­ing . . . just like most fairy tales.” Most peo­ple con­tinue to be­lieve that this is how the dragon kills its prey and many guides in the is­lands still trot out this the­ory de­spite re­cent sci­en­tific ev­i­dence re­fut­ing it. The fact that it took half a cen­tury to look into Auf­fen­berg’s hy­poth­e­sis is in part a tes­ti­mony to the splen­did iso­la­tion of this is­land hide­away. More im­por­tantly, the bacteria hy­poth­e­sis (no more than a wild guess) was so widely ac­cepted that for years many zoos re­fused per­mis­sion to un­der­take stud­ies be­cause they be­lieved it was al­ready proven. Ko­modo dragons are vo­ra­cious can­ni­bals so dragon car­casses are rarely found even on the is­lands and it wasn’t un­til 2009 that Dr Fry dis­sected two dragon heads and shocked the sci­en­tific world by dis­cov­er­ing venom glands in the lower jaws. Fur­ther­more, he iso­lated five in­di­vid­ual tox­ins in dragon saliva – ca­pa­ble of pro­mot­ing anti-co­ag­u­la­tion, painful cramp­ing, hem­or­rhag­ing, shock and un­con­scious­ness. While show­ing con­clu­sively that the killer-bacteria story was no more real than the fire-breath­ing one, Fry’s ev­i­dence proved that the Ko­modo dragon is of­fi­cially the world’s big­gest ven­omous rep­tile. The big­gest liv­ing dragon ever mea­sured (an obese ex­am­ple) was more than three me­tres long and weighed 166kg. The spec­tac­u­lar size of the world’s largest lizard is of­ten de­scribed as an evo­lu­tion­ary adap­ta­tion – not to the re­cently in­tro­duced buf­falo which they now hunt – but to the ex­tinct pygmy ele­phants that once formed a part of their diet on these is­lands.

How­ever, fossils of pre­his­toric Ko­mo­dos in Aus­tralia sug­gest that the size of these mon­sters prob­a­bly re­mained more-or-less sta­ble dur­ing the pe­riod that they co-ex­isted with the is­land ele­phants. Most vis­i­tors trek on Ko­modo it­self, but I’d opted for lesser-known Rinca, two-thirds the size of Ko­modo, with a big­ger pop­u­la­tion of dragons. As Sir David At­ten­bor­ough says of the re­gion on BBC’S Planet Earth: “We don’t need tales of Juras­sic Park and ve­loci­rap­tors to see a rep­tile-dom­i­nated world. It’s all still here.” Early one morn­ing as I set off into a densely forested val­ley, I thought of all the treks I’d ever done in Africa where the ac­cepted ad­vice had al­ways been never to go any­where without an armed guard in case of a run-in with a hun­gry preda­tor. Here I had only Yadi, the In­done­sian na­tional park ranger who was guid­ing me, armed with a forked stick. I couldn’t help notic­ing, how­ever, that Yadi was also wear­ing a very sporty pair of Nike run­ning shoes: “I’ve been chased a few times,” he ad­mit­ted, “but I have faith in Al­lah and be­lieve that my god will pro­tect me.” I won­dered silently if Yadi’s god might spare a thought for me too. As we walked through a shad­owy man­grove swamp, my head was un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally oc­cu­pied with maths. I found it some­what re­as­sur­ing that of the 31 peo­ple who had been at­tacked by dragons since records were started (in 1974) only five at­tacks had been fa­tal. Two-thirds of the at­tacks, how­ever, had taken place on Rinca. I knew that while dragons roam far and wide, they tend to con­cen­trate on habi­tat that is favourable to their am­bush tech­nique. More sim­ple maths told me there­fore that the for­est Yadi and I were trekking through was likely be­ing stalked by at least 10 dragons for ev­ery square kilo­me­tre. Fur­ther­more, un­like most big cats, dragons have no rea­son to fear hu­mans. They are the undis­puted lords of this is­land do­main and as vis­i­tors in­creas­ingly roam across the is­lands, there are fears that at­tacks are likely to be­come more com­mon. In 2017 a Sin­ga­porean tourist was se­ri­ously bit­ten, and dur­ing a par­tic­u­larly bad spate in 2013, five lo­cals were at­tacked on Rinca. It is still com­monly re­ported that lit­tle Padar Is­land (just five kilo­me­tres long and ly­ing be­tween Rinca and Ko­modo) is de­void of dragons yet I’d seen their un­mis­tak­able tracks on the beaches there as far back as 2015. Later a ranger told me that in 2014 – without think­ing to in­form the boat char­ters who ha­bit­u­ally use Padar’s beaches as a ‘dragon-free’ pic­nic spot – the na­tional park ser­vices had re-lo­cated three ag­gres­sive an­i­mals which had been in­volved in at­tacks on Rinca. I’d of­ten wit­nessed the as­ton­ish­ment of vis­i­tors who had gath­ered to watch what ad­mit­tedly do look to be cor­pu­lent, lazy lizards sun­bathing around the ranger sta­tions, only to see an in­cred­i­ble turn of speed and ag­gres­sion as a full-sized ko­modo pur­sued hap­less prey, even into trees. Catch­ing sight of a full-sized ko­modo lum­ber­ing out of the shad­ows of the man­groves, I re­called the sup­posed re­as­sur­ing words of Dr Tim Jes­sop, an ecol­o­gist at Aus­tralia’s Deakin Univer­sity and sci­en­tific ad­vi­sor to Ko­modo Sur­vival Pro­gram. “The dragons prob­a­bly aren’t ac­tively hunt­ing hu­mans,” he said, “but if a per­son gets in the way of a hun­gry dragon…well, what’s not to like from the dragon’s culi­nary point of view?”

A PLAICE (?) IN THE SUN The day’s catch sits dry­ing. Fish­ing is al­lowed at sub­sis­tance level only within the pro­tected waters of the na­tional park.

SIZ­ING UP THE THREAT Ex­perts be­lieve the dragons evolved to such size to hunt now-ex­tinct pygmy ele­phants. Today, chil­dren play in front of Ko­modo vil­lage (above), their par­ents aware that po­ten­tial killers lurk close by.

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