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.
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.