Dragon IS­LANDS

Ko­modo dragons in­spired le­gends of fire-breath­ing mon­sters and, as Mark Eveleigh dis­cov­ered, the truth is al­most as strange as the fic­tion.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Agenda Analysis - MARK EVELEIGH is a writer and pho­tog­ra­pher who has vis­ited the Ko­modo ar­chi­pel­ago seven times; www.markeveleigh.com

Even on a bright, sunny day there’s some­thing omi­nous about the Ko­modo ar­chi­pel­ago. It’s as if the is­lands are try­ing to live up to the le­gend of their dragons. Sail­ing east from Bali across the fa­mous Wal­lace Line, you pass the jun­gle­clad peaks of Sum­bawa and the soar­ing cone of Sangeang vol­cano be­fore en­ter­ing a tan­gle of is­lands that seems to be cut off from the world by the treach­er­ous cur­rents no­to­ri­ous among sailors.

Then the sun-burned, sa­van­nah hills of Ko­modo is­land rise on the hori­zon, ap­pear­ing more African than lush In­done­sian. They are stub­bled with pre­his­toric-look­ing lon­tar palms. Lo­cals on neigh­bour­ing Flores is­land tap th­ese palms to make a sort of arak with the un­likely name of so­phie. On Ko­modo, how­ever, peo­ple don’t ven­ture into the hills un­less strictly nec­es­sary.

“A big ora killed a goat here yes­ter­day,” an old man tells me as we walk along the rick­ety tim­ber jetty into Ko­modo vil­lage. Ora is the lo­cal name for the Ko­modo dragon, Varanus ko­mo­d­oen­sis, and seems al­most to have been de­signed to be barked as an alarm call. The vil­lage el­der, who in­tro­duces him­self as Pak Man, de­scribes how ora fre­quently enter the set­tle­ment through its old ceme­tery, tempted by the goats graz­ing among the tombs.

“In 2007, a 10-year-old boy was dis­em­bow­elled by a dragon hid­ing near where he was play­ing foot­ball,” Pak Man tells me. “Since then there have been more than a dozen at­tacks, and it seems that the dragons are be­com­ing more ag­gres­sive.”

Through a gap in the ram­shackle stilted build­ings, I can see the boat that brought me here – the ap­pro­pri­ately named Du­nia Baru (‘New World’) – swing­ing at an­chor. I feel vaguely guilty that I can re­treat into lux­ury on­board while the peo­ple of Ko­modo face an­other night in the do­main of the world’s largest ven­omous rep­tile. “We don’t need tales of Juras­sic Park and ve­loci­rap­tors to see a rep­tile-dom­i­nated world,” Sir David At­ten­bor­ough said of the is­lands he first vis­ited in 1956. “It’s all here.”

GET­TING THE FACTS STRAIGHT

In the years af­ter At­ten­bor­ough’s visit there was lit­tle se­ri­ous sci­en­tific re­search into what has be­come In­done­sia’s most cel­e­brated su­per-preda­tor. In 1969, Amer­i­can ecol­o­gist Wal­ter Auf­fen­berg spent a year in th­ese is­lands, and af­ter ob­serv­ing dragons ad­min­is­ter­ing fa­tal bites to buf­falo, he sug­gested – with­out any data to sub­stan­ti­ate his claim – that the dragons car­ried deadly bacteria in their mouths. The story gained trac­tion un­til the bacteria the­ory was as­sumed to be fact, much as fire-breath­ing mon­sters had been ac­cepted by ear­lier gen­er­a­tions.

“Ex­tra­or­di­nary claims re­quire ex­tra­or­di­nary ev­i­dence,” says Bryan Fry, a sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Queens­land, “and 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.”

It’s a mark of the Ko­modo ar­chi­pel­ago’s re­mote­ness – and the lo­gis­ti­cal com­plex­i­ties of re­search in In­done­sia – that it was sev­eral decades be­fore bi­ol­o­gists es­tab­lished that Varanus ko­mo­d­oen­sis has venom ducts in its jaws. Dr Fry, a world au­thor­ity on venom, iso­lated five in­di­vid­ual

tox­ins in dragon venom in 2009. They pro­voke painful cramp­ing, anti-co­ag­u­la­tion, dra­matic drop in body heat, haem­or­rhage, height­ened sen­si­tiv­ity to pain, shock and un­con­scious­ness. On an is­land dom­i­nated by 85kg-lizards that can smell blood more than 4km away, any of th­ese symp­toms might lead to death.

Fry be­lieves that it is a com­bined “grip, rip and drip” tech­nique that even­tu­ally spells the demise of even large prey. “The role of the venom is to ex­ag­ger­ate blood loss and the shock-in­duc­ing me­chan­i­cal dam­age caused by the bite,” he says. Rather than clamp­ing with pow­er­ful jaws, a dragon shreds with ser­rated teeth and pulls with pow­er­ful neck mus­cles to open gap­ing wounds to the ef­fects of venom.

As ef­fec­tive as this “grip, rip and drip” tech­nique is, the jury is still out on ex­actly how dragons kill large prey such as the wa­ter buf­falo and wild horses they hunt on Rinca is­land. The for­mer weigh up to 600kg. “Although Ko­modo venom has been shown to have strong phys­i­o­log­i­cal ef­fects on lab ro­dents, we still don’t know how ef­fec­tive th­ese tox­ins are in killing the much larger and, im­por­tantly, co-evolved prey that dragons eat in the wild,” says Tim Jes­sop, an ecol­o­gist at Aus­tralia’s Deakin Univer­sity.

SHAR­ING SPACE

With more than 15 years’ re­search ex­pe­ri­ence in the ar­chi­pel­ago, Jes­sop acts as a sci­en­tific ad­vi­sor to the Ko­modo Sur­vival Pro­gram (KSP) and is one of the world’s fore­most dragon ex­perts. “Un­like large mam­malian preda­tors, dragons ex­ist at rel­a­tively high den­si­ties and have over­lap­ping home ranges,” he ex­plains. “This means that there may be a strong em­pha­sis on rapidly dis­patch­ing and killing large prey be­fore com­peti­tors ar­rive. Venom would def­i­nitely be a ben­e­fit in this.”

Jes­sop’s pri­mary study was a four-year stint of trap­ping and tag­ging on the main Ko­modo Na­tional Park is­lands of Ko­modo, Rinca, Nusa Kode and Gili Motang. As I set off into one of Rinca’s densely forested val­leys with a ranger called Yadi, my mind was un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally oc­cu­pied with math­e­mat­i­cal prob­lems. Jes­sop’s team es­ti­mated the Park’s dragon pop­u­la­tion to be around 2,500. But lit­tle Rinca, less than two-thirds the size of Ko­modo, is ac­tu­ally home to more dragons than her neigh­bour. More­over, since dragons tend only to oc­cur in favourable habi­tat, it fol­lowed that this for­est might have 10 or 11 dragons per square kilo­me­tre.

“When we walk here, we al­ways keep an alert eye open,” says Yadi. “You never see the dragon that gets you, though.” It doesn’t es­cape my no­tice that Yadi’s only form of de­fence is a cleft stick. An­other thing I’ve spot­ted is that he’s wear­ing a very sporty pair of run­ning shoes.

The dragons that lie around the Na­tional Park HQ on Rinca are of­ten dan­ger­ously un­der­es­ti­mated by vis­i­tors as “fat, lazy lizards”, but I feel tense. I’ve never felt this way in big-cat ter­ri­tory. Lions, tigers, leop­ards and jaguars tend to have a healthy fear of hu­mans, whereas I’ve heard that a dragon may am­bush when­ever an op­por­tu­nity arises. Even a smaller dragon might at­tempt to in­flict a nasty bite on a pass­ing hu­man that is likely to be fa­tal.

As Yadi and I stood qui­etly watch­ing a huge dragon

IT IS A COM­BINED “GRIP, RIP AND DRIP” TECH­NIQUE THAT EVEN­TU­ALLY SPELLS DOOM TO EVEN THE LARGEST OF PREY.

lum­ber­ing across the track, some re­as­sur­ing words from Jes­sop sprang to mind: “Dragons are cold-blooded so, un­like mam­mals, the fre­quency with which they need to kill is low,” he said. “Hence the num­ber of at­tacks is likely to be lower… Dragons prob­a­bly aren’t ac­tively hunt­ing hu­mans, but if a per­son gets in the way of a hun­gry one… well, what’s not to like from a dragon’s culinary point of view?”

SPILLED BLOOD

When I had ear­lier sailed to Rinca in 2013, there had been five at­tacks on the is­land in the pre­vi­ous five months. I spoke to the fam­ily of an old woman called Ibu Haissa, who had been bit­ten on the hand and was in hos­pi­tal re­plac­ing the blood that was still splashed un­der her hut. In an­other in­ci­dent the pre­vi­ous month, two rangers were bit­ten dur­ing what es­ca­lated into a feed­ing frenzy at the park head­quar­ters on the is­land.

In May 2017, 50-year-old Loh Lee Aik from Sin­ga­pore was badly bit­ten on the leg, ap­par­ently af­ter ig­nor­ing warn­ings not to get too close when tak­ing pho­to­graphs. It was the first at­tack on a tourist since 1974, when a trav­eller was killed. “There have been 31 at­tacks by dragons in Ko­modo Na­tional Park since records be­gan in 1974,” says Ach­mad Ariefiandy, KSP re­search di­rec­tor, “but only five fa­tal­i­ties. Most at­tacks hap­pen near vil­lages or tourist sites be­cause the dragons aren’t afraid of hu­mans.” It’s al­most cer­tainly due to this grow­ing ha­bit­u­a­tion that at­tacks are in­creas­ingly com­mon; KSP fig­ures show that half of the recorded at­tacks (re­sult­ing in two deaths) have taken place in the last decade.

Af­ter the spate of at­tacks in 2013, the park ser­vices and KSP came up with a plan. In 2014, three ag­gres­sive dragons were translo­cated from Rinca to tiny, 5km-long Padar is­land. When Auf­fen­berg vis­ited Padar al­most half a cen­tury ago,

he es­ti­mated a pop­u­la­tion of around 60 dragons, but by the 1980s they were con­sid­ered ex­tinct there – prob­a­bly due to poach­ing of Ti­mor deer, their pre­ferred prey on the is­land. Un­for­tu­nately, no­body thought to in­form tour op­er­a­tors and boat-char­ter com­pa­nies that the one place where they con­sid­ered that their clients could wan­der had be­come a sort of pe­nal colony for the delin­quents of the dragon world.

Vis­it­ing Padar in 2015, I landed on a per­fect arc of white sand that, at first glance, was to­tally un­marred by foot­prints. Then I no­ticed a rib­bon of churned sand, run­ning like a sin­gle bull­dozer-track across the edge of the beach. Jagged claw marks were etched at in­ter­vals along­side the sway­ing zigzag of the tail of what must have been at least a twome­tre dragon. I was as­tounded to see ev­i­dence of its pas­sage across a beach that cruise guests of­ten used as a pic­nic site and sun­bathing spot.

“I’m not sure how many dragons are on Padar at the mo­ment,” says Ariefiandy, who over­sees day-to-day con­ser­va­tion and mon­i­tor­ing ac­tiv­i­ties for KSP. “We got Ko­modo images on two cam­era-traps there, so there are still some around.” Re­turn­ing to Padar in April this year, we an­chored Du­nia Baru in a bay near the is­land’s south­ern tip, and again no­ticed un­mis­tak­able dragon tracks on the beach.

SIN­GLE PAR­ENTS

Ko­modo dragons have a habit of crop­ping up when you least ex­pect them. KSP re­cently dis­cov­ered a hith­erto un­known dragon pop­u­la­tion on a tiny re­mote is­land off the north coast of Flores called Lon­gos. No­body is sure how or when dragons ar­rived there, but re­searchers are com­ing to un­der­stand that th­ese unique rep­tiles are ca­pa­ble of in­cred­i­ble feats of sur­vival. There have been two doc­u­mented cases of ‘vir­gin birth’ among dragons when fe­males (one in Ch­ester Zoo and one in Lon­don Zoo) hatched healthy young even though they had never even seen a male.

“We don’t yet know the role that partheno­gen­e­sis plays in wild dragon pop­u­la­tions,” Jes­sop ad­mits. “But the­o­ret­i­cally it could pro­vide a means by which fe­male dragons could es­tab­lish pop­u­la­tions on un­oc­cu­pied is­lands. The like­li­hood of long-term oc­cu­pa­tion would de­pend on the clonal pop­u­la­tion be­ing ge­net­i­cally ro­bust enough to sur­vive.” It seems that the mys­tery of the Ko­modo dragons is far from played out. Some­times the truth is even stranger than a fairy tale.

Pho­tos by Mark Eveleigh

The size of ko­modo dragons is of­ten said to be an evo­lu­tion­ary adap­ta­tion to en­able them to prey on pygmy ele­phants that are now ex­tinct. How­ever, ex­perts be­lieve it prob­a­bly pre-dated the dragons’ ar­rival in the is­lands.

De­spite be­ing world fa­mous for its dragons, the Ko­modo ar­chi­pel­ago boasts dozens of out­ly­ing par­adise islets that rarely see a hu­man's foot­print.

Clock­wise from top left: tourists who value their lives must not get too close to dragons. The apex preda­tors can at­tack at light­ning speed; dragons have a well de­vel­oped sense of smell and are lured to vil­lages by the scent of dry­ing fish; the lizards are strong swim­mers and will enter the wa­ter to hunt or scav­enge.

Un­til they are about two years old dragons spend most of their time in trees. Full grown dragons are con­sid­ered too heavy to climb but (as you can see here) dur­ing the ex­cite­ment of a hunt they are ca­pa­ble of chas­ing mon­keys into the trees.

Dragons are reg­u­lar vis­i­tors to the ranger sta­tion at Loh Buaya, Rinca, where they are at­tracted by de­li­cious smells from the rangers’ da­pur (kitchen).

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