Turns out dragons are not a myth after all. The Komodo dragon, varanus komodoensis, is the largest living species of lizard in the world. Visiting the island of Komodo and laying eyes on wild Komodo dragons had been sky high on my bucket list for a long time, and making it happen was a special thing.
Also known as the Komodo monitor, the Komodo dragon is an impressive prehistoric creature that looks like it has just walked off the set of Jurassic Park. In fact, the oldest fossils found in Eastern Australia date to approximately four million years ago. Found on isolated islands around Indonesia with Komodo and Rinca being the largest, these beasts usually grow up to 2.3 metres in length and weigh up to 90kg, with the largest ever recorded wild specimen weighing 166kg.
The national park
Komodo National Park was established in 1980, and in 1986 was declared a World Heritage Site and a Man and Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. It includes three major islands: Komodo, Rinca and Padar, as well as hundreds of smaller islands. Although the main reason for the existence of the national park is to protect the Komodo dragon which is now classified as vulnerable on the endangered species list, it is also home to one of the most impressive and diverse marine life in the world.
The national park lies right in the middle of the Coral Triangle, a huge 6 million km2 area that contains 6 out of 7 species of marine turtles, over 6000 species of fish and 76 percent of the world’s coral reefs. The park itself is home to rare mammals like the dugong, more than 1000 species of fish and 260 species of coral. It thanks it’s diversity to the strong currents that bring up nutrients from the Indian ocean.
Getting to Komodo overland is not for the fainthearted. Starting from Bali, it took two and an half days of dangerous ferry crossings and hellish bus rides, complete with freezing air conditioning (locals got out their woolly hats and scarves) and crates of smelly durian fruit crawling with ants. The last ferry arrives at Flores, a larger island from where travellers can make their way to the Komodo national park.
Full disclosure: I chose to fly back to Java as the prospect of the same journey in reverse was too much and it is a safer option as well. It was a beautiful experience to watch hundreds of tiny islands floating past below. If you like an adventure and some good stories to tell or want to save money go for the overland option, and be prepared for a bumpy ride.
If you prefer to fly there are options from Java as well as Bali.
After arriving at Flores, myself and three other travellers found two fishermen with a small boat to take us to the islands. This was a spontaneous decision, it felt good to support the local fishermen and we all got on well. At this time in 2010 there were not many tour companies to speak of in the area.
Passing hundreds of tiny islands surrounded by the most incredible coral reefs I had ever seen and the odd lone fisherman, we arrived at Komodo island after about five hours. For three days we slept on the boat, visiting Komodo and Rinca and snorkelling around.
I had never seen so much marine life in one place. Turtles, huge schools of fish, a nurse shark and a very venomous looking jellyfish crossed our paths, and at one point I nearly had an heart attack when something huge jumped out of the water just five metres away from where I was swimming. Someone later told me it was a manta ray. If you are a keen diver then make sure Indonesia is on your bucket list! Do make sure you are experienced and prepared enough as the currents are very strong.
Laying eyes on a Komodo dragon for the first time was a heart stopping experience. Having been disappointed in the past with wildlife spotting, I was preparing myself for disappointment. It was okay if we did not see any dragons, we had made it to the island and that was an amazing experience in itself.
Literally after five minutes of walking we ran into the largest dragon we met on the trip. He had spotted us too and froze, standing on a bridge that was just large enough for him to cross. After a moment, he started walking down the path towards us. Our guide who was holding a large stick in the shape of a V at the end explained that the dragon was just smelling food coming from the village and was on his way there to see if there was anything to steal.
He told us to step aside into the bush, and the dragon calmly walked past us. He explained that if a dragon does attack, he uses the V end to hold down their neck. He may have been a small man but he knew his dragons, and was very respectful of them.
The unique Komodo dragon
Komodo dragons can be dangerous to humans, which is why all of the houses on the inhabited islands are built on stilts to protect residents and their children. There have been some incidents when people have been attacked, and a few times this has been fatal. They can look lazy and slow and are usually very calm outside of the mating season, which can make people underestimate them. Komodo dragons can smell blood and decay from 6 miles away and run at a speed of 13 miles per hour.
They are opportunistic feeders, and are as happy to grab a chicken as they are waiting for days until a prey gets too close. If a prey that is too large to take down like a water buffalo gets close enough they will deliver a bite that scientists have debated over for years; the question wether the Komodo dragon is venomous or not.
For years scientists thought that the dragon’s bite was fatal due to a cocktail of toxic bacteria in their mouths, but in 2009 it was discovered that they actually produce venom from two glands in their lower jaws. The dragon will then trail the prey until it collapses, usually within 24 hours.
Komodo dragons are capable of parthenogenesis, or asexual reproduction. This means that a female can lay viable eggs without the help of a male. This has been discovered because of virgin females in zoos laying viable eggs. Parthenogenesis is a rare phenomenon that only 0.1 percent of all vertebrates are capable of.
The area in Komodo National Park is fragile.The local human population of Komodo is increasing, putting pressure on local resources. The Timor deer population, the Komodo dragon’s preferred source of prey, is under threat as a lot of poaching is taking place. The dragons are growing to smaller sizes today because of the dwindling of resources.
The beautiful and unique marine life is also under threat because of destructive fishing techniques, such as dynamite fishing which destroys whole habitats and kills too many fish and other marine life. Pollution is also a problem, from raw sewage to chemicals being carelessly dumped into the water.
In recent years due to new airport developments there has been an increase of tourism to Komodo National Park, also increasing the migration of Indonesian residents looking for an opportunity. The park used to accommodate 150,000 tourists a year, now this number can go up to 1.5 million. This is both good and bad, as it brings funding to the national park but it also puts further strain on the environment.
If you choose to visit please make sure to keep waste to a minimum, and if going on a tour choose a company that has a great reputation when it comes to responsibility. If you see a dragon make sure to keep your distance and not get too close, and encourage the tourists around you to do the same. Aside from being dangerous they are also vulnerable as a species and we have to respect and protect them.
Thanks for reading and if you have anything to add or just want to send some love, please leave a comment.
Let’s nurture the nature, so that we can have a better future