Asia Travel Writing

Entering the dragon’s lair: Komodo Island’s fight for sustainability

A large, scaled head emerged from the depths underneath the conservation hut. Its tongue flicking out and tasting the moisture in the humid, sweaty air. As he pulled himself out into the open, his large, reptilian body swayed with the effort of moving through the heat of the midday sun.

Suddenly, motion to the right had everyone jumping back in fright. Another, considerably larger beast had entered the arena, lunging out with a powerful force of his hind legs, he launched himself onto the intruder. The weight of the larger male pushing down, flattening the first into the dust and asserting his dominance over his foe.

Sensing his defeat, the submissive dragon crept back to his hole to settle into motionless once again.

These little power struggles take place daily on Komodo Island. Yet little do these dragons know, there is an even bigger power struggle happening on their behalf.

The growth of tourism on Komodo Island

Komodo Island is at a crossroads. With a tourism boom happening in nearby Labuan Bajo, including a recent, major upgrade to the regional airport and the construction of new, luxury hotels, visitor capacity has shot from 150,000 to over 1.5 million for the UNESCO-protected Komodo Island National Park in East Nusa Tengarra.

Due to this increased accessibility to the region, more travellers are flooding to this island chain, drawn by the thrill of encountering the fearsome living dragons. Numbers were up 48 per cent from 2017 to 2018. And while only 10 per cent of the park is open for tourists, if visitor numbers continue to climb, more infrastructure would be needed to accommodate them, creating a vicious circle which would impact the dragon’s already limited habitat.

To combat this, the government is channelling a lot of money and resources into preserving the reptiles as an aspect of national identity. As such, there are rumours floating around that they’re planning a year-long shut down of Komodo Island in order to combat international smuggling, replant native vegetation and allow for deer populations to replenish. All in order for this talisman of Indonesian culture to recover from the recent waves of over-tourism.

So what’s next for the komodo dragon?

UNESCO figures state there are around 5,700 komodo dragons currently living throughout the park and out of the 29 islands, there are only five which house the large monitor lizards. Komodo and its neighbour Rinca contain the majority of the population, but Padar and Gili Montang have relatively small numbers and recently, dragons were discovered in the Mbeliling Forests on Flores as well.

The reptile is on both the protected and endangered species list. Although flourishing on Komodo and Rinca, dragon numbers are falling on the smaller islands and Flores.

Komodo dragons are extremely vulnerable and could very well become extinct because of human activity on the islands, mainly due to the over-hunting dragons’ food sources.

Conservationists are worried that without protective measures to replenish their prey, the dragons could turn to cannibalism and their hard-won numbers would soon plummet, putting them again, at risk of extinction.

While their species’ position may be fragile, the dragons themselves are not. Known as oras to the small populations of local Muslim fisherman, they are the largest lizards on earth, weighing up to 300 pounds and measuring up to ten feet long.

In the mornings, when the cool air gives them the energy needed to move, they hunt wild Timor pigs, deer and water buffalo that populate the island, smelling blood and death from more than nine kilometres away.

Once fed, they spend their afternoons lazing in the shade or in their burrows, which is why it’s common to see deer within striking distance of dragons with no hint of fear. It’s also how they allow tourists on the island with seemingly laughable safety measures.

Guides are only armed with long, wooden sticks against what is so obviously an apex predator.  

Due to their large size, it’s unsurprising they spend the heat of the day lethargic and still, but Komodo dragons are swift when they need to be, moving at speeds of up to 30 kilometres per hour.

If that’s not daunting enough, their bites are venomous. A dragon’s jaws contain sophisticated venom glands which cause paralysis, muscle spasms and prevents blood clotting which causes their prey to bleed to death.

While exceptionally rare, dragons have also been known to attack and maim humans, with 30 incidents recorded since 1974, including five fatalities.

The fight is real, but is the shutdown?

They may not rank on the cuteness scale like other iconic Asian animals, such as pandas, but Komodo dragons have proven to be a catalyst and rallying point for both locals and visitors to bring strong conservation values to Indonesia.

The Komodo dragon is a creature of fantasy, but on these few islands, they are very real. Without human intervention and sustainable tourism measures put in place, they soon could become a recent memory, left to the imagination of future generations about when dragons once walked the land.


UPDATE: Rumours are spreading that Komodo Island will be closing for one year starting in January 2020.

While nothing has officially been announced by the Indonesian government, both local and international media have reported the closure as news and the effects have been rippling through the tourist industry.

Following in the footsteps of other popular Southeast Asian islands, Koh Phi Phi and Boracay, Komodo Island is believed to be closing for conservation reasons, mainly to protect the most famous inhabitant of the island, the mighty Komodo Dragon.

Apparently, the closure comes in response to the smuggling of 41 Komodo Dragons that was recently exposed by the East Java Police. The dragons were allegedly sold abroad for the price tag of 500 million rupiah each (approx. $35,000 US).

But are the rumours true?

Friends who run dive schools and boat companies in Labuan Bajo and the surrounding areas have naturally been concerned about the rumoured shut-down. A closure would mean a great knock to visitor numbers and therefore, the livelihood of many people working in tourism in the region. Amidst panic, representatives of the island travelled to Jakarta in February to meet with the Vice President, Mr. Jusuf Kala, to ask about the future of Komodo Island and Komodo National Park.

According to a blog posted by local company, Wicked Diving, Flores representative Ms Marta Muslin reported the following from her meeting with the VP: “It is fake. It is not true.” Furthermore, the Director of Nature Conservation and Ecosystems, Mr Wiratno, at the Ministry of Conservation and Forestry also claimed, on February 22nd, that the rumours of closing Komodo National Park are false.

“It is devastating to have big news channels report this as being true, and as news.” Says Anne from Wicked Diving.

Whether the shut down of Komodo Island is true or not, it’s clear that something needs to be done to protect Indonesia’s most iconic creature, and one of the most extraordinary animals on the planet.

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Originally published in South East Asia Backpacker

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