Komodo Island in Indonesia - Looking for the Dragon

Our skipper of the local fishing boat crouches beneath the low roof of the cabin lethargically
smoking kretek cigarettes. The smell of the burning cloves is sweet and tantalising. The
steady beat of the diesel engine drums across the flat green water. Poised on the bow I watch
volcanic islands drift by beneath the hot tropical sun. There's not a breath of wind, the
scenery is spectacular; the boat skims through the water skirting the myriad of coral fringed

Chasing the Dragon.

I don't remember where or when I first heard of Komodo Island and its inhabitants the
mythical Komodo dragon. All I can recall is an image of a huge lumbering reptile with an
insatiable hunger for meat and flesh. The story I have carried with me for all these years is
that of the local villages and how, to keep the dragons at bay, would tether a goat to a tree
beyond the village at night to satisfy the reptiles voracious hunger.

Komodo National Park is located in the center of the Indonesian archipelago, between the
islands of Sumbawa and Flores. Established in 1980, initially the main purpose of the Park
was to conserve the unique Komodo dragon and its habitat. However over the years the goals
for the Park have expanded to protecting its entire biodiversity, both terrestrial and marine. In
1986 the Park was declared a World Heritage Site, also a Man and Biosphere Reserve by

Komodo National Park includes three major islands: Komodo, Rinca and Padar and hundreds
of smaller islands, creating a total surface area (marine and land) of 1817km. As well as being
home to the Komodo dragon, the Park provides refuge for many other rare species such as the
orange-footed scrub fowl, an endemic rat and the Timor deer. The Park also encompasses one
of the richest marine environments in the world, including coral reefs, mangroves, sea grass
beds, seamounts and semi-enclosed bays. These habitats harbor more than 1,000 species of
fish, some 260 species of reef-building coral and 70 species of sponge. Dugong, sharks,
manta rays, at least 14 species of whales, dolphins and sea turtles also make Komodo
National Park their home.

The motor is cut. The narrow inlet we drift through is lined with lush green mangroves. The
heat shimmers across the barren hills of the island. The rope is cast and tied. We step ashore
and are immediately greeted by our guide. He is young, Javanese, schooled as a park ranger.
His skin is dark, tanned from a life outdoors beneath the searing tropical sun. Most curious of
all is the stick that he carries. It is long, sturdy and forked at one end. He leads us around a
low bluff towards a small settlement of bungalows and ranger’s huts. After signing in and
paying an entrance fee we are lead beyond the small cluster of buildings towards the trees.
Our small group of four are excited. We all possess varied tales of the Komodo dragon from
our childhood. The canopy of the trees envelops us as our guide lures us deeper into the
forest. The surrounding environment is remarkably dry for the tropics. We are told the islands
of Flores are influenced by the neighbouring weather patterns of northern Australia. Because
Flores and its coastal islands are geographically east of the Wallace line, which runs between
Bali and Lombok, its flora and fauna are markedly different from that of South-east Asia, it
has more association with the tropics of Australia.

The forest is suspiciously quiet. The sprawling fig trees entwined by python like strangler
vines shade us from the mid morning sun. Beneath the trees we wander along a dry riverbed.
Our guide tells us of gruesome stories to excite us even further. That, for the first two years
the young Komodo dragon must live high in the trees to save it self from its cannibal parents.
We stop and listen, there is rustling sounds beneath a towering cigar shaped palm. Monkeys
emerge from the low branches to stare back at us with what appears to be distain. Half an
hour on we leave the forest. The track climbs away from the dry riverbed into open savannah.
Thorny bushes cluster in the gullies. The prehistoric palms that dot the grasslands sway while
towering over us.

Our guide stops to sniff the air. We instinctually follow suite. From down wind comes the
unmistakable stench of rotting meat. He informs us we are nearing a recent kill. In a shallow
gully lies the crumpled stripped skeleton of what was once a wild buffalo. There is a
movement in the shadows, we cautiously step back. Grey and sullen, fat bellied, slumped
upon the ground is the massive shape of our first Komodo dragon. It is huge, the largest lizard
in the world, weighing over one hundred kilo. From crushing jaw to the tip of scaly tale it is
almost three metres long.

Reminiscent of Monitor lizards this enormous flesh-eating reptile is only found on Rinca and
Komodo Island. Why it is confined to only these two islands remains unknown to science.
Our guide, with forked stick thrust forward and cautious eye on the monster, tells us the
Komodo dragon is the dominant predator in this environment. It is slow and apathetic. Its
movements are awkwardly stiff and restricted. It’s hard to visualise how a creature so
obviously burdened by its weight could snare a wild pig or bring down a fleeing buffalo.
The Komodo dragon’s predatory talent is horribly sinister indeed. Flattened against the
ground, motionless amongst the rocks it lays in wait for its quarry. When an unsuspecting
animal wonders to close it lashes out, tearing into whatever part of its victim it can savage.
For days the wounded animal staggers through the wilderness until it is brought down by the
infection caused by the dragon’s saliva. When the prey is finally incapacitated dragons lured
by the smell of death converge to devour the stricken animal. For added drama our guide tells
us of a missing German tourist. The story goes that he was last seen sunbathing on a local
beach. All that was found of him was his camera and sunglasses.

We return to the riverbed where there are shallow pools of grey muddy water. Smeared in
mud are submerged buffalo, they snort at our approach, turn their tapered horns. Our guide
extends his stick to bar our way. Amongst the dark shadows perfectly, concealed in the dust,
lie two enormous male dragons. It is a prehistoric scene; because of limited water on the
island, prey and predator are forced into close proximity. I edge forward, camera in hand
hoping to capture this intriguing sight. From behind I hear a caution. I am warned to go no
further. From the shadows appear two more dragons. Hesitating they eye us, their forked
tongues flick in and out to taste the air. There’s no doubt they are assessing our potential as
their next meal. Our guide insists we remain close.

With a groan a buffalo raises from the cooling mud, shakes its self to proceed towards the
bank. The dragons stir, roused by the buffalo’s movement. We are transfixed by the pending
drama. Closer it comes up the bank, seemingly without a care. There are dragons on either
side. The buffalo plods towards the giant reptiles that remain inert as stone. So close its hoof
treads to the viscous mouth of a dragon that there is a collective gasp from our party, we are
convinced its demise is certain. But to our astonishment there is no reaction. The dragon
simply huffs as though suffering from exhaustion. The buffalo trudges passed. I feel
somewhat disappointed. Has the myth of the man eating Komodo dragon I have carried with
me all my life just been disproved? I am left to wonder if they are merely giant lizards with
bad reputation, rather than the voracious mythical dragons that haunted my childhood dreams.

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