In search of the Dragons of Komodo
This article is a background to the video of the search for Komodo dragons…
In the east of Indonesia’s archipelago lies a very beautiful and mysterious cluster of islands fringed in coral reefs and clear blue seas. Large cliffs and hills tower above while rainforest and grassland carpet the land. Green Vipers coil on vines and branches while Megapode birds scrape through the leaf litter. In many ways these islands were isolated from mainland Asia to the west by a deep channel and currents so powerful that rocky islets put out such a wake they look like speedboats. Many familiar things existed in weird forms, some surviving today. The remains of tiny adult humans, nicknamed ‘Hobbits’ have been uncovered, as have dwarf elephants. Giant storks are also said to have live here prior to its written history. Other than the region’s world-class diving the main attraction is that it is home to the world’s largest living lizard, the Komodo Dragon.
The area in question is to the west of the main island of Flores, and the Dragons are to be found on four of these smaller islands, with populations on Komodo, Rinca [pronounced "Rin/cha" with a rolling 'r'], Gili Motang and Gili Dasami. On the main island of Flores they are found in surprisingly large numbers, although access is difficult.
Late in December 2010, I traveled there to see the dragons for myself. Landing in Bali direct from Australia was the first adventure. Navigating the sleazy streets and dodging hawkers and rip-off merchants makes any trip to Bali one to remember. On the bright side, for those with a keen eye, Bali is a special place indeed- as far as wildlife goes. It is the island that inspired a young, adventurous Englishman Alfred Russel Wallace in the mid 1800s to come up with his own theories of natural selection, and realise the difference between Australo-Papuan and Asian habitats and wildlife. And it was the tiny space of sea between Bali and its neighbor Lombok that marked a sudden divide between the two regions in terms of geology and habitats. This imaginary line is visible on seabed imagery as a deep channel and is known as “Wallace’s Line.” Despite working hard to get his theory of evolution published which was so similar to Charles Darwin’s, he was narrowly beaten by Darwin. See a later trip to Wallacea
The next morning, the runway at Denpasar peeled away underneath the plane as we gathered altitude and headed due east to Komodo Airport. The wet season was having a short break, as the monsoon system headed south for northern Australia taking most of the rain with it. The hour long flight amongst patchy clouds seen through a scratched, greasy window soon ended as the plane eased down for the runway after circling a small mountain.
Labuan Bajo in West Flores is a relatively small township that is loosely based around travellers that arrive to sample the wonderful diving and try to glimpse a Komodo dragon or two. A friendly Javan expatriate offered to deliver myself and some new friends I made at the airport into town in his van. As soon as we entered, the heavens opened up and a heavy tropical storm began and I ran to my accommodation in rapidly deepening water.
The next day I finally had a chance to explore my home for the next month. Labuan Bajo is said to be a great place for Javans to make a tidy sum of money from the lucrative tourist trade before moving back to Java to buy a home. As a result, the roads are dirt or heavily potholed bitumen and the buildings are barely standing in many areas. The loading jetties on the edge of town are in poor shape and electricity is unreliable. It’s as if the place is repaired and maintained only if absolutely necessary. Then again, none of that’s too unusual for Indonesia. As the diving trade is such a big deal there is a growing number of Europeans moving into town and setting up dive charters, particularly Dutch and Germans. Employing locals from the Komodo region as crew on their boats and catering for westerners in restaurants and accommodation they bring a source of income.
It seems as though every second shop in Labuan Bajo, or anywhere in Indonesia sells mobile phones. With the large number of outlets, I believed it would be no problem finding a phone while in town. It’s as if one person had made some good money on selling phones, so they all decided to do it despite the very limited market. Easily located as they are painted bright red with “Telekomsel” or “Simpati Ekstra” painted vividly on the front or sides one would be forgiven for thinking the purchase of a phone would be a straightforward affair. The first shop I walked into in mid afternoon seemed to have nobody in attendance. I peered over the counter to find the shopkeep asleep on the floor. I asked her if I could buy a phone. She stirred, rubbed her eyes and told me to come back later as she was sleeping now. Mildly insulted I went to the next shop, only ten paces away. The girl behind the counter welcomed me in. The glass cabinets showed all manner of phones at excellent prices. A stack of smart phone boxes with price tags in one cabinet caught my attention. I enquired about the price. “No, we don’t sell those” she said. “We have the boxes, but they are empty and only to make the cabinet look full.” Slightly more frustrated I stepped out and moved to the next store. Quite a bit more remote at twenty paces away, I was once more welcomed in. Apparently this place also had a wide range of empty boxes. I enquired about a smart phone and the girl told me I couldn’t get one. She suggested I get the cheapest on offer. I didn’t want the cheapest, but the day was ending and I needed a phone. She refused to sell me the phone I wanted and insisted I get the cost effective one. With no other options at that stage I gave in and bought it. Yes it worked but I sat down and wondered how these people could constantly complain about not being rich when they refuse business. That is, except for the taxi drivers for the most part.
So that was my welcome to Labuan Bajo and the Komodo region. After a few days one gets used to who is who. Local Floresians look much like Papuans with flattish noses and tightly curled hair and round faces. Usually they are around five feet tall. Javans, the other major group are slightly taller with straight hair. If you need to wake up early, say around four thirty in the morning you need not set your alarm. The local Mosques, or Mesjids will obligingly do that for you with the early call to prayer. The Catholics will act as the snooze feature, ringing their bells at six. It’s a very relaxed town and despite the culture shock at first you will find most people are quite friendly.
So the next mission was to capture some footage of Komodo Dragons in the wild. I remember the excellent narrative by Sir David Attenborough in his ‘Life Stories’ audio series on being the first to film these creatures. In those days, access was far more difficult as the Komodo Islands were off the edge of the earth so to speak, even to many Indonesians. With regular flights from Bali and ferries from Java access certainly has opened up and film crews from all over the world have come to film the Komodo Dragons.
Completely repulsed by the idea of going on a tour with a group, I had to find another way. Perhaps a fisherman would charter his boat for the day. With the idea of chartering a boat still processing, I saw another westerner talking to some locals. She introduced herself as Corrine from Canada. Also totally opposed to the idea of going on a guided tour we discussed heading out on a fishing boat. Heading for the docks, it didn’t take long to find a crew willing to head to Rinca, the most accessible of the Komodo islands and with an excellent chance of spotting a Dragon. In fact, they say that Komodo dragons are practically guaranteed, unlike on Komodo itself where you may go days without seeing one. After some skilled bartering a price was agreed- about forty Australian dollars for three passengers for a full day.
The next morning the islands were lashed with torrential rain and thumped by massive bolts of lightning. All of the power at Labuan Bajo went out at around quarter to five. The streets were under a foot or more of brown and grey water. Dead rats floated by as I ran through the flood, past people sweeping water out of their shops in the dim light. Finally I arrived at the dock at five AM, as organised. The crew were there, but no sign of the others. Finally at six, they arrived and we set off with high hopes as the skies lightened and the sea calmed.
“We are not going to the tourist part of Rinca?” I asked. Our crew shook their heads. Excellent, I thought. None of us wanted to go to the ‘typical’ tourist area. Well, my heart sank when we docked at the tourist jetty on Rinca with not enough fuel to go anywhere else. My first Komodo Dragon sighting was somewhat an anti-climax. It was sprawled out in the rain on a bed of mangrove mud and barely blinked as I approached. Around two and a half metres long it was no mere pup. Unhappy, we headed for the first checkpoint- the pay station. The Indonesian government sees Komodo Dragons as a tourist drawcard, so they charge accordingly. Each camera had to be separately paid for and we had to take a guide or we could not proceed. With papers stamped and money handed over we embarked on a set path through Dragon country. At the Ranger’s station, under the kitchen was a gathering of large Komodo Dragons, none of which seemed to even raise their heads at our approach. Our guide then led us down a path through the grassland and forest in search of Dragons that would not be quite so tame, but when we failed to find any we quickly returned to the Ranger Station where we once more found the group loafing around as they had done before.
A couple of larger individual Komodo dragons were a little more active. One was clearly starving with all of its bones showing clearly through thin skin. Another particularly large specimen swaggered into the area, with the typical arrogance that all Monitor lizards seem to have. He walked with purpose, tail swaying side to side and head down. His long, forked yellow tongue slid in and out of his mouth, tasting the air for any sign of a meal. Like the others, he had scars in his rusty brown armour-like skin that showed the evidence of battles past.
A long string of clear saliva hung from his mouth, also swinging side to side, threatening to wrap around his snout at any moment. For the first time, but thankfully not the last I had found respect for these oversized lizards as this one simply pushed past me and continued on with no intention of moving aside for anybody. It was now time to return to Labuan Bajo. Still greatly dejcted, I wandered past the first Dragon, still spread-eagled out on the salt encrusted mud flat in the same position, casually observing me with one eye open. Back on board the boat, we all expressed our disappointment at the way the day had turned out. Sure, we saw our first Dragons, but the experience felt so… manufactured.
Being burned by that experience, I simply had to go on a three day dive trip. Actually I went on several. Many years ago, in fact Komodo was still well off the map for most people, a friend of mine and his friend explored Komodo underwater perhaps for the first time. On a slab of rock next to the sea a large Dragon was busy killing and eating a smaller one- a trait they are well known for today. So the rock was then, and is still now known as “Cannibal Rock.” This was part of the route the dive trip would explore. After sampling the exquisite diving on offer there (a seamount that rises from a long way down to just under the surface and is in the clearest water imaginable) a large Dragon was spotted on the beach. Eventually myself and a Canadian (yes more of them!) family were granted access to the beach on the landing craft. But the Dragon was nowhere to be seen. In the drizzle, I climbed Cannibal Rock itself and there it was, a large rusty coloured Dragon asleep on a patch of dirt.
I approached as close as I dared, alone this time and he raised his head and hissed a warning. I understood exactly what he meant and backed off. Eventually he let me within a metre and relaxed as I took a series of photographs and video. This may not have yet been what I was after, but it was the closest so far. Much more excited, I returned to the mothership and eagerly awaited the following morning…
The next morning finally arrived and as soon as humanly possible, I was delivered back to the beach; alone this time. The driver of the landing craft backed off and waited near the mothership anchored about three hundred metres away. Fresh prints marked the passage of a large Dragon. As I knelt down to photograph them, an excited yelp from the direction of the people on the mothership indicated I should turn around. Sure enough, two very hungry looking Dragons were heading right for me. Their entire bodies had that arrogant swagger and the tongues eagerly tasted the air. What’s more was they were very big and very hurried. In seconds they closed the distance and were just outside arm’s reach.
Now, more than ever these creatures did not ask for respect, they commanded it. Pausing occasionally to look at me, they stayed close. That’s the magic of Dragons, they don’t just look at you, they think and calculate. I could not help but think they were looking for a weakness, an opportunity in fact. To this day I am certain they were calculating a plan. Monitor lizards, which they are the largest of, are known for that level of intelligence. In fact, Komodo Dragons are the largest living lizard of all. Strange for an island group with the smallest adult human remains, the smallest elephant and largest stork. Being the largest lizard, and very likely the most intelligent and dangerous, caution must be exercised. Capable of keeping up with an adult human on the run, they like other Monitors are unique among lizards, reptiles in fact in that they can breathe and run at the same time, so do not run out of steam quite as quickly. A bite from a Dragon is potentially lethal. They have serrated teeth that are designed to tear flesh and allow bacteria in. And what bacteria they have! A large array of deadly bacteria thrive in their mouths, cultivated by their gums which readily bleed and from the carrion they eat. Although much happier eating something already dead, they are known to lie in ambush and lunge at a feeding buffalo or deer and bite its heel. In a few days the animal dies from serious infection, and it is thought a rudimentary form of venom from the Dragon itself. Other Dragons join in the feast and quickly reduce the animal to bones.
Looking at these two giants, I had to wonder what made them so big? As David Attenborough suggested in Life Stories perhaps they were a relict of a time when Monitors were much bigger. Nearby Australia certainly had giant monitors. Megalania was one such monster. Estimated at growing between 4.5 and 7 metres, it would have surely dwarfed any living Komodo Dragon. It has also been suggested that the Komodo came from Australia and became extinct there and only lived on in isolation at Komodo and surrounds. Certainly the closest thing to the Komodo Dragon is its very close cousin the Asian Water Monitor, Varanus salvadorii which I encountered in Bali as well as the last remaining jungle in East Java, where a specimen nearly the size of a Komodo scared me half to death when I nearly stepped on it. So how they came to be is still a matter of heated argument. But looking at the animals they eat today such as goats, deer and buffalo, something seems odd. All of the surviving mammals of any size are introduced. On this side of Wallace’s Line they are alien species. Maybe the extinct elephant once provided food.
David Attenborough suggested that they maintained their large size by eating their young. They do this, but would this be enough? I would like to add that the young are primarily found in the trees in safety- and they are swift so it would have to be an unlucky one to cross a hungry adult and not escape. Looking around the island, there are a number of other food sources. Snakes such as vipers and cobras are common, as are less dangerous species. Sea Kraits also come ashore here. Snakes are a food source for Australian monitors which eat some of the most dangerous without an issue. Megapode birds such as the Orange Footed Scrubfowl lay eggs on the ground. Maybe the eggs are dug up and taken. Turtles too, are common around the islands. It is possible that they nest on the same beaches. Turtle eggs are eaten by Australian monitors. Sea life that gets beach-washed after a storm or other event would also provide a welcome meal. So personally I believe that there are more food sources available to the Komodo Dragons than we once thought.
Either way, I was caught up in the moment. They eventually lost all interest in me and walked up into the vine forest. I followed one, and he puffed up to look larger, then curved his tail ready to whip it in defense like other large monitors. This, I decided was enough, as the boat was now waiting to collect me.
Leaving the Komodo Dragons behind in their now mist-enshrouded kingdom I couldn’t help but think of the mysteries that still surround them, how they got there and for how much longer they will be there. Rest assured, when you are on their land it’s their land.
View the Komodo dragon video