Komodo dragons are not really as dangerous as some people think. "They are kind of indifferent to you," Dale Marcellini, the chief herpetologist at the National Zoo in Washington told Henry Allen of the Washington Post, "One morning in Komodo I took a walk up a river bed. I saw a dragon coming, a big one. I decided to try an experiment. I sat down and waited for it...I watched it walk right past me. It never looked at me."

The Indonesian care very little about Komodo dragons. Crocodiles and Garuda birds are common themes in painting on textiles. But you never see a Komodo dragon. "No symbolism," Marcellini said, "It's very odd. We're more fascinated than the Indonesians are." Local villagers have never hunted them, in part because they are not good to eat and also because there was plenty of fish in the sea and other game on land such as wild pigs and deer, which are far tastier.

Komodo Island

Komodo Island (east of Sumbawa and generally reached by boat from Flores) is the home of the famous Komodo Dragon, the world largest lizard, which can reach lengths of three meters including the tail, and wasn't even discovered by outsiders until 1912. Tourists used to come to see the dragons fed on a goat in a pit. The pit exists but dragons are no longer fed there. Some visitors skip Komodo altogether and look for dragons on Rinca island because it is easier to get to. Komodo Dragons also live on Rinca, Padar and western Flores. These volcanic islands are inhabited by a population of around 5,700 giant lizards. Komodo Dragons exist nowhere else in the world and are of great interest to scientists, especially for their evolutionary implications.

About 30 kilometers long, Komodo is comprised mostly of grassy hills, steep mountains and dry savannahs. The forests are filled with tamarind and kapok trees. The dry savannah feature Lonar Palms, and stunted Sujube trees. The rugged hillsides of dry savannah and pockets of thorny green vegetation contrast starkly with the brilliant white sandy beaches and the blue waters surging over coral. In 1928, Komodo was named a Wilderness Area, one of the first of its kind in Asia. Komodo National Park encompasses an area of 173,00 hectares, with three fourth of that on land and one fourth in the sea.

Other wildlife found on Komodo include Timor deer, wild pigs, an endemic rat, the orange-footed scrub fowl, the black-naped oriole, a helmeted friarbird, a Wallecean drongo, yellow-crested cockatoos, baseball-glove-size moths, hand-sized spiders (whose venom is a "little poisonous”), and ants that has been compared with "meaty little dumbbells."

Divers claim that the Komodo waters are one of the best diving sites in the world. The rich coral reefs and mangrove forests of Komodo host a great diversity of species, and the strong currents of the sea attract the presence of sea turtles, whales, dolphins and dugongs. There are 385 species of corals, 70 types of sponges and various types of sharks and stingrays.

Komodo Island definitely has an eery feel to it. The first afternoon we were there, my brother and I went looking for dragons: we didn't find any, but every time we heard a rustle in the bushes our hearts jumped. There are a lot of deer, wild pig and large birds on the island as well. The town of Komodo has several hundred residents. They live in ramshackle houses set up along dirt roads or by the sea. Women hang squids on lines. Children tend goats and chase crabs. Visitors stay in Loh Liang, a tourist camp run by the Directorate of Forest Protection and Nature Conservation (PHKA).

Komodo National Park

Komodo National Park (between the islands of Sumbawa and Flores) is composed of three major islands (Rinca, Komodo, and Padar) and numerous smaller ones, all of them of volcanic origin. Located at the juncture of two continental plates, this national park constitutes the “shatter belt” within the Wallacea Biogeographical Region, between the Australian and Sunda ecosystems. The property is identified as a global conservation priority area, comprising unparalleled terrestrial and marine ecosystems and covers a total area of 219,322 ha. The dry climate has triggered specific evolutionary adaptation within the terrestrial flora that range from open grass-woodland savanna to tropical deciduous (monsoon) forest and quasi cloud forest. The rugged hillsides and dry vegetation highly contrast with the sandy beaches and the blue coral-rich waters. [Source: UNESCO]

The park was established in part to protect the Komodo dragon, which is found only on the islands in or near the park and is officially classified as vulnerable. Because of the unique and rare nature of this animal, Komodo Nation Park (KNP) was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986. There has also been an effort to include it on a list of the New Seven Wonders of Nature. The park’s three major islands—Komodo, Rinca and Padar—and numerous smaller islands together total about 603 square kilometers of land. The total size of Komodo National Park, with sea areas included, is presently 1,817 square kilometers. Proposed extensions of 25 square kilometers of land (Banta Island) and 479 square kilometers of marine waters would bring the total surface area up to 2,321 square kilometers.

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Komodo National Park boasts crystal-clear water, miles of deserted beaches and world-class dive sites where rushing currents help protect the reefs from bleaching. A visitor can sail among the park's islands all day and only occasionally see another boat. At Komodo National Park, visitors can approach within a few yards” of the giant lizards. “A ranger stands by with a long stick to fend off any animal that appears threatening, although it seems scant protection.” [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2006 ^*^]

Komodo National Park is a landscape of contrasts and unquestionably one of the most dramatic landscapes in all of Indonesia. An irregular coastline characterized by bays, beaches and inlets separated by headlands, often with sheer cliffs falling vertically into the surrounding seas which are reported to be among the most productive in the world adds to the stunning natural beauty of landscapes dominated by contrasting vegetation types, providing a patchwork of colors.

The generally steep and rugged topography reflects the position of the national park within the active volcanic 'shatter belt' between Australia and the Sunda shelf. Komodo, the largest island, has a topography dominated by a range of rounded hills oriented along a north-south axis at an elevation of 500-600 meters.Relief is steepest towards the north-east, notably the peak of Gunung Toda Klea which is precipitous and crowned by deep, rocky and dry gullies. The coastline is irregular and characterized by numerous bays, beaches and inlets separated by headlands, often with sheer cliffs falling vertically into the sea.

To the east, Padar is a small, narrow island the topography of which rises steeply from the surrounding plains to between 200 meters and 300 meters.Further east, the second largest island in the park, Rinca, is separated from Flores by a narrow strait a few kilometers wide. As with Komodo and Padar, the coastline is generally rugged and rocky although sandy beaches are found in sheltered bays.

The mainland components of the park lie in the rugged coastal areas of western Flores, where surface fresh water is more abundant than on the islands of Komodo, Rinca and Padar. The seas around the islands are reported to be among the most productive in the world due to upwelling and a high degree of oxygenation resulting from strong tidal currents which flow through the Sape Straits. Fringing and patch coral reefs are extensive and best developed in the west- and north-facing areas, the most intact being on the north-east coast of Komodo and the south-west coast of Rinca and Padar.

The predominant vegetation type is open grass-woodland savannah, mainly of anthropogenic origin, which covers some 70 percent of the park. The dominant savannah tree is lontar palm, which occurs individually or in scattered stands. Tropical deciduous (monsoon) forest occurs along the bases of hills and on valley bottoms. The forest is notable, lacking the predominance of Australian derived tree flora found further to the east on Timor. A quasi cloud forest occurs above 500m on pinnacles and ridges. Although covering only small areas on Komodo Island, it harbours a relict flora of many endemic species. Floristically, it is characterized by moss-covered rocks, rattan, bamboo groves and many tree species generally absent at lower elevations. Coastal vegetation includes mangrove forest, which occurs in sheltered bays on Komodo, Padar and Rinca.

It is thought that the islands have long been settled due to their strategic importance and the existence of sheltered anchorages and supplies of fresh water on Komodo and Rinca. The evidence of early settlement is further supported by the recent discovery of Neolithic graves, artefacts and megaliths on Komodo Island.

Wildlife in Komodo National Park

The population of Komodo dragons is distributed across the islands of Komodo, Rinca and Gili Motong, and in certain coastal regions of western and northern Flores. Favoured habitat is tropical deciduous forest and, to a lesser extent, open savannah. The mammalian fauna is characteristic of the Wallacean zoogeographical zone, with seven terrestrial species recorded including an endemic rat (Rattus rintjanus) and the crab-eating macaque (Macaca fascicularis). Introduced species, such as rusa deer and wild boar, as well as feral domestic animals including horses and water buffalo, form important prey species for the Komodo monitor. Among the 72 species of bird found on the islands are the lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea), the orange-footed scrub fowl (Megapodius reinwardt), noisy friarbird (Philemon buceroides) and common scrubhen. [Source: UNESCO]

The coral reefs fringing the coast of Komodo are diverse and luxuriant due to the clear water, intense sunlight and rapid exchange of nutrient-rich water from deeper areas of the archipelago. Upwelling of nutrient-rich water from deeper areas of the archipelago is responsible for the rich reef ecosystem of which only isolated patches remain due to anthropogenic disturbance. In areas of strong currents, the reef substrate consists of an avalanche of coral fragments, with only encrusting or low branching species. Reefs off the north-east of Komodo have high species diversity. The reefs off Gili Lawa Laut are variable. The marine fauna and flora are generally the same as that found throughout the Indo Pacific area, though species richness is very high, notable marine mammals include blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) and sperm whale (Physeter catodon) as well as 10 species of dolphin, dugong (Dugong dugon) and five species of sea turtles.

Tips for visitors: 1) Don't walk alone. It is best to walk around with a ranger or guide. 2) Don't disturb or feed komodos. Despite slow and lazy movement, this animal can suddenly turn aggresive and move fast. 3) When trekking, please take a stick with you. Komodos are usually afraid when threatened with a stick. 4) Please wear shoes. Komodo, Rinca, and Padar islands have 12 types of snakes and three of them are poisonous, namely green snakes living on trees, cobras and russel's viper who live on the ground in holes on the savannas. 5) Women having their menstruation must report to a guide or ranger for special attention. Komodos have a very strong sense of smell and may turn agresive when they smell blood. 6) Please bring along your insect repellant because this area has many mosquitoes who'll be excited at the prospects of having fresh blood.

Komodo Dragons Tourism

Reporting from Komodo, Jerome Rivet of Reuters wrote: “They don't breathe fire but Komodo dragons can kill a buffalo or any one of the intrepid tourists who flock to their deserted island habitats. "I feel like I'm in the middle of Jurassic Park, very deep in the past," said Hong Kong visitor Michael Lien during a recent trip to Komodo Island, the main habitat of the threatened Indonesian lizards. Spread out before him is a landscape from the dawn of time — mountainous islands with palm trees plunging down to the azure sea. Lien and his wife are excited and a little nervous at the same time. "What am I supposed to do if a dragon appears suddenly?" he asks Johnny Banggur, the guide on a tour of the island, an almost uninhabited speck in the east of the vast Indonesian archipelago. [Source: Jerome Rivet, Reuters, December 22, 2010]

“Armed with 18 years experience and a hefty club for good measure, Banggur dispenses some welcome advice: don't wander from the track and stay with the group. Banggur explains that dragons can devour half their own weight in a single meal. Reassuringly, he adds that they "prefer" buffalo, deer or wild boar and the danger to humans is "very limited". Even so, the Liens have no intention of going anywhere near the menacing reptiles, with their yellow, forked tongues, powerful jaws and sharp claws.

“The island's brave human inhabitants — about 2,000 in all — used to hunt wild boar and deer, thereby competing with the lizards for food. Now they are the dragons' chief guardians. "On Komodo, everything is done for the peaceful cohabitation of humans and dragons," park manager Mulyana Atmadja told AFP.

“Visitors pay to set foot on the islands and take guided tours on designated tracks, always in the company of a ranger. Some 40,000 tourists are expected this year, 90 percent of them foreigners. "We need to act carefully because an excessive number of visitors will trouble the Komodos' natural habitat," Atmadja said. US environmental group The Nature Conservancy has helped the Indonesian authorities shift the local economy into one that sustains both the human and reptilian inhabitants.

“The villagers still fish but no longer compete with the dragons for food. To supplement their incomes they have the exclusive right to sell Komodo miniatures, pearls and other souvenirs. "We've done campaigns to raise the locals' awareness and provide other sources of income for them. The more tourists who come to visit, the more money they can earn," the park chief added. It's worked so well the park managers were able to stop feeding the dragons in 1990. Some of the lizards had apparently forgotten how to fend for themselves and simply waited for tourists to offer them live goats.”

Komodo Dragon Pit

On Rinca Island, you can see Komodos lying down outside the homes of national park rangers, or "parking" near the officials' homes. Short treks can be organized to look for dragons on Komodo and Rinca. Sometimes dragon wait outside the Loh Liang camp on Komodo. The Poreng Valley, 5½ kilometers from Loh Liang, is another places where they are seen. On Rinca there are no designated viewing areas but the lizards are often seen around the jetty and the PHKA camp at Loh Buaya. Guides know the places where they are most likely to be seen but that is no guarantee the lizards will show up. There is more wildlife on Rinca, including colonies of monkeys, wild pigs, barking deer and fish eagles, than on Komodo.

Previously, to find one, you had to “offer” a goat to attract the Komodo, but now this practice is no longer allowed. In the old days, Komodo dragons were often spotted at Banu Nggulung, a dry river bed about a half hour walk from Loh Liang. A little pit with few benches organized around it was set up here for viewing the lizards. The dragons used to feed on a freshly killed goat there and a number of dragons regularly showed up. Dragons still appear to drink but they no longer show up as reliably as they used to.

In the old days, in morning the giant lizards came to the pit to get fed. When I visited in the 1980s, thinking the whole thing was a little touristy, a friend and I hiked to the pit before the tourists arrived. When we got there, there were no lizards, but soon enough three of them came ambling along. First we watched them from above the pit, then we thought it might be fun to climb into the pit with them. And that is what we did until one turned slightly in our direction and we both went scrambling up a tree. The largest of the three dragons was about eight or nine feet long. It was interesting to watch. When it walked it rocked its shoulders back and forth, sort of like a strutting linebacker. Its forked tongue was constantly going in and out, curling and probing.

Finally the others arrived with the dragon food, a live goat. But it didn't stay alive for long. The Indonesian guides cut its throat. After which it was tied to a rope and dangled above the heads of the dragons. The lizards obviously had been through this routine before and there was no way they were going to leap into the air to grab the dead goat. When it was dropped down to them, that is when they started ripping it apart. One of the little dragons got a piece of intestine stuck between its teeth, sort of like we do with a piece of corn, and I felt sorry for it because what ever it did it couldn't it out.

This went on for a while. Later the guides carried the goat carcass out of the pit and placed it a little corral next to the tourists. At first the lizards didn't want to climb out of the pit so a couple of park ranger climbed into the pit and prodded one of them out with a long forked stick. The big lizard obliged and everyone got good close-ups of the beast snapping its jaw shut on a piece of goat leg.

The dragons are no longer fed the goats on the grounds that had become lazy and less able to find food of their own. Visitors now hire dragon finders who take them though the forest and underbrush, looking for dragons.

Hiking in Komodo Dragon Country

Brendan Borrell wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, “It didn’t seem prudent to bring two small children along. We had just docked at a remote island in southeastern Indonesia, and the five-hour hike would traverse a rocky, exposed ridge in the baking heat of the dry season. My companions—a blond Frenchman named Fred, his wife and their two kids—were dressed for a game of shuffleboard. My concern heightened when I saw he had a single water bottle for the four of them. Also, there were dragons. [Source: Brendan Borrell, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2013 =]

“Komodo National Park has become Indonesia’s hottest tourist spot this side of Bali. Our starting point in Labuan Bajo, on the island of Flores, was packed with hip cafés, hostels and diving shops. Cruise companies offer a two-day expedition to parkland on Komodo and Rinca islands. Komodo, about five times the size of Manhattan, got a makeover in the late 1990s, when the Indonesian government asked the Nature Conservancy and the World Bank to help it protect the island’s biodiversity, develop hiking trails and build a visitor center. Even with these amenities, the destination’s popularity is surprising. Whale-watching may appeal to our spiritual side, while a glimpse of an orangutan or other primate cousin tugs at an evolutionary heartstring. The Komodo dragon, I believe, taps into our basic fears: a living incarnation of the fictional monsters that haunt our imaginations. =

“Our guide that August morning, Ishak, lifted his forked stick—a defense against snapping jaws—and we marched into the bush. Even the vegetation is reptilian: Crocodile trees with spiky bark sprout from volcanic soils, while Lontar palms tower over the upland savanna. After only a ten-minute walk we came to a gallery of tamarind trees shading a pit of mud and greenish scum. A female Komodo dragon was sprawled next to a tree, her black obsidian eyes unreadable. The beaded folds of her flesh hung from her neck and she had kicked her rear legs behind her with the insouciance that comes from being at the top of the food chain. Luckily, she was still digesting a meal from earlier that week—a small deer, according to Ishak—and in her postprandial stupor would probably not be pondering cuisine for another month. Up ahead, however, I knew there were dragons in the brush, possibly hungry ones. At the top of a pass, a white cross commemorates Rudolf Von Reding Biberegg, an elderly Swiss tourist who vanished in 1974, presumably killed by a Komodo dragon. “He loved nature throughout his life,” the epitaph says.” =

“August is the height of the breeding season and, during our visit, most Komodo dragons were defending their nests or looking for mates far from established trails and water holes. Fred and his family were chipper as usual as we passed mounds of dirt and rock that were 10 to 20 feet in diameter and at least as tall as his 9-year-old son. The mounds are the nests of chicken-like birds called orange-footed megapodes, which don’t incubate their eggs with body heat but bury them atop plant matter that produces heat as it decays. The dragons remodel these nests for their own eggs, and guard them for six months, a rather long incubation. =

“By noon, we were out of the forest and had crested the ridge, gazing out across golden meadows and aquamarine waters that could have easily been mistaken for a southern California scene. We then trotted down the mountain. I slipped three times—unlike Fred’s 6-year-old daughter, who held out her arms like she was flying and didn’t trip once on the crumbling slope. When we got to the bottom and arrived at the last stop on the hike, Loh Sebita camp, we saw our last dragon, a somewhat pathetic creature lounging next to a wooden building on stilts, the kitchen. “If the dragon can’t hunt, he might come here,” Ishak says. “Sometimes the cook may throw out a chicken bone.” =

Komodo Dragons Attacks

Rachel Nuwer wrote on smithsonian.com, “Though attacks are exceptionally rare, they do occasionally occur, mostly when a park guard lets his focus slip for a moment, or a villager has a particularly unlucky day. Occasionally tourists are the victims.... In 2008, a group of SCUBA divers found themselves swept from waters near their boat by the Flores region’s infamously strong current. After spending 10 hours spinning in the tide, around midnight the group washed up on the beach of what seemed like a deserted island, approximately 25 miles from where their ordeal had begun. Their troubles, however, were far from over. They had found their way to Rinca Island, where an estimate 1,300 dragons live. [Source:Rachel Nuwer, smithsonian.com, January 24, 2013 ***]

“The attacks began almost immediately, the Telegraph reports. A relentless lizard repeatedly came at a Swedish woman, who smacked it with her diving weight belt. It chewed at the lead belt while other divers threw rocks at its head, she said, all the while eyeing her bare feet. For two days and two nights, the traumatized divers contended with dragons and the tropical heat, surviving off of shellfish they scraped from rocks and ate raw. Finally, an Indonesian rescue crew spotted the diver’s orange emergency floats spread out on the rocks. Though in shock, the group rehydrated at the local hospital on Flores Island and celebrated their survival at the town’s Paradise Bar.” ***

In 2013, the BBC reported: “Two men have been injured in an attack by a komodo dragon in a wildlife park in eastern Indonesia, park officials say. The 2m (7ft) long lizard attacked a park ranger in his office, then turned on another employee who tried to come to his aid. Both suffered serious leg wounds and were being monitored in hospital. [Source: BBC, February 6, 2013]

In 2003, the BBC reported from Beruit: “He's big, he's a carnivore, he's terrorising the neighbourhood's residents, he's been swimming in people's pools and he's already claimed victims — several cats, a dog and apparently even a horse. In Lebanon, a giant lizard has been roaming the streets of a Beirut suburb for several weeks, eluding all the attempts by the authorities to catch it. He's Lebanon's own Komodo Dragon, or so say the witnesses who have seen him. It's believed that the one living just outside Beirut was brought to Lebanon by a German who lived here and eventually set him free.” [Source: Kim Ghattas, BBC, August 31, 2003]

Human Deaths Caused by Komodo Dragons

About a dozens human deaths have been attributed to Komodo dragons. Most of the victims were children. In one case a mother engaged in a tug of war with a dragon for her child and lost. There have also been reports of people being bitten and dying from infections and dragons feeding of dead bodies. Tourist sometimes complain that the lizards eye them as if they were prey. Periodically locals are attacked by dragons. Most are people sleeping out in the open.

In 2007 an eight-year-old boy went into the bushes to take a pee and never came back. Rachel Nuwer wrote on smithsonian.com, “The Guardian reported. The attack took place in March’s dry season, so rangers speculate that the murderous lizard may have been particularly hungry given that the watering holes – and the prey that gather there – had dried up. The dragon lunged when the boy went behind a bush to use the bathroom, MSNBC writes. Mr. Safina [a ranger at Komodo National Park] recalls the boy’s friends – who had been playing together in the scrubland near their village – rushing to get help from their parents. According to the Guardian, the boy’s uncle came running and threw rocks at the lizard until it released his nephew. While the Guardian writes that the boy died from massive bleeding from his torso, Mr. Safina recalls the boy being bitten in half. In light of the tragedy, park wardens launched an island-wide hunt for the man-eating lizard, though whether or not these efforts produced results remains unclear. [Source: Rachel Nuwer, smithsonian.com, January 24, 2013 ***]

“In 2009, 31-year-old Muhamad Anwar set out to gather sugar apples from an orchard on Komodo Island. A misstep that sent him falling from the tree proved to be his undoing. Two Komodo dragons were waiting below, and sprang on Anwar. His neighbors heard the commotion, and ran to his rescue minutes later. By the time they arrived, however, Anwar had already suffered fatal injuries, and was bleeding from bites to his hands, body, legs and neck, the Guardian reports. Anwar died shortly after the attack, in a clinic on Flores Island. Other accounts, however, contest some of these details. CNN writes that Anwar – a fisherman – was actually trespassing on the island, and was in an area forbidden for people to enter. This account also reports that Anwar bled to death on the way to the hospital, and was declared dead upon arrival. Even if CNN got this right and Anwar was guilty, however, death by dragon seems an overly steep punishment for eating a bit of forbidden fruit from the garden of Komodo.” ***

In 1974 a 78-year-old Swiss baron named Reding Von Beberegg disappeared during a bird-watching walk. His glasses and camera were all that was ever found. On top of an escapement on Komodo is cross dedicated to the baron. He is believed to be first Westerner to have ever been eaten by a Komodo dragon. The cross reads, "He Loved Nature Throughout His Life." No one really is sure how the baron died. Marcellini told Henry Allen of the Washington Post, "This guy was old, he was kind of sickly, and he was out hiking with nobody he knew real well. And he was not the most likable guy from what I understand. He decided to stop and rest while the others went on. When they came back, all they found was a shoe and part of his camera case. He could have died naturally. Human types could have gotten him. It didn't have to be a dragon." Even if he was eaten by a Komodo dragon that doesn’t necessarily he was killed by one. More likely he died or was seriously disabled by a heart attack or a stroke and was eaten by dragons after he died.

Komodo Dragons Attacks Sharon Stone’s Husband

In June 2001, a seven-foot Komodo dragon bit and crushed the foot of Sharon Stone’s husband, at the time, Phil Bronstein, when he climbed into the lizard’s cage during a private tour at the Los Angeles Zoo and followed his wife’s advise and took of his shoes. Several tendons were severed and he required surgery to fix and rebuild his large toe According to Stone the zookeeper told Bronstein that the lizard was placid and that children petted it. “He started to move, this thing just lunged at him.” The lizard bit him and everyone there heard a crunching sound. On her husband she said, “I think he was unbelievably calm under pressure...He yelled, then he reached down and opened the jaws off his foot.” As Bronstein tried to escape through the feeding door, the Komodo dragon lunged at him again and clawed his back and thighs.”

Stone gave Bronstein the behind-the-scenes tour for a Father's Day present. Rachel Nuwer wrote on smithsonian.com, “Stone had arranged a private visit to the zoo’s dragon pen as a present for her husband, who, according to a Time Magazine interview with Stone, had always wanted to see a Komodo dragon up close. Stone described the incident: Phil didn’t know where we were going or why we were going there. It was a complete surprise. So we came around the corner and he was like, ‘Oh my god this is so fabulous, I’ve always wanted to see this.’ And the zookeeper said, ‘would you like to go in the cage? It’s very mild mannered. Everybody goes in there. Kids pet him. It’s fine.’ [Source:Rachel Nuwer, smithsonian.com, January 24, 2013 ***]

“Bronstein accepted the invitation and went into the dragon’s cage with the zoo keeper. The lizard began licking at Bronstein’s white shoes, which the keeper thought must remind the animal of it’s white rat meals. Following the keeper’s advice, Bronstein removed his shoes and socks to avoid tempting the lizard. Then, as he moved into a better position to take a photo with the animal, it lunged. So there was that hideous moment where the three of us… It’s such a break in reality, it’s so inconceivable that it’s happening, but there’s that moment of stillness where you just stare in disbelief. Then Phil screamed and we heard this crunching sound. ***

“Bronstein managed to pin the lizard’s head down with his other foot, but the animal began jerking back and forth in an attempt to maul and eat its prey. Children gathered around the cage’s glass wall, Stone recalled, taking in the spectacle. Bronstein managed to wrench the dragon’s jaw’s open and throw it from his foot, then dragged himself out of the cage as the lizard came at him from behind. The top half of Bronstein’s foot was gone, Stone said, and he was covered in scratches from the animal’s lunges at his back. Bronstein survived the incident and did not press charges, though Stone complained that the zoo allegedly continued to allow close-up encounters with dangerous animals following the incident.” ***

Surviving an Attack by a Komodo Dragon

In 2009, Maen, a guide at Komodo National Park, went to work at the staff office building as usual on Rinca Island. Like other buildings on the island, the staff unit sat on stilts, and it was not uncommon for hungry dragons to gather below for the occasional food scrap. Reporting from the park, website travel writer Michael Turtle wrote: Maen, quiet-spoken middle-aged Indonesian, “still has nightmares about that morning. About those few minutes in which he almost died. About the time he was attacked by a man-eating reptile and had to fight it off to save his life. “I don’t like to tell more my story because when I tell again, when I’m sitting alone, I remember,” he says, softly and humbly. “I would like to try to forget this story.” [Source: Michael Turtle -]
“It was 2009 and Maen had been working here on Rinca Island in Komodo National Park as a ranger for about a year when he went into the office that morning. The small wooden building in the main camp looked the same as usual and he went in and sat at the desk. It was then he looked down. “I saw the dragon under this table and my leg was here like this”, Maen tells me as he demonstrates how his leg was near the drawers under the desk. “I don’t use the shoes – just sandals. So after I saw the dragon I think ‘what do I do?’. But in my feeling, I have to pull my leg away.” At the time he wasn’t thinking about how the animal had ended up inside. As it later turned out, a cleaner had left the door open and the Komodo dragon had come in overnight looking for food. Clearly it had now found what it was looking for. -

Maen attempted to slowly withdraw his leg from the area where the dragon was but he moved too quickly, triggering a lunge from the motion-sensitive lizard. The dragon clenched its jaw shut on Maen’s leg. Maen kicked at the dragon’s neck, then grabbed its jaws with his hands and wrenched its mouth open, but injured his hand and arm in the process.“I think that if I not pull my leg, the dragon will bite and swallow”, Maen told Tuttle. “So I tried to pull my leg but the dragon follow and I look and see a tail moving over there. And I think this is a problem for me. And I pull my leg too fast and it got trapped in the table and then the dragon bite.” The dragon didn’t let go. With its mouth clenched shut, teeth ripping into his flesh, Maen had to think fast. He put his other foot onto the neck of the dragon, pinning it down slightly. Then using his hands, he grabbed the animal’s mouth and pulled it open. He managed to pull his leg free from its jaws – but one of his hands got bitten in the struggle. -

“During all of this he had managed to shout out for help. The camp the rangers live in is quite small but most of them were in the kitchen and couldn’t hear him. Only one person, in the cafeteria, was close enough. “I shouted and he came to help me but he didn’t like to come up because the dragon was still moving around”, Maen explains. “Then he saw the blood on the floor and he got everyone from the kitchen. All the people come running here, but other dragons follow along as well.” -

“Komodo dragons have a remarkable ability to smell blood – sometimes even kilometres away – and so they had been drawn by Maen’s injuries. While some rangers tried to control these new arrivals, two others ran into the office to rescue their injured friend and hold off the dragon inside. “So then they carry me down but there were lots of dragons down here”, he recalls. “There were about seven dragons, all bigger, waiting there. One other friend pushed away all the dragons with a stick. Then they took me to a jetty and go to Flores Island and get medicine in the hospital.” -

“Maen was taken to hospital at Flores Island, a short boat journey away, before being flown to Bali where he had six hours of emergency treatment and was given 55 stitches. He stayed in hospital there for seven days and then was flown back to Flores Island where he had six months of recovery. Now, just a couple of years later, he’s still working on Rinca Island in the middle of the Komodo National Park. “My boss said ‘what about you? do you want to work here or another place?’ and I say ‘no problem’” But it’s not really ‘no problem’. -

“Maen only works inside now so he doesn’t have to deal with the animals directly. He can’t write for too long, though, because his hand still gets so sore from the injuries. He has a respect for the dragon, telling me, “the dragon – he’s an animal but he’s thinking like people.” And he knows it is still out there somewhere, potentially circling the camp on any day. “The dragon, I can’t remember which one, he’s still alive”, Maen says,” but I think now he’ll be bigger. If he had a bigger neck then, I couldn’t have hold it open.” And that could have been the difference between life and death. Let’s hope they never come face to face again.” -

Endangered Komodo Dragons

Komodo dragons are endangered in the wild and protected by international law. There are between 3,000 and 5,000 Komodo of them living in the wild and around 200 in captivity, mostly in zoos. They never occupied a large range. In addition to there present habitat they once roamed throughout the western and northwestern coast of Flores but are now found only in isolated populations there.

Brendan Borrell wrote in Smithsonian Magazine, “The Komodo dragon is an endangered species, with an estimated 3,000 remaining in the wild. Conservationists say the animals have the most restricted geographic range of any large predator, and that poses a risk because a volcanic eruption or an islandwide fire could prove devastating. Jessop says the populations remain stable and healthy on Komodo and Rinca islands, but the numbers are falling on the smaller islands. On Flores, which is heavily developed and lies outside the national park, fewer than 100 dragons eke out a tenuous existence, and people (illegally) poison them to protect their goats. A small local organization, the Komodo Survival Program, was founded by one of Jessop’s Indonesian collaborators. But most of the support comes from park entry fees and businesses catering to dragon tourism. Komodo dragons may not rank up with panda bears on the cuteness scale, but they have undoubtedly become a flagship species that has helped convince locals and visitors to embrace conservation in Indonesia. The dragon is “a creature of imagination and fantasy,” says Fry. Except it’s real. And, he adds, “You are able to get up to it very, very close.” [Source: Brendan Borrell, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2013 =]

Early censuses counted very few juveniles, which raised an alarm about their future. Later it was discovered that the juveniles were in trees, where the census takers couldn’t see them. The near disappearance of Komodo dragons from Padar was due to poaching of dragon pery and fires.

Komodo dragons are kept at more than 50 zoos around the world and some are believed to be in the possession of individuals. Komodo dragons sell for up to $50,000 on the black market.

The future of Komodo dragons seems good. Not many people live on Komodo and the other islands where dragons are found and thus they do not face a loss of habitat like other large animals. Most of these people are fisherman and do not use dragon habit for agricultural lands. Taking timber for fires is more of a theat.

Breeding and Studying Komodo Dragons

Between 1982 and 1997, captive breeding programs increased the number of Komodo dragons by around 160. The National Zoo in Washington scored a big coup when a couple of dragons, presented to the zoo as a gift from Indonesia to the United States, mated and produced 45 offspring which were given to zoos elsewhere in the U.S. The success was particularly surprising considering the fact that nobody was sure if the parents were a male and female.

Komodo dragons are captured by scientist with long wooden boxes that have a trap door that closes when the lizard enters it to get some bait of carrion or meet. Transmitters have been glued onto the lizard’s skin or placed into dragon food. The ones placed in food remain in the digestive system for a few days before being expelled.

Locals and scientist keep Komodo dragons at a distance by poking them with forked sticks. “Aponomma komodoense” is a kind of a parasite that lives only the scales of the Komodo dragon.

Conservation in Komodo National Park

The boundaries are the park considered adequate to secure the habitat and the main ecological processes to preserve them. The extensive marine buffer zone surrounding the park is key to maintaining the integrity and intactness of the property and the number of exceptional species that it hosts. Illegal fishing and poaching remain the main threats to the values of the property and its overall integrity. There is an extensive marine buffer zone to the park, in which management authority staff has authority to regulate the type of fishing permitted and to some extent the presence of fishermen from outside the area. This buffer zone, which assists in controlling poaching of the terrestrial species that provide the prey species for the komodo lizard, will become significant in the overall long-term protection of the property. [Source: UNESCO]

Komodo National Park is managed by the central government of Indonesia through the Directorate General of Forest Protection and Natural Conservation of the Ministry of Forestry. The history of protection afforded the site goes back to 1938 while official protection began when Ministerial Decree declared the area as a 72,000 ha National Park in March 1980. This area was subsequently extended to 219,322 ha in 1984 to include an expanded marine area and the section of mainland Flores. Comprised of Komodo Game Reserve (33,987 hectares), Rinca Island Nature Reserve (19,625 hectares), Padar Island Nature Reserve (1,533 hectares), Mbeliling and Nggorang Protection Forest (31,000 hectares), Wae Wuul and Mburak Game Reserve (3,000 hectares) and surrounding marine areas (130,177 hectares) the Komodo Biosphere Reserve was accepted under the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme in January 1977. In 1990 a national law, elevating the legislative mandate for conservation to the parliamentary and presidential level significantly empowered the legal basis for protection and management.

In order to ensure the effective management and protection of the park and its exceptional landscapes and biota, the park is governed through the 2000-2025 Management Plan and a 2010-2014 Strategic Plan, which will require revision and updating. These plans are important for ensuring the effective zoning system of the park and guaranteeing the sustainability of the ecosystems of the property. The management authority is known for designing specific plans to guide management decisions which will require updating in line with changes to priorities and threats, in particular expected increases in visitor numbers and impacts from tourism.

The Park receives strong support and resources from the central government of Indonesia. As a tourism location known worldwide, the Indonesian Government has a specific program for ecotourism management to promote the park at the international level and to ensure the sustainability of tourism activities. Additionally, in order to address illegal fishing and poaching, regular patrolling of the marine and terrestrial areas is carried out for law enforcement and a number of the problems and impacts associated with these activities have decreased. Community awareness and empowerment programs are being implemented to engage the local villagers regards to the sustainable use of natural resources and park conservation. Research and study of the unique biological features of the park is also being promoted and supported by the management authority.

Increasing levels of tourism and matters related specifically to the komodo lizard are the major management issues that have been focused on to date. A broadening of the management focus to address issues within the marine area of the park along with other terrestrial species is required to ensure the long-term effective conservation of the property. A focus on the issue of depletion of Komodo monitor prey species stocks has resulted in some success and the same efforts need to be focused on the issues of damaging fishing practices and impacts on other unique species contained within the property.

Komodo Dragons and Local Villagers

Reporting from Komodo, Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Mohammed Sidik used to sell goats to Komodo National Park to feed to the wild Komodo dragons, the world's largest lizards, in a gory display for tourists. Park officials banned the practice in the 1990s because they worried that the dragons were becoming lazy. Now the 10-foot-long predators waddle three miles to this squalid coastal village, raid Sidik's herd and eat his goats for free. "For the last two years they have been coming to the village," said Sidik, 60, who has lost seven animals to the dragons. "When they get thirsty, they come down to our well. The park no longer feeds goats to the dragons, so now the dragons come here." The dragons' visits highlight how things have gone in Komodo National Park since its founding in 1980: great for dragons, not so great for people (and still not good for goats). [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2006 ^*^]

“The park, about 300 miles east of Bali, is one of the few places in Indonesia where people are scarce. It is also one of the few places in the country where the need to protect nature has been placed above the economic interests of people. The result is a park that is pristine and well-protected, a rare species that appears to be thriving, a place where damaged coral reefs are making a comeback and the human population lives in squalor. ^

“Komodo island is about the size of the San Gabriel Valley and its population is tiny, roughly 1,300 in Komodo village and a dozen or so who stay at the park headquarters. The ramshackle village stretches along Loh Liang bay to the south, and its setting is spectacular. It sits on a narrow strip of land, with steep hills rising behind it. The creation of the park, which the U.S.-based Nature Conservancy helps manage, brought sharp restrictions on the ways in which villagers could make a living. Hunting, farming and logging in dragon habitat was banned. So were bombing the reefs with homemade explosives and fishing with cyanide. ^

“Sidik, the goat owner, said he didn't know whether the dragons on Komodo were also growing in number or just getting bolder. Until the mid-1990s, he and other villagers sold goats to the park. Several times a week, the animals were slaughtered and hung from trees for the dragons to feed on. The feedings attracted tourists who came to see the dragons tear the animals apart. Today Sidik allows his goats to roam free and graze at the outskirts of the village. ^

“One day, while checking on the animals, he saw a goat walking toward a dragon that was lying in the grass as if asleep. When the goat drew close, the dragon suddenly swung its huge tail and smashed the animal to the ground. Before the dragon could bite it, Sidik said, he began throwing stones at the lizard and drove it back. He rescued the goat, which was injured but recovered. Sidik accepts the need to protect the Komodo by restricting human activity — even though a thriving dragon population will continue to pose a danger to his goats. "If they find us cutting trees, they can put us in jail," he said. "It's hard, because if we want to build houses, we have to buy wood from Labuan Bajo. But what can we say? It's the law." ^

Poverty and Lack of Jobs for Komodo Villagers

Reporting from Komodo, Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Amid the influx of tourists, little has been done to create new economic opportunities for the villagers. "What we regret most is that we welcomed the national park with open arms but they haven't done anything for us in 20 years," said Amin Bakar, the village secretary. The island's beauty stands in stunning contrast to the poverty of the village. "It used to be easy for us to hunt for deer and get food, and we used to chop down the trees to build houses, and if we wanted to go fishing it was unlimited.” A plump woman of 35, Mala sells food and toiletries to her neighbors from a kiosk next to her house. "Since the national park," she said, "we have been half-dead to get something to eat because everything is restricted." [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2006 ^*^]

“Komodo is one of the poorest villages in Indonesia, a country where more than a quarter of the population lives below the official poverty line, on family income of less than $75 a month. Most of the flimsy houses appear to have been made from scrap lumber. Built on stilts, some lean precariously. Men and women lounge beneath the structures, which offer the only shade in the village. Komodo has no power lines; at night, generators provide electricity. Women fetch water from a well in jugs they balance on their heads. They cook over open fires. The only street is unpaved, but there are no cars anyway, just a couple of motorbikes. There is no sewage system, and inevitably waste ends up in the bay. Near the shore, the sea is a filthy brown. Trash floats on the surface and litters the beach. When the tide is out, dozens of fishing boats sit in mud. ^

“School here ends with sixth grade, and few families can afford to send their children for more education in Labuan Bajo, a three-hour boat ride away on Flores island. To fill their days, some children swim in the sea, others play in the dirt. A few use empty cigarette packs as toys. Chickens and goats wander through the village. Some of the men pass the time playing dominoes. As a crowd watched one recent day, four men sat in the dirt to play, using an old boogie board for a table. There is little money with which to gamble; the losers pay with their dignity, wearing a D-cell battery hanging on a string from an ear during the next match. ^

“Gone are the days when fishermen using explosives could get a ton of fish in an hour. Most fishermen agree with the ban on destructive practices but complain that the park fishing rules overall are too restrictive. They say they are lucky now to haul in 40 pounds a day using traditional nets or lines. Construction of a small hotel or guest house could give an economic boost to the community, but no outsider is likely to invest in a village where the headman demands cash from any visitor he notices entering. Some villagers make a living carving dragons of wood or shell to sell to the few tourists who visit each day. But lack of initiative and resources condemns many to a simple life of subsistence fishing. "This is a protected area, so you cannot do much," said Faisal, 53, a fisherman and father of six. ^

Resentment Over Komodo National Park by Local Villagers

Richard C. Paddock wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Many villagers resent the Nature Conservancy for its role in setting the rules. The TNC, as it is known here, is so widely disliked that it has far better name recognition in Komodo than in the United States. "People here thought the TNC had a long-term plan to raise income and the standard of living in the village," said Hermansyah Akbar, who sells wooden dragons at the park. "But so far, there has been no significant change." [Source: Richard C. Paddock, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2006 ^*^]

In 2005, “The Nature Conservancy transferred management of the park to Putri Naga Komodo, an Indonesian company. The conservancy owns 60 percent of it and most of the management staff remains the same. Villagers say they get nothing from the $20 that foreign visitors, who number about 19,000 a year, pay to enter the park. "People consider the TNC to be the enemy," said Isahaka Mansur, 55, who ekes out a living carving little dragons from shells. "They think it's weird that a foreign nongovernmental organization can be so involved in the national park while we never got any part of it." ^

“Mansur received training through the Nature Conservancy for his carving and is more positive than most about the benefits of the park. He was once shot in the leg while helping catch poachers from another island who were blowing up the reefs near Komodo. "Now we have these handicrafts," he said as he polished one of his dragons. "It is better than destroying the reefs." ^

The Nature Conservancy recognizes that many residents are critical of its role in the park but says that is to be expected given the restrictions on their activities. "You know, you cannot please everybody," conservancy spokeswoman Tri Soekirman said in Bali. "When you're doing conservation work on the ground, you will be perceived as limiting people's access." Residents will benefit in the long term with the recovery of the reef, she said, but it is taking years for them to see that the coral and fish are reviving. "The hardest thing is that you can't show the result immediately to everybody," she said. "But over the years, the reef is getting better naturally. People can see it, tourists can see it." ^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated January 2021

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