The Komodo dragon – that giant monitor lizard inhabiting a few islands in Eastern Indonesia – is an exception. Biologically-speaking, of course, it is the world’s largest lizard, and a last survivor of monster lizards (bigger even than the Komodo) that once roamed a good portion of both Indonesia and Australia.
But the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), is also an exception in conservation, both locally and globally. This became especially clear to me when I visited the islands of Flores and Komodo last spring. On arriving at the new airport in Labuan Bajo, I couldn’t help but marvel over the giant dragon replica sitting proudly for all arrivals to see. Clearly, the local government and developers were announcing the importance of dragons to the region.
Many of the world’s top predators are gravely endangered and in decline. In addition, most of Indonesia’s large-bodied animals (including orangutans, elephants, rhinos and tigers) seem to be falling closer to extinction with every year that passes.
But, the Komodo dragon is not. It is largely a conservation success story in a country where such examples are practically non-existent right now, and in a world where such tales for top predators are rare. So what makes the Komodo dragon different? And why have conservationists largely succeeded here when they are struggling to protect other big animals across the country?
A world-class park devoted to a dragon
For a long time, the Komodo dragon existed only in rumor to the wider world. Then in 1912 an intrepid Dutch army man, Lieutenant van Steyn van Hensbroek, visited Komodo Island, shot a dragon dead and sent the skin to naturalist, Peter Ouwens, who wrote the first-ever scientific paper on the massive predator.
Just fourteen years later, an expedition led by Americans W. Douglas Burden brought the first living dragons out of Indonesia. The dragons died quickly after arriving at the Bronx Zoo, but Burden’s wild expedition–and his even more colorful writing–became the inspiration for “King Kong.”
Fifty-some years later, experts began to fear for the dragon’s long-term survival. This concern led to the establishment of Komodo National Park in 1980 and its listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
Indonesian-expert on the species, Achmad Ariefiandy, with the Komodo Dragon Survivor Program agrees that his subject is mostly a conservation success story.
“Especially in Komodo National Park,” he noted.
The park covers not just the famous–or infamous–Komodo Island, but 28 other islands including several more where dragons live, such as Rinca. Experts believe that around 2,500 of the giant monitors live inside the park. Komodo Island and Rinca house over 1,100 each while two other islands – Montang and Kode – are home to about 50 each.
“The government authority has been successfully protecting not only [the Komodo dragon] but also…the habitat and their prey. They also educated the people living around the park,” Ariefiandy said, adding that “researchers are contributing scientific information.”
Decades of successful management in the park (as opposed to many other so-called “paper parks” in Southeast Asia), has secured a good portion of the species’ small but stable population, and the bulk of its current habitat.
Ariefiandy says currently the only real threat to the dragon in Komodo National Park is deer poaching (a primary prey species), but he adds that wildlife officials have done a good job at keeping even this threat to a minimum.
Although tourism is a heavy presence on the island–on the day I visited a monster cruise ship unloaded its passengers for day trips–Ariefiandy says this doesn’t threaten the wildlife, largely because less than 10 percent of the park is open to visitors.
Pride and tourism
If you want to see Komodo dragons, you start out in Labuan Bajo in western Flores. Here, you most likely take a boat either to Komodo or Rinca. But you’ll know you’re in dragon country the minute you enter town. You see dragons everywhere: wooden carved dragons, dragons on signs, dragons on shirts. People here love their dragons, in part because the massive man-eater has become a major tourism draw.
“Tourism is developed now,” Arman Rikardus, my freelance guide in the region and a native of Labuan Bajo, wrote to me later. “Many hotels [have been] built and many travel agents also opened…Tourism industry has created job opportunities. Previously, many of our talented people looked for jobs in Bali.”
Rikardus noted that while work opportunities in Flores were still “very limited,” the rise in dragon tourism has certainly helped the island economy. Moreover, he said that tourists who come to visit the dragons also engage in other activities, such as visiting local villages, creating a further economic boon for Flores.
But for Rikardus, the conservation of the Komodo dragon is not just about his own livelihood, but something deeper.
“Honestly, I’m grateful that the dragons still survive…otherwise I [would] just hear the story about that animal,” he wrote.
Ariefiandy, who also lives in Labuan Bajo but is not from there, agreed that locals view the dragon as an “asset.”
Still, he added that there are downsides to a sudden boom in tourism.
“The inflation rate is very high [in Labuan Bajo] and the living cost is very expensive nowadays, especially if I compare with some 10 years ago, when I first arrived,” he said.
Still, even though living with Komodo dragons isn’t easy–on average there is usually one attack a year from dragons–locals appear largely to support conservation efforts.
“[The locals have worked] hard to keep the dragons,” said Rikardus who added that local islanders tell an origin myth that says Komodo dragons and humans have the same mother. “They were twins. I think this helps [with] conservation.”
Dragon madness is perhaps most apparent on Komodo Island. Before you can hike into the interior you first have to make your way through a barrage of Komodo dragon souvenirs. The island’s inhabitants–around 2,000 people–make their living in part from selling dragon souvenirs to the swarm of tourists eager to see the world’s biggest lizard.
The IUCN Red List currently categorizes the Komodo dragon as Vulnerable. However, the listing is nearly two decades old and probably needs updating. That said, it’s likely the dragon will always face some level of threat, given the fact that it only survives in a small area, making it what scientists call a range-restricted species.
In this case, though, it’s restrictedness could be seen as a both a minus and a plus. On the minus side, it means Komodo dragons will probably never be very numerous. But on the plus side, it’s simpler to provide habitat protection for a species found only on a few islands. Its tiny range also gives the species an aura of mystique: there’s only one place in the world you can see a wild Komodo dragon, making it a global emblem of the Lesser Sunda Islands.
But just because the dragon is thriving in parts of its range, doesn’t mean it’s doing well everywhere. Ariefiandy said that conservation efforts today have moved from Komodo and Rinca to the lesser-known population on mainland Flores. Researchers believe that Komodo dragons once roamed most of Flores, an island just a little smaller than Connecticut, but over thousands of years, people have pushed the dragons into ever-smaller pockets on the island’s north and west. This population, genetically-distinct from the others, remains threatened.
“Most of the Komodo dragon distribution areas in Flores are not [in] protected areas like nature reserve or National Parks,” explained Ariefiandy. Flores does have two parks devoted to protecting dragons: Wae Wuul Reserve and Wolo Tado Reserve, but they fail to cover a majority of the dragon’s range on Flores.
“Mostly the dragons live side-by-side with humans [on Flores],” said Ariefiandy, adding that “competition is inevitable.”
Komodo dragons hunt in a peculiar way. Their saliva is full of bacteria, which infects and kills their prey 24 hours after a bite. Komodo dragons then use their tongue to sniff the air and find their dead prey. Photo by Jeremy Hance.
Competition comes in many different forms. Villagers sometimes poach deer, the main food of the dragons, or cut and burn down dragon habitat. Locals also sometimes target dragons directly, blaming them for eating precious livestock such as goats. But the violence can go both ways. Komodo dragons are highly dangerous and have been known to attack, and sometimes even kill, people.
“Understanding their behavior makes me even more and careful when working with this animal, because the more you understand the danger the more you want to work safely,” said Ariefiandy. “There is no point to became an expert and [then] behave like a T.V, star…you will end up getting bit by a dragon.”
Given that the dragon appears largely secure on the off-shore islands, Ariefiandy said that Flores needs “more attention from the authorities.”
Even with ongoing challenges, the story of Komodo dragon conservation is starkly different from other megafauna on Indonesia (orangutans, tigers, elephants, Sumatran rhinos), most of which have seen their populations plunge in the last couple decades. What can be learned from the dragons’ success?
On the one hand, conservation of the Komodo dragon may be as unique as the species itself. Given its small range and notoriety, the dragon has proved, arguably, easier to save than other species in the region.
But such an explanation may ignore possible lessons. After all, elephants and orangutans are arguably just as famous–or more famous–than Komodo dragons. And tigers can be as problematic to local communities when it comes to human-wildlife conflict.
One lesson from the Komodo dragon may be that to save a top predator–and megafauna in general–one must do just a few things: protect a good portion of its habitat, safeguard its prey, and have buy-in from local people that live near it.
“Being close with this animal is an amazing life-time experience,” said Ariefiandy, who noted that when he was offered the chance to study the dragon a decade ago, he “never [thought] twice.”
Perhaps if the dragon’s lessons were more widely applied to other species throughout Indonesia’s vast archipelago, the nation’s wildlife wouldn’t be in such dire straits—and eco-tourism could get a boost. There is no question the Komodo dragon is an exceptional creature, but that doesn’t mean the general success of its conservation has to be equally exceptional.