Dragon Spotting on Indonesia’s Komodo Island


Komodo dragons inhabit just a few small islands in the center of Indonesia, with Komodo Island and Rinca Island having the largest populations, approximately 1,700 and 1,300, respectively. Early morning is the best time to watch the dragons, as once the temperature rises they become lethargic and seek shade, either in the forest or in their burrows.

“Please, this way,” says Silva, our guide, who gently pulls me away from the approaching creature. He stands at my side with a forked stick held out in front of him, our only protection should the Komodo fancy a quick snack.

While Komodo dragons present little danger to humans, the locals are still wary in their presence. A vice-like jaw contains jagged teeth, and their mouths can carry more than 50 different kinds of bacteria. Without treatment, the smallest bite would quickly lead to septicaemia, but deaths are rare. “The last was about 10 years ago, when a ranger went missing. All they found was his watch,” says Silva.

A Komodo dragon’s regular diet consists of deer and wild pig, but it will also feast on water buffalo, wild horses, small lizards and birds, or even its own young. The islands of the Komodo National Park are some of the few habitats where lizards, and not mammals, are top of the food chain. The wildlife on Komodo is unique.

As Silva guides us away from the rangers’ station, he shows us several false tunnel entrances into an underground Komodo nest made by the mother to confuse other dragons that are keen to enter for an easy meal. Once hatched, the baby dragons scurry into the trees for their first year of life, to avoid the cannibalistic jaws of their relatives. Only when they are large enough to hunt — at around 29 inches (.75 m) long — will they descend to the forest floor.

We spot an approximately 3-year-old youngster trundling through the forest; with its smaller size and green-and-yellow speckling — which it gradually loses with age — it is a less fearsome creature than those we have just seen, but nonetheless dangerous.

Komodo dragons can smell prey up to five miles (8.5 km) away. “They see very badly and cannot hear well,” Silva says, “but he will still be able to smell you when we have finished our walk.”

We continue to walk through the monsoon forest, a mix of coniferous and deciduous woodland, most distinctive of which is the lontar palm, towering some 30 feet (9 m) above the rest of the foliage. Several palms have recently died off after flowering, and they leave behind a canopy of thin gray branches, as if the tree has been pulled up and thrust into the ground upside down.

Tamarind and jujube trees are alive with a rainbow of colorful birds: cockatoos, imperial pigeons, megapodes and collared kingfishers. The contrasting flora and fauna seems appropriate for an island with prehistoric inhabitants.

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