The world’s largest lizards are living remnants of prehistoric times. If you didn’t know they still exist, a sighting in the wild would be hard to comprehend, as they look like creatures from a different era. The only place to see them in the wild is in Komodo National Park, a small area of protected wilderness between Sumbawa and Flores islands.
The enormous dragons, with their flat heads, scaly skin and long forked tongues, evoke images of primordial times, when fearsome and mighty creatures ruled the Earth. A trip to Komodo may as well be a journey back in time.
The mammoth lizards have captivated mankind’s imagination ever since their discovery along ancient Spice Routes, but have only been scientifically documented over the past 100 years. Perhaps the most famous dragon to date, Naga, was given to former US President George H.W. Bush as a gift in 1990 by then President of Indonesia, Suharto.
Komodo dragons are classified as endangered, with numbers in the wild at just around 2,000. They reside only on the islands of Rinca, Gili-Motang, and Komodo island itself. It has been rumored that small populations live on the greater island of Flores as well. A combination of poaching, natural disasters, human encroachment and a lack of egg-laying females have all contributed to their endangered status.
People around the world flock to see captive Komodos in zoos, fascinated by the legends of their ferocity, prehistoric appearance and deadly bites. Undoubtedly, though, the best way to see them is in their natural habitat as they have been for millions of years in this special part of the world.
Komodo National Park comprises three main islands – Komodo, Rinca, and Padar, as well as a number of smaller islands. There are endless white and pink sand beaches with clear, emerald green water ideal for snorkeling or diving at some of the world’s most exciting dive sites. The park’s undulating hills and geographical formations have a unique signature, reminding one at once that this area is different from the rest of the archipelago.
Komodo National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, covering just 1,733 km2 (669 mi2), quite small in comparison to other national parks in Indonesia. To compare, Raja Ampat is about 40,000 km2(15,444 mi2). Komodo’s west coast is the least visited, and the southern portion of the park is also often deserted. The busiest area of the park is in the northeast, due to its concentration of the most famous dive sites and proximity to Labuan Bajo harbor.
The islands, positioned between the flow of sea currents, attract manta rays, whales, dolphins, dugongs and sea turtles as well as over 1,000 species of tropical fish. Komodo’s abundant marine wildlife and currents set the stage for some of the most exciting drift dives in the world.
Komodo’s landscape is defined by dramatic cliffs rising sharply from the azure sea. The rock formations make it clear that tectonic plates have made radical shifts in the past. Below the surface, rich marine biodiversity awaits, home to over 250 species of coral.
European explorers began to trade in the Indonesian Archipelago at the start of the 16th Century. They were transfixed by the range of flora and fauna on the wild jungle and volcanic landscapes.
Dutch sailors had often talked about sightings of dragons on the shores of islands in the area of Komodo but due to isolation the massive monitors remained undocumented by western science until centuries later. In 1910, a British plane crashed into the sea near Komodo. The pilot managed to climb ashore and was found days later by a rescue team. When the team brought him ashore the pilot was raving, saying the island was inhabited by dragons who ate the native people. The rescue team initially thought the man was delirious. The tale spread throughout Europe and became distorted, until the Komodo dragon reached mythological status.
By 1912, a Dutch colonial administrator named Lieutenant van Steyn van Hensbroek visited the islands, killed a Komodo dragon, and brought it home. He named it Varanus Komodoensis, after Komodo Island, although local people call them ‘Ora’ or ‘Land Crocodile.
The name ‘Komodo Dragon’ was actually given to the animals by an American named W. Douglas Burden, who was a trustee of the American Museum of Natural History. By the 1920s the creatures had achieved a notoriety that was so powerful that Burden took it upon himself to go ‘dragon hunting’ with his wife. In 1926, the Burdens became the first known people to take a ship to Komodo Island. In a sense, the Burdens could be considered the first charter clients to Komodo.
Burden had said he wanted to find ‘a primeval monster, in a primeval setting.’ Burden managed to persuade the Dutch Colonial Government to give him and his expedition the use of the Steamer the ‘S.S. Dog’ which allowed them to travel over 15,000 miles. At that time, before World War II, travelling was a feat of endurance and stamina. In modern times, flying is not as much of a test of will – it’s possible to take flights which last hours rather than days. However, the Indonesian archipelago is so vast and unexplored that the traveler today can still get a very real sense of traveling back through time – just like the Burden family in 1926.
The Burden expedition succeeded in not only spotting Komodo dragons but in bringing live specimens back to the Bronx Zoo in New York. The creatures didn’t survive long, but this didn’t halt Burden’s imagination – he went on to publish a book called ‘Dragon Lizards of Komodo: An Expedition to the Lost World of the Dutch East Indies 1927’ – It was this book which gave Komodo dragons their name.
In addition to the book, Burden intended to have a movie made about his expedition. However, it was deemed that the tale was not suitably dramatic enough to become a movie. This wasn’t where the story ended though – a friend of Burden’s, Merian C. Cooper, used the expedition as inspiration for writing the movie script King Kong, substituting the Komodo dragon for a giant ape which is brought back from the wild to be put on display. A little known fact is the scenery and sense of adventure in King Kong was derived from Burden’s descriptions and film footage from Komodo.
Komodo dragons are perhaps some of the most feared creatures in the world. Although their mythological status proved to be not quite correct, they have achieved notoriety as vicious predators who have attacked, and on occasion killed, humans.
The first recorded victim of Komodo dragons in the last few decades was a Swiss baron named Rudolph Von Reding Bibergg. In 1974, he vanished while on a nature walk and was presumed killed by a Komodo dragon.
Dragons often feed side by side when they catch the scent of prey, consuming almost all parts of the corpse. They are each capable of consuming up to 70% of their own body-weight, which accounts for the lack of human remains related to Von Reding Bibregg’s disappearance.
On his epitaph is written “He loved nature throughout his life.”
More recently, in 2007, a boy was sadly killed on Komodo during the dry season. This marked the first human fatality in 33 years.
The following year, 2008, a group of divers were swept from where they were scuba-diving near their boat by the strong currents that surround Komodo. They ended up on Rinca island some 10 hours later. It was two days and two nights before rescue teams found them. The stranded divers threw rocks at the dragons to keep them at bay and luckily no-one was seriously injured. The group was in deep shock when they were found and described it as a terrifying experience, with members having to stay vigilant to ward off attack attempts from the dragons.
In 2009, a local resident named Muhamad Anwer fell from a tree when gathering sugar apples on Komodo Island. Two Komodo dragons were at the foot of the tree and he was killed, dying from massive loss of blood en route to the hospital.
With such gruesome attacks, it’s no wonder Komodo dragons still have a fearsome reputation.
But how much do we actually know about these powerful creatures and how they became so large and fierce?
Komodo dragons can reach up to 3 m (10 ft) in length and weigh up to 136 kg (300 lbs). Average size is around 2.5 m (8 ft) for males and 1.8 m (6 ft) for females. They can live up to 30 years.
It was originally thought that the Komodo dragon’s huge size was the result of the ‘Island Effect’ wherein animals evolve large bodies due to a lack of food competition and high food availability, or because certain foods were more easily available that led to the development of a large gut and corresponding large body size.
Another hypothesis is the ‘Secondary Island Effect’ which suggests that they evolved in relation to an animal called the Pygmy Stegodon, a small elephant. The theory holds that Komodos grew in size at the same rate the elephants did so they could continue to prey on them.
A new theory, however, suggests that Komodo dragons originated in Australia – which was home to several large prehistoric lizard species. These were even larger than the Komodo, with some up to five meters long. Fossils of Komodo dragons have been found dating back from 300,000 – 400 million years in Eastern Australia. Komodo’s were actually relatively small in comparison to some of the larger Australian lizard species; however, they were the only ones to survive into modern times when they migrated to Indonesia.
It could be that the lack of predators on Komodo, including lack of human development due to the remoteness has contributed to the dragons survival beyond any of their relatives in other parts of the world that are now extinct.
Scientists have theorized that Komodo dragons are capable of ‘asexual reproduction’ which means females don’t need a male to fertilize an egg. They seem to be able to reproduce via both sexual and asexual reproduction, although exactly how isn’t well understood. Mating usually happens around May, and a mother will lay a clutch of eggs in September. She will then incubate these eggs for around three months.
Once the eggs hatch, baby dragons immediately seek shelter in trees, which is necessary because Komodo dragons will eat their young.
As a Komodo dragon grows it must continually seek safety above ground, where the adult dragons are unable to follow due to their larger body weight. The young Komodo will roll in fecal matter to avoid being detected via scent. It can take up to four years for a young dragon to reach a size big enough for it to return safely to the ground.
The dragons have a reputation for poor sight and hearing which is not entirely deserved. They can spot prey at around 100 m (300 ft), although their hearing range is narrow.
An additional way of detecting prey is through their long, forked tongue, which flicks out of their mouths every second or two. Molecules picked up by the tongue are transferred to a sensor in the creature’s mouth which ‘maps’ where prey can be found.
A Komodo dragon may look slightly strange when walking as its giant claws and heavy limbs give it the appearance of being off-balance, and even shambling. However, it’s wise for prey not to be deceived – they can run up to 20 kph (12 mph) for short periods and are good swimmers. Despite this, dragons prefer to hunt by stealth or take advantage of already-deceased prey. A Komodo dragon will patiently stalk its prey for hours and even days once it’s picked up its scent.
At rest they lie camouflaged on the ground. If on a ranger tour of the Komodo islands, be careful where you step as you may inadvertently stumble over one.
Komodo dragons are reputed to have powerful jaws, but this is a myth. In reality they have a low bite force. What makes their bite so dangerous are their shark-like teeth which can easily rip open flesh. They have enormously powerful neck muscles which allow them to shake their prey back and forth as their teeth serrate open the body. They’re capable of creating massive wounds this way, which quickly leads to massive blood loss.
On islands such as Komodo, local farmers have a tradition of leaving deceased cattle and other domesticated animals as offerings to the dragons. Ten to twenty years ago it was common for goats to be tied up for dragons to eat as a spectacle for tourists, although this practice has since gone out of favor.
Despite their immense size and ferocity, Komodo dragons do not tend to attack each other while feeding. Instead they gather around the prey and tear it apart together, eating skin, bone and sinew in a matter of minutes. Smaller dragons emit low hisses and give signs of submission in their body language to larger ones during communal feeding to avoid being themselves attacked.
Komodos will, however, fight one another for territory and mating rights, occasionally to the death. They use their muscular tails to strike each other and rear up on their hind legs to wrestle and attempt to use their teeth to serrate their opponent.
There may be a softer side to Komodos though – in captivity they have been observed displaying what researchers call ‘play-like’ behavior. Whether this is a result of captivity conditioning or due to their native temperament isn’t yet clear. It is definitely best to refrain from playing with a wild Komodo!
In 1981, Walter Affenberg published a book on the dragons after spending many years studying them on Komodo Island. His seminal book gave more information about these fascinating creatures to the wider world, but it also created a myth about ‘deadly bacteria’ inside their mouths.
Because Affenberg noticed that large animals, particularly water buffalo, were too large to be killed outright by a Komodo yet seemed to sicken and die soon after suffering an attack, he postulated that the dragons must have some form of fast-acting and deadly bacteria in their saliva.
Many guidebooks, documentaries and textbooks still perpetuate this theory, as do some misinformed local tour guides. However, Bryan Fry of the University of Queensland has found the truth is somewhat different.
After swabbing the mouths of dragons in captivity and analyzing the results, Fry discovered that there are no particularly virulent strains of bacteria inside a Komodo’s mouth. What he did discover was the presence of a venom gland filled with toxins that can quicken blood loss. Combined with the huge wounds the animals inflict, their prey is quickly sent into shock.
Fry does believe that bacteria can help cause the deaths of larger Komodo prey, although more indirectly. Large prey such as water buffalo aren’t native to the area; they were introduced by humans. When a Komodo attacks one, it doesn’t die immediately and escapes to hide in its preferred environment of stagnant watering holes. However, the huge wounds inflicted by the Komodo coupled with fecal bacteria in the stagnant water cause massive infections that lead to death.
While there is no deadly bacteria in the mouths of Komodo, their venom coupled with normal bacteria inside their mouths can still be extremely dangerous to humans. If bitten, a person should immediately be evacuated to a larger island for medical care. Some rangers have been bitten but have recovered well after doses of powerful antibiotics.
Seeing a Komodo dragon in the wild is an unforgettable experience. There are Rangers Stations on Rinca and Komodo which offer the chance to learn more about them and see them up close on a guided trek.
On Rinca, short or long treks are arranged depending on fitness and ability to tolerate the heat. This station has the advantage of being close to Labuan Bajo on Flores island, which is the main departure point for visiting Komodo.
Nusa Kode beach on Komodo island offers the chance to have a truly wild encounter with the Komodos where they bask and run on the beach.
A few rules of thumb include not attempting to approach Komodos without a guide as they are extremely dangerous, possibly even fatal. It is important to remain quiet and not attempt to feed or disturb the dragons. Shoes must be worn, and women should inform Park Rangers if they are menstruating, as Komodos can smell blood and may react aggressively.
Fires and smoking are prohibited on the islands to prevent the risk of bushfires which could devastate the area. Likewise, it is strictly prohibited to bring any food or packed lunches on the islands as it may whet the dragons’ appetites.
The Komodo dragon is a powerful and majestic animal. Its fierceness and primeval nature offer a chance to be transported back through time to connect to the prehistoric natural world in a way that no other creature can.