Komodo Dragons

komodo dragon

If you want a glimpse into the prehistoric world then look no further than the Komodo dragon.

Since watching a documentary by David Attenborough on them they have always fascinated me. Long flat heads with eyes set wide apart to give them panoramic vision, this largest living species of lizard and can grow up to three metres in length and reach weights of up to 70kg. The fork tongue which snaps out of their mouths to test the air gives them a menacing presence. At rest they have an air of serenity about them just soaking up the sun in the daytime looking almost benign but at the same time being deadly when it comes to catching prey, which includes the relatively large Timor deer.

Their roots can be traced back 40 million years to Asia when monitor lizards migrated to Australia, where the combination of abundance of food and lack of competition allowed then to evolve into the giant lizards they are today. Now inhabiting a number of the islands in the central Indonesian archipelago it is possible to see these magnificent animals in their natural environment, the most famous of these being Komodo island where the national park and visitors centre is located.

It was previously thought that bacteria in the saliva of the mouths of the dragons was a way of bringing larger prey such as water buffalo down. However, subsequent research has disproved this with death of prey occurring due to blood loss and shock. There have been cases of dragons stalking buffalo for a days after biting it, but death is not due to killer bacteria but to infection picked up when the buffalo retreated to the water to protect itself from the pursuing predator. Bacteria in the muddy water caused the infection and the dragon only moved in after the buffalo was incapacitated and unable to fight back.

Although they have been around for millions of years they have only become widely known in the last century when Dutch colonial settlers reported seeing ‘land crocodiles’ in and around the island of Komodo. This was followed by a period of study and collection with two dragons exhibited in the reptile house in London zoo when it opened its doors in 1927. Not long after their hunting was banned and a strict limit placed on the numbers that could be taken for study to help preserve the population of animals that remained in the area.

When I left home in the direction of Asia and Australia for a year of travel there was one only one thing that I really wanted to see. Forget about experiencing Asian street food, seeing Sydney opera house or going to a full moon party in Thailand I wanted to see a Komodo dragon.

After arriving in the Indonesian tourist hotspot of Bali I headed in the general direction of the dragons stopping off on Lombok island to climb the magnificent mount Rinjani a volcano which rises over 3500 metres above sea level.

The trip from Lombok to Lubuan Bajo on Flores island where I organised the trip to Komodo was not that far distance wise but did take 24 hours on a battered bus. There were two ferry crossings, one from Lombok to Sumbawa island and another from Sumbawa to Flores. However most of this trip was not taken up admiring some of the 17,500 islands of the Indonesian archipelago but sitting on the bus on the near 400km section crossing Sumbawa.

The island itself is nowhere near 400km, it is maybe half that but the roads are winding and rutted with the driver constantly having to adjust his speed and direction to avoid potholes, oncoming traffic or other obstacles in the road. The bus was shared with passengers laden with heavy suitcases, families with small children, tourists, chickens and sometimes other locals who hopped on for a short time and were going between towns in Sumbawa.

This was my first time experiencing this kind of travel and I loved it. I had previously taken long buses around Europe but they were large and more comfortable, as well as being mostly boring. The bus from Lombok to Flores on the other hand was not that comfortable but definitely not boring. The chatter of passengers, occasion chirp of a chicken or roadside food stop made this a trip to remember.

And all of this even before I got the main attraction of Komodo. Although the national park office is located on Komodo there are dragons on the surrounding islands also including Rinca, where I first saw on of these fabled species. Having come this far I decided to take a two day trip visiting both Rinca and Komodo, spending a night on a boat just off Komodo.

My first sighting of a Komodo dragon will stay with me forever. Just after we set foot on Rinca I spotted an adult dragon sat in the early morning sun, not moving a muscle. As we got closer, I could make out the tough scales covering the entirety of the upper side of the body and the occasion tongue flick to test the air and get an idea of what was happening.

My first sight reminded me of crocodiles resting on a bank motionless ready to go from zero to all-out attack in a split second. Our guide Eka kept us at a safe distance while we admired these prehistoric wonders.

“They won’t attack a person but we will stay a few metres away. Now (August) is the season when they lay their eggs so we like to give them a bit more space this time of year” Eka said as we looked on.

Since my trip to see the Komodo dragons it has emerged that females can lay eggs without fertilisation by a male. This discovery occurred after two females in English zoos laid eggs without having come into contact with males. These occurrences in 2005 and 2006 resulted in all male hatchlings and it is thought that males are always the product of this type if reproduction in Komodo dragons.

We stayed on Rinca for a few hours watching the dragons laze about in the sunshine with sudden bursts of energy and rapid movement reminding everyone to keep their distance.

On arrival on Komodo we saw many more as they congregate around the visitor centre where it appears they are fed but it is possible to see them elsewhere on the island also. Eka took us out for a walk where we saw one adult male alone in a clearing. This one wasn’t as used to people as the ones at the visitor centre and moved away from us quickly, its sturdy legs carrying its mean looking body in a side to side motion that made me glad it was going the opposite direction. After this encounter we headed back towards the visitor centre to do some more dragon watching.

Two days spent in the company of Komodo dragons seeing over thirty of them behave as they had for millions of years was definitely the highlight of a year of travel.