Words by Kim Lings, pictures by Kevin Lings
The word Dragon evokes fairy-tale thoughts of fire-breathing winged creatures, ancient castles, and brave knights. The reality of seeing a fully grown Komodo Dragon, in its natural environment, induces an instinctive awareness of its power and an immediate respect for its ability to survive for centuries on a relatively small number of islands in Indonesia. Fortunately, there is no fire and no wings.
My husband and I traveled to Indonesia in December 2011 with the express intention of visiting Komodo and Rinca Island, the natural home of the Komodo Dragon. Our fascination with the Komodo Dragon was sparked, a number a years-ago, by a Discovery Chanel documentary, and when Komodo Island was voted one of the new Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the decision to visit Komodo Island become very easy.
Like most tourists we entered Indonesia through Bali, then took a 90 minute flight to Labuan Bajo, situated on the Western side of the island of Flores. There, we spent a night at the Bintang Flores Hotel, which has its own private beach, spectacular sunset views of the bay and the warmest and clearest water I have experienced for many years. The hotel has excellent facilities and is an ideal base to rest and prepare for the trip to the Komodo Nature Reserve.
Very early the following morning we boarded our private boat and set sail for Komodo Island, a 4 hour leisurely and picturesque trip West from the harbor of Labuan Bajo. As the sun rose, we could start to fully appreciate the beautiful island scenery, clear tranquil water, numerous bird-life and the multitude of small fishing boats anchored in numerous sheltered bays.
After 4 hours, the final approach to Komodo Island seemed to take ages. Perhaps it was the anticipation of finally seeing a Komodo Dragon, perhaps it was our guide cautioning us about the dangers of the Dragon or the reality that we may not actually see a Komodo Dragon, despite the fact that the island has over 1 500 Dragons. As our guide pointed-out, Komodo Island is a relatively large nature reserve and the animals are free to wander, unrestricted so a sighting cannot be guaranteed.
Once on Komodo Island, we experienced the beauty and wonder of an area like nowhere else in the world. All visitors to the Komodo National Park must be accompanied by a ranger, who also serves as your guide through the national park area.
There are no vehicles on the island and hence all game viewing is done on foot. We chose a walking route that included a hike up to a viewing area, which gave us a very good idea of how serene, beautiful and un-spoilt the islands are. The trail affords spectacular panoramic views of the ocean and islands in the distance and of Komodo and Rinca islands themselves.
Fortunately, not long into our walk we came across our first Komodo Dragon, an adult male lazing in the shade. He was massive, around 3 meters in length, and clearly very powerful, with short legs, sharp claws, and a low center of gravity. They are truly fearsome creatures with enormous jaws. Komodo Dragons have keen senses, especially smell, and are considered amongst the most intelligent of all reptiles. Being excellent swimmers, they can use their powerful tails, which are the length of their body, for propulsion in the strong ocean currents. This allows them to travel between islands in search of food or mates.
As we were observing our first Dragon, we suddenly saw a juvenile Dragon, scuttling through the bush hoping he had not been noticed by the adult Dragon. The Komodo Dragon is cannibalistic in nature and juvenile Dragons are regularly on an adult Dragon’s menu.
A few minutes later our guide suddenly noticed another big Komodo hidden in the bushes, just a few meters away – their camouflage is outstanding and because they are not skittish it is extremely easy to wander within a meter or two of a Dragon. Within a few minutes, the Dragon that had been hiding in the bush started to approach the other large male. Fortunately, after a lot of loud hissing, the approaching Dragon became submissive and averted an almost certain fight.
The Dragons can measure up to 3 meters in length and can weigh up to 165kg, fully grown. They are also surprisingly agile and can achieve a top speed of around 18 km per hour. Getting close to a fully grown Komodo Dragon is certainly extremely exciting, but if a Komodo Dragon decided to attack there would be very little anyone could do to stop the beast, and “running-like-hell” is probably your only defense.
Komodo dragons were first documented by Europeans in 1910, when rumors of a “land crocodile” reached the Dutch colonial administrators. They have since gained international notoriety, but remain rare and endangered. There are only approximately 4 000 to 5 000 Komodo dragons in the wild. Komodo dragons have long been great zoo attractions. Their large size and fearsome reputation make them popular exhibits. However, they are extremely susceptible to infection and parasitic disease if captured from the wild, and do not readily reproduce in captivity. South Africa has two young male Komodo Dragons in the National Pretoria Zoo, and are well worth a visit.
These monitor lizards, (Varanus Komodoensis) are the world’s largest lizard and are only found on the Indonesian islands of Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang and Gili Dasami. The dragons are protected under Indonesian law and Komodo National Park was founded to aid protection efforts. Fortunately through increased tourism, the locals are learning the dragons are worth more alive than dead.
The diet of adult Komodo dragons mainly consist of deer and water buffalo, though they also eat considerable amounts of carrion. Young Komodo dragons are extremely vulnerable and therefore dwell in trees for a few years, safe from predators and the cannibalistic adult Komodo Dragons. They take about eight to nine years to mature, and are estimated to live for up to 30 years.
The Dragon also has a long, yellow, deeply forked tongue which it uses to sample the air and to detect, taste, and smell. With the help of a favorable wind and its habit of swinging its head from side to side as it walks, Komodo dragons are able to detect food over a distance of more than 5 kilometers. Once they bite their prey, the dragon stalks the wounded animal until it finally succumbs to the toxins in the dragon’s saliva which is full of bacteria.
Our time on Komodo and Rinca Island was truly memorable. We saw a total of 18 dragons and took hundreds of pictures. We even came across a dragon digging for eggs in an abandoned nest. On the way back to the Island of Flores, we broke the journey to snorkel at the pristine “Pink Beach” and to see Mangrove Island, where thousands of bats (flying foxes) leave the island at sunset each day to go in search of food – a spectacular sight.
Getting to and finding the Komodo Dragons on Komodo and Rinca Island is an Indonesian adventure that you will never forget – these protected creatures are one of the most interesting wildlife encounters you can have.