It looks hot, desolate and hostile from shore and at a length of 35 km, it is no more than a speck on the map. It is home to venomous snakes, poisonous spiders and carnivorous reptiles, and if it weren’t for one famous but mysterious animal that lives here, you probably wouldn’t even recognize its name: Komodo Island, the home of the Komodo dragon (or Komodo Monitor).
Komodo Island is one of 17,508 islands in Indonesia. There are no roads on Komodo Island, no motor vehicles and no regular ferry service exists for its 2,000 inhabitants to connect with the outside world. As descendants of former convicts who have been banished to this place and mixed with the Bugis from Sulawesi, the people who live here make a living from fishing, carving wooden dragons as souvenirs and guiding a sparse number of tourists around the Komodo National Park. There are no acceptable options for accommodation on this island (by western standards) and no picnic or camping spots at this UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. Despite Komodo Island having been recognized as one of the “New 7 Natural Wonders of the World”, it appears that the world has yet to discover this place. For now, the unique fauna on this island and the spectacular marine life and coral reefs surrounding it will remain largely undiscovered by mass tourism.
The Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), the reason why we came to this island, is the largest lizard on earth. Called “ora” or “land crocodile” by the natives, it is believed to have lived across Indonesia and Australia at least 4 million years ago when a land bridge existed between the two continents. The end of the ice age stranded the dragons on the Lesser Sunda Islands where they lived undiscovered by the developed world. In 1910 a Dutch sailors visited the island and claimed to have seen creatures that were 7 m (23 ft) long, constantly spitting fire. I guess the long journey home played tricks with the sailors’ imagination as later excursions, launched in response to these reports, found the largest dragon specimen to be no longer than 3.35 m (11 ft), weighing 166 kg (366 lbs). The supposed flame-throwing capabilities of the dragons were quickly reduced to a venomous drool. Interestingly, fossils of a V. komodoensis-like reptile were found in Australia, leading scientists to believe that the size of the Komodo dragon has not changed very much over the past million years.
Female dragons mate May to August; 20 to 30 eggs are laid into dug holes or into abandoned megapode birds’ nests in September; the eggs hatch 7 to 9 months later. Apparently, dragon parents do not think that upbringing and educating their young is part of their job. The hatchlings are left to fend for themselves.
Very conveniently, female dragons can become pregnant and lay viable eggs without the help of a male. However, they do this only in the prolonged absence of a male partner (e.g. when females are separated from male dragons in a zoo environment). This phenomenon, called “facultative parthenogenesis”, only produces dragons of male gender and allows the female to eventually mate with its own offspring, ensuring survival of the species. Dragons mature after 8 to 9 years and can live for 30 to 50 years.
Young Komodo dragons comprise 10 % of an adult Komodo dragon’s food intake. Yes, they eat their young. To avoid being eaten, baby dragons take advantage of two crucial characteristics that all adult Komodos share: a) they are too heavy to climb trees and b) they have a strong dislike for fecal matter. Consequently, young dragons spend a lot of time in trees and they roll in dragon poo to make hungry adults run the other way. Who told them to do this?
Adult dragons can run as fast a 20 km/h (13 mi/h) but only for a short distance. They can also swim fast and dive to a depth of 4.5 m (15 ft) so don’t even think about out-running or out-swimming a Komodo dragon. Its powerful legs and claws allow the dragon to accelerate very quickly. Given the mode of operation the Komodo employs during an attack, it will not have to run very far, anyway. Being at the top of the food chain has its advantages. Waiting patiently for hours in the shade near game trails, the dragon pounces on prey as it unsuspectingly walks towards the water hole. The Komodo’s favourite food is goats, deer, wild horses, fruit bats, water buffalo and wild boar. Often, the dragon is unsuccessful in bringing down an animal, but as long as the dragon has been able to bite its victim, it will die – even if it takes a few days. And that’s where the dragon’s exceptional smell comes in handy: The dragon can sense prey from up to 5 km (3 mi) away by sampling airborne molecules with its tongue. By touching the tips of the forked tongue against the roof of its mouth and swinging its head from side to side, the dragon can tell in which direction it has to walk to retrieve its dying prey.
Once it has been able to bite and draw blood, the Komodo can be pretty sure that its attack has been a success. That is because the saliva of the dragon contains 57 strains of bacteria. Most likely, the attack has produced a flesh wound which will become infected from the pathogens very soon, leading to blood poisoning and the eventual death of the animal. The claim about the bacteria being the main cause for the prey’s death was challenged in 2009 by Australian researchers who performed an MRI scan of a dragon’s skull and found two glands in the lower jaw. These glands are said to secrete venom in the form of several toxic proteins. The effects of the venom include inhibition of blood clotting, lowering of blood pressure, muscle paralysis and the induction of hypothermia and shock. The truth about the enormously successful hunting technique of the Komodo dragon still remains a mystery, but may very well lie in a combination of the two deadly biological processes
Once the prey has been retrieved, the feeding begins. Komodo dragons are ferocious when it comes to devouring deer or buffalo or goats. They can rip and tear into the body of their prey quickly using their 60 curved, serrated and up to 2.5 cm (1 inch) long teeth. Their stomach expands easily and will accommodate up to 80 % of the dragon’s body weight in food. Dragons are not too selective when it comes to deciding which body parts are edible and which are not. Komodos can swallow an entire goat in 15 to 20 minutes. They will consume the entire animal but will eventually regurgitate horns, hooves and hide. Intestines are especially delicious but only after they have been emptied of fecal matter. This is accomplished by swinging the intestines around in circles or hitting them against trees. In all, only 12 % of the prey animal is left uneaten. This compares favourably to large mammalian carnivores, such as lions, which tend to leave 25 to 30 % unconsumed. After the meal, the dragon will spend 10 to 15 minutes cleaning and wiping its mouth. Flossing does not appear to be a common practice among Komodos. Then the dragon will drag himself to a sunny place where he can lie and digest in peace. Should the peace be short-lived and a challenger wants to pick a fight, the Komodo will regurgitate the entire meal to make himself lighter for battle. Larger meals are shared with other dragons. While Komodos are quite solitary in nature, they do come together during mealtime and mating. Large dragons eat first while smaller Komodos wait until it’s their turn. There is an advantage of eating such huge amounts of meat all at once: dragons can survive on only 12 meals in a year.
Despite the Komodo dragon’s ferocious reputation, these lizards tend to shy away from confrontations with humans and will only attack if cornered or threatened. While somewhat reassured by that statement, I was still careful not to make intense eye contact or to swing my camera around while photographing the dragons. Apparently, Komodos can see moving objects from 300 m (985 ft) away but have difficulty discerning stationary objects. The dragons also have a much narrower hearing range than humans, being able to pick up sounds in the 400 to 2,000 hertz range while we can hear sounds between 20 and 20,000 hertz.
As of last year, roughly 4,000 Komodo dragons were still living in the wild,. Their distribution is limited to three islands in the Lesser Sunda Islands region, including Komodo Island where 1,170 of dragons live. According to the park rangers, their numbers are slightly increasing. Of greatest concern is the low number of female dragons in the National Park; only 350 breeding females remain. The conservation efforts for this ancient lizard species are hampered by ongoing poaching, tourism pressures, loss of habitat and lack of prey. As a result, the Komodo dragon has been listed as a species that is “vulnerable to extinction”.
During our visit to the Singaporean Zoo a few years ago, we were able to see a rarity: a Komodo dragon baby that hatched in the Singapore Zoo in 2009. After 34 years of trying to breed and rear a Komodo dragon at the zoo and an extensive search for a suitable male and female dragon, the scientists and zoo keepers finally succeeded. The story of the breeding success, as it was published in the newspapers around the world, is proudly displayed in front of the Komodo dragon’s zoo exhibit. A sign in front of the exhibit says it all: this young baby dragon is “…more precious than the Mona Lisa.” How true!
Why do the dragons fascinate me so much? Perhaps it is the near-perfect instinctual behaviour designed to ensure survival or the otherworldly look of these ancient animals or the impressive power behind their enormous paws. In popular culture, dragons are often portrayed as cute and cuddly. There is nothing warm and fuzzy about these guys. Komodo dragons are very efficient killing machines with no discernible signs of emotion. After looking deep into the eyes of a Komodo dragon I am convinced: there is not much there, except instinct.