By Jane Palmer
Komodo dragons might not breathe fire or fly but they are still awe-inspiring animals – the race is on to save them from becoming mere legends
On an archipelago of the Lesser Sunda Islands, which sweep arc-like through the Java Sea, maps can legitimately be marked with the archaic warning used by medieval cartographers: here be dragons.
These dragons might not breathe fire or fly, but they are no less awe-inspiring or dangerous than their mythical counterparts. Up to 3m long and weighing as much as 70kg, these beasts can run 18mph (29km/h) to catch their prey. Once they have a water buffalo, or deer, between their jaws, they inject anti-coagulant containing venom into deep wounds, speeding up blood loss. The victim simply bleeds its way to an excruciating death – perhaps a fate worse even than being seared by the flames of a mythical beast.
“It is a combined arsenal system,” says Bryan Fry of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. “You have the teeth as the primary weapon and, if you don’t die outright from cutting a femoral artery, you are going to keep bleeding until you are out of blood and then you are dead.”
These modern day monsters are the Komodo dragons (Varanus komodoensis) of Indonesia. They live only on the islands of Rinca, Gili Motang, Nusa Kode, Flores, and Komodo. The world’s largest lizards, they are believed to be the last survivors of the giant lizards that meandered through Australia millions of years ago. Scientists believed these dragons then spread westward, reaching the Indonesian islands about 900,000 years ago.
As such, they have survived ice ages, sea level rise and the many earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis that plague the Lesser Sunda Islands. But despite their enduring nature, in the late 1970s, experts began to fear for the dragons’ survival.
Earlier in the century, trappers captured the Komodo dragons and sold them to zoos and private collectors. Even as this practice stopped, big game hunters sought them as trophies or they were killed for their skin or feet. Consequently, the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List categorises the dragons as ‘Vulnerable’ and international trade is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.
In 1980, wanting to preserve its iconic dragon, Indonesia established the 700 sq mile (1,810 sq km) Komodo National Park. The park, which includes the three major islands of Komodo, Rinca and Padar, and numerous smaller islands, was declared a World Heritage Site in 1986.
Successful conservation measures in the park have meant that the population of the dragons appears to be stable at about 3,000, with most living on Komodo and Rinca. Having survived decades of human onslaughts it seems, for now, the dragons are safe from extinction. But the numbers of egg-laying females remain dangerously low, and other ominous threats loom on the horizon. Whether these dragons will survive in the long term, and not join the ranks of their ancestors – the legendary, 7m-long giant goannas – is not guaranteed.
It was not until the early 1900s that scientists first encountered the dragons, although rumours of their existence abounded well before then.
“Their size is always mind-boggling,” says Tim Jessop, an integrative ecologist from Deakin University in Geelong, Australia. “They’re not only long, they are incredibly robust and solid and stocky.” – BBC News