On five islands in the East Nusa Tenggara province of Indonesia the living relics of prehistoric times can still be observed in their natural environment. The Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis) is the isolated sole survivor of a ancient clade of giant lizards. Their skeletons match fossil remains from eastern Australia that date back as far as four million years.
It’s believed that the giant lizards travelled as far west as far Java, arriving in Flores some 900,000 years ago, where they’ve remained ever since. It’s astonishing to think that throughout extinctions of other species, changes in climate, severe shortages of food, and the appearance and demise of the earliest humans, they prevailed.
This kind of survival is a harsh business. No energy is wasted on social activities. Mating happens once a year, between July and August, with the event itself lasting around 5hrs. It’s marathon session – especially for one that doesn’t get a lot of practise, so males have a double ended penis – one as a back up. In some cases females have been known to lay fertile eggs without having had any contact with a male. A single chromosome from the female is duplicated to produce either WW which isn’t viable, or ZZ which will hatch a male dragon. The female can switch back to sexual reproduction later. In this way a single dragon, say one that washed up on shore of Flores around 900,000 years ago, could begin a population.
Ever opportunistic, expectant mothers steal nests from the megapod birds. There are a few nests in the area but only one is used, with the others acting as decoys to confuse predators such as snakes, wild pigs, and other dragons. 15-30 eggs are laid and covered with dirt. These are guarded while the ground is loose, but when the rains come and the earth becomes compacted they’re abandoned. As soon as the babies hatch they’re in immediate danger of being eaten by their own mother. Dragons are not the nurturing kind; life is savage and reality is abrupt. The vulnerable young climb up into the safety of the trees and live in the branches. At this stage they’re around 30cm long and striped green and brown to help them hide. They’ll eat insects, smalls lizards and mammals, birds, and eggs, for 2-3 years; until they become too heavy for the trees and return to the ground.
Adult males can grow up to 3m long, weigh around 90kg, and can run at 18km an hour if they choose to. Their leathery skin is uniform colour now. They have murderous claws, long yellow tongues, and 60 serrated curved teeth that can be replaced at a rate of 200 a year. Although not a social creature they will tear into a kill communally, and this is a chance to establish hierarchy. Any dispute over the alpha male position will be fought out brutally, on hind legs, with dragons slashing, rearing, and slamming each other to the ground.
Generally the dragons appear placid, lazy even – but don’t be fooled. In captivity these lizards have responded to training, demonstrating their ability to learn. Aided by the wind they’re able to smell blood and death from as far as five miles away, and when the hunt is over a dragon can eat half its own weight in a single sitting. Loose folds of skin over the body allow for expansion during this kind of feeding frenzy.
They’re calculating, adaptable hunters, and they have a game plan when it comes to killing prey thats too big to bring down. Previously it was thought that dragon saliva contained bacteria or slow acting poison. Research now suggests that toxins cause anti-coagulation (stopping blood from clotting and wounds from healing) and hypotension (lowering blood pressure). They only need bite their victim once, making a wound as deep and wide as possible, and then stalk them until infection from bacteria filled water takes over and weakens the creature enough to bring down. This is how, despite having the jaw strength of household cat, a Komodo dragon can hunt a buffalo four times it’s own size.
Local people have always lived alongside the dragons, showing a respect and progressive tolerance it can be difficult for outsiders to understand. There have been a handful of documented deaths over the years, but generally the people and dragons of Komodo and Rinca manage to coexist. A folktale from Komodo tells of a dragon princess, Putri Naga, giving birth to twins, a baby boy and a dragon, who are separated. Years later when the twins are about to kill each over a deer their mother appears and says: “Do not kill this animal, for she is your sister Ora. I bore you together. Consider her your equal because you are “Sebai” (twins)”. According to the story it was from this point that the inhabitants of Komodo treated the dragons with kindness, and it even goes on to tell how old dragons that could no longer fend for themselves were fed by their human brothers. These days it’s a symbiotic relationship of sorts: the dragons hunt pigs, deer, and buffalo which locals leave alone, and the people benefit from the visitors that come through. Occasionally their own animals are taken, but the value of the income from tourism far exceeds the worth of a few livestock.
The biggest threat to the last of these ancient varanids is loss of habitat and food sources. In 1980 the national park was established to protect the dragons and their environment, with the scope increasing more recently to cover the biodiversity of the entire region. A booming tourism industry has built up around this wealth of natural wonders, both on land and underwater, and local people understand its worth. Poachers and illegal fishing boats are always outsiders from Sumbawa or further afield. Fortunately these are rare now, with severe punishments for transgressors. Locals may fish with a line in the park but large scale commercial fishing, and dynamite and cyanide which would surely have decimated the area by now, are strictly outlawed.
Awesome or repellent, these creatures are certainly fascinating. Whatever first inspires a visit to Komodo, no trip could be complete without seeing the ancient dragons in their last remaining natural habitat.