Komodo National Park Part 2
29.09.2008 - 29.09.2008
The largest lizard, known locally as the ora, lives on four islands to the west of Flores and on the western fringes of the mainland. The four islands are Komodo, Rinca, Gili Motang and Gili Dasami, and the reptile is the Komodo dragon. There were rumours of dragons in the area for centuries, but the first scientific description arrived only in 1912. The informal name was given in 1926.
The second-largest monitor, Varanus salvator, grows to 25 kg. The largest, V. komodoensis, grows up to five times that or more, partly because it is much chubbier. The heaviest recorded weighed 160 kg, and the average adult weighs 90 kg. The average adult male is 3.1 m long. (The longest lizard is V. salvadori, which lives in New Guinea.)
The dragon may be a descendant of an Australian lizard, Megalania prisca, aka V. priscus, which grew to seven metres in length and lived until humans arrived. (This is a slightly roundabout journey: the genus Varanus originally came from Asia.)
The dragon used to be more maritime than it is today. It used to swim between the islands of Nusa Tenggara, although during the last Ice Age it could walk or take a taxi. But now the currents between the islands are very strong, and the dragon swims only reluctantly.
Rinca is slightly nearer to Flores than Komodo, so I went to Rinca on a day trip with a couple resident in New Zealand. The chartered boat took a good three hours to get there at a slow plod, so we had plenty of time to look at the islands off the coast.
They look brown and dry (it’s the driest place in Indonesia, in fact, with average annual rainfall of 650 mm); not a place where anything would live. But they do: to name just mammals, there are goats, monkeys, wild pigs, deer and buffalo on the islands.
The dragon is at the top of the food chain. It will eat anything else that lives on the islands: insects, lizards, snakes, birds, deer, boar, monkeys, turtle and megapod eggs, juvenile dragons, and even buffalo. It usually eats carrion, including human corpses, but is happy to hunt. In an article in Nature in 1987, Jared Diamond (of whom more in a later post) proposed the theory that in prehistoric times it may have lived off pygmy stegodonts - small elephants, now extinct - which lived in Flores. It has even killed small humans and attacked large ones. Dragons can stand on their hind legs to attack tall prey, on which occasions it must seem at though Godzilla has attacked.
They can eat up to 80% of their body weight in a single meal (often in a single mouthful – a goat can be swallowed whole). And they have very slow metabolisms, so they can go for a month between meals.
Their saliva carries many kinds of bacteria, and is so poisonous that even a small wound will kill a buffalo in a few days by septicaemia or gangrene. They are happy to wait.
As the lizard moves it flicks the air with its forked yellow tongue, like a snake. The scent particles that stick to the tongue are passed through openings in the mouth into the Jacobson’s organs in the nose, where they are analysed. It can smell carrion from six miles away.
Not surprisingly, the population is small, estimated at 4,000 in 1990. It is protected under CITES Appendix I and is officially vulnerable. Unlike other monitors it is active throughout the year. During the dry season (most of the time) it displays bimodal activity: that is, it moves around in the morning and evening. In the middle of the day a dragon will find some shade and flop into it, limbs any old how. If it doesn’t want to move, it won’t. The dragon is afraid of nothing. If it doesn’t like where you are standing, it will issue a sibilant, unvoiced exhalatory admonition, at which point you get out of the way fast. If it does attack, it moves very swiftly.
We disembarked at a small jetty and walked through a parched mud flat to a hut that marked the entrance to the national park.
After paying a large amount to enter, we were assigned a ranger and set off walking. We walked through sparse low woodland and scrub. But we saw most of our dragons at the beginning and end of the walk. There is a set of cabins on stilts – you can stay the night in a cabin – and the space under the cabins offers convenient shade for the dragons. We saw perhaps half a dozen in this way. You could get fairly close, because once parked, they did not want to move.
As we walked towards the wood, a fairly large dragon walked towards us, and then past us across the volleyball court.
It moved reasonably swiftly, without in any way displaying haste, and lay down in the shade next to a favourite football.
When they want to hunt, the dragons lie in wait. You can’t see them. But for our guide, Paul and I would have walked straight into a two-metre ora without ever seeing it.
Courtship and mating take place between May and July; the male uses one of its two hemipenes to enter the dragon. Egglaying occurs between July and September. They use abandoned nest mounds of orange-footed scrubfowl, of which we saw several pairs on the island. Incubation takes eight months. Females are capable of parthenogenesis, producing male offspring thereby, like Mary. (This could be observed in two ways: when females without male company give birth in a zoo; and by DNA fingerprinting.)
We saw a juvenile moving cautiously through the brush. It was dark with green spots; the adults are a dusty brown. Juveniles are arboreal. They have to be: adult dragons get a tenth of their calories by eating juveniles. Sometimes juveniles must approach a corpse, after their seniors have eaten, and before doing so they will roll in shit to deter cannibalism.
After an hour’s walking we reached a dried up creek with a few small mud pools in it. Here a few water buffalo had congregated. Thirty metres away, in another pool, a dragon rested, arms podgy as a baby’s.
But there were long claws at the ends of the fingers.
It lifted its head every now and then to look at us, without every really displaying any interest.
A buffalo walked past. It had a bloody wound at the top of its tail from a dragon attack. The wound would soon kill it; it was a dead cow walking. It walked straight past the dragon, but the dragon still did not move; perhaps it could smell the wound.