Where the wild things are

By Melanie Wood, The Jakarta Post, ANN | Thu, Dec 15 2011

Above: Komodo National Park in Indonesia. Visitors to the 1,817 sq km park, which consists of three major islands – Komodo, Rinca and Padar can trek through the tropical forests in search of the carnivorous lizards.

Bare-legged, we walk single-file across an island inhabited by the largest venomous creatures on the planet.

So what do we do if one attacks?

The island is Rinca, one of the three main islands forming the Komodo National Park in eastern Indonesia. The creature is Varanus komodoensis, the Komodo dragon, a monitor lizard that can weigh more than 160 kilograms and eats its own offspring. Komodo National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and today attracts more than 50,000 visitors a year.

What you do on Rinca is walk, accompanied by a guide, and spot wild dragons. There is other wildlife as well: the orange-footed fowl, horses, deer, water buffalo and monkeys, but the tourists come for the dragons.

Our guide is Agus, conspicuous in a saffron shirt stamped “RANGER”. He carries a forked wooden staff for protection. Agus refers to the lizards as dragons, not komodos, which adds a fairytale quality to our two-hour trek: baby dragons live in trees …

Within minutes, we see our first dragons. They are round-nosed and languid in the midday heat, lounging belly and chin to the ground near the park kitchen. There is a ruddy cast to their gray, corn-like scales, and the skin around their black eyes is a mottled yellow.

The wooden kitchen is built on stilts.

“They like the smells here,” says Agus.

“Do you feed them?”

“No … Sometimes.”

Suddenly, one of the dragons is up and running, a swaying cowboy gait on bowed legs. A trapdoor has opened in the elevated floor and food dropped through.

“They like fish bones,” Agus explains, watching the dragon eat. “Fish bones are like peanuts to dragons.”

On the trail

We leave the camp in search of the really wild dragons. It’s hot and the woodland is still. Only we tourists bustle busily at noon. Above us rise the bald, ocherous hills of Rinca.

The trail is faint and undeveloped. We peer left and right into the thickets looking for dragons. They’re hard to spot, their coloring echoed in the rock, earth and bark. Twigs crackle underfoot. At any time, the treks can be adjusted to give wide berth to new dragon nests or kills without spoiling the habitat or requiring investment. Remarkably for Indonesia, the trails on Rinca are litter free.

“And what do we do if one attacks?”

“Catch it by the neck or armpit using the crook of your stick.” Agus stops to think about it, and then admits: “Though this won’t work if there’s a strong smell of meat about you.”

I consider my weapons. I have a cheese sandwich, a camera and some sunscreen.

“Or run zigzag,” offers the ranger. “Dragons run in straight lines, and though they run fast [18 kilometres per hour], they don’t run far.”

Alternative defenses include climbing trees or standing still: Mature dragons are too heavy to climb, and it is the flight that ignites the chase.

In the woodlands, we stop at a burrow with a half-metre maw. It started as the nest of an orange-footed fowl, dug with their characteristically large feet. However, using her pale, forked tongue, the female dragon scents the bird eggs, eats them and uses the nest to conceal her own 15-30 eggs.

The dragons that survive hatch between March and May, and measure about 30 centimetres when they crack through their shells. They quickly climb into the trees, where they will live for the next four years to avoid being eaten by their own kind.

But they don’t have to fear humans: Eating Komodo dragons in Western Flores is forbidden because of their resemblance to estuarine crocodiles, which are totem animals and traditionally believed to be the ancestors of humans.

The battleground

We come to a clearing in the copse beside a creek. A strange game is in play: Chest-deep in the water is a water buffalo, slack-jawed, chewing slowly. It is watching a dragon lying rock-still amid the fallen leaves on the bank. A second water buffalo stands 10 meters away, head low, horns like wicked candelabra. At the base of a nearby tree is a deer skull, a spectral white amid the dappled shadows.

“We call this spot the battleground,” whispers Agus.

Agus suspects that both the dragon and the water buffalo are injured, and that the dragon is playing a waiting game before making a second strike. This is classic dragon strategy.

Komodo dragons have an arsenal of 60 serrated teeth and a venom gland. Relying on the anticoagulant properties of its venom, the dragon’s killer technique is to bite and release, and then wait for the victim to go into shock through blood loss.

“What if a person is bitten?”

“You’ve got 12 hours to get medicine before you amputate. People die from dragon bites and there is no medicine in the park.”

The nearest antibiotics are in Denpasar, Bali, several hours away.

Suddenly, the heavy-horned buffalo on the bank stomps a cloven hoof and paces forward.

“He’s angry,” warns Agus, taking cover behind a tree. “If he confronts the dragon, it will be very interesting.”

Myriad violent consequences seem possible.

Silently, behind us, a third buffalo has entered the arena, blocking our exit. Startled, Agus throws a jagged rock at the beast and turns.

“Time to go,” he says.

We go.

The view from the high savannah lands is panoramic: teal seas and scattered islands all the way to the horizon. The land is exposed and dry, the grasses yellow and the scrub sun-bleached. The light is intense and the landscape has a tough beauty. In the path are some black sloughs of corn-scaled skin and a single pale vertebra: the scant remains of a dragon.

“He was injured and eaten six months ago by the others.” Agus touches the knobble of spine wistfully. Over the millennia, one simple law is brutally upheld on this wildly beautiful island: survival of the fittest.

We consider ourselves lucky to be among them.

Photos: JP, Quintessentially Singapore