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, GiliMotang,
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
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.”
In 1912, a Dutch army man,
Lieutenant van Steyn van
Hensbroek, visited Komodo
Island, shot a dragon dead
and sent the skin to naturalist,
Peter Ouwens, who wrote the
first-ever scientific paper on the
massive lizards. Fourteen years
later, American W. Douglas
Burden set off to the Lesser
Sunda Islands of Indonesia to
capture a dozen giant lizards
for the American Museum of
Natural History. His memoir of
the expedition Dragon Lizards
of Komodo, gave the dragons
their nickname and its tales of
adventures and confrontations
with the ‘hoary beast’ inspired
the movie King Kong.
“Just to have this kind of
oddity out there in the middle
of nowhere is pretty incredible,”
Jessop says.
But the dragons look at home
in the craggy, jagged islands
that jut out of the sea, Jessop
says. Unlike the lush rain
forested areas of Sumatra or
Java, the Lesser Sunda Islands
are relatively dry and brown,
except for the few short months
of monsoon. The vegetation
is a mix of scrubby woodland
and savannah grasslands that
support the dragons’ main prey,
Against this backdrop, the
dragons prove well camouflaged
while they wait patiently for
their next meal. Once a deer, pig
or even a human – the dragons
aren’t fussy about what they eat
– ambles by, the dragons spring
into action delivering their one-
two punch combination of razor
sharp teeth and venom.
“I have seen what this animal
can do and how badly these
animals can injure humans,”
says AchmadAriefiandy,
with the Indonesian Komodo
Survival Program (KSP).
Ariefiandy’s research on the
dragons has him working with
the lizards in remote locations
far from hospital access and
he’s understandably cautious.
“There is no point acting like a
movie star if you end up getting
bitten,” he says.
As the dragons can eat 80%
of their weight and then go
without food for several weeks,
most of the time they lounge
lizard-like in the sun. They have
been known to attack islanders
– there have been four fatalities
in the last four decades – but the
locals respect the dragons and
many regard them as sacred.
It’s a sentiment that Ariefiandy
“I fell in love with this species
and the beautiful scenery at
Komodo dragon habitat in East
Nusa Tenggara, the first time I
stepped my feet on Komodo
Island,” he says. Ariefiandy’s
work involves spending
most of his time in the field,
walking between 10 and 20km
a day across hilly terrain in the
blistering heat. “But I’m happy
to do that to achieve my dream,
to lead the conservation of
Komodo dragon,” he says.
Scientifically informed
conservation efforts first began
in the mid 1990s when Claudio
Ciofi, now a biologist at the
University of Florence, arrived
in Indonesia to complete a PhD
in dragon genetics. Captivated
by the creatures, and noticing
that there were no major
conservation projects to support
them, Ciofi proceeded to devise
a project from scratch. Believing
that species conservation can
only be truly sustainable and
effective if it is owned by local
people – not just scientists
or foreign conservation
professionals – Ciofi’s ultimate
goal was to hand over the
project to Indonesians.
“At the stage we are today
I think we are one of the few
grassroots projects that has
had any successful ‘know-how’
transfer to locals,” Ciofi says.
“That is the way all projects
should be in developing
Currently, government
organisations under the
Indonesian Ministry of
Environment and Forestry,
along with scientists at the KSP
manage the conservation of the
The KSP researchers collect
scientific information on the
ecology of the dragons, with
the objective of helping these
organisations better focus their
efforts. In a conservation role,
the park and KDS also raise
community awareness by